Big jet misses airport, ends up stuck

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— The 117 passengers on TWA Flight 641 from St. Louis applauded loudly when the plane landed in the Yampa Valley at about 2 p.m. Wednesday. That was before they discovered where they were.

The MD 80 jet had landed at the general aviation airport in Craig instead of at Yampa Valley Regional Airport, 20 miles to the east. According to passengers on the plane, who hailed from all over the southeastern U.S., the plane roared down the runway and never fully came to a stop before attempting to turn onto a taxiway. At that point, the plane slid off the pavement and the landing gear became stuck in the mud. No one was injured in the incident.

Most of the passengers said they didn't believe anything was seriously amiss until they were on the ground and said they never experienced any fear.

"When we landed we hit pretty hard and he geared it back really hard," passenger Danny Akin said. "When he turned he got stuck in the mud. They just said 'We've gone off the runway and someone will come to help us soon.'"

Akin, from Louisville, Ky., pulled out his cell phone and called a friend waiting to pick him up at the gate, and said, "We've landed in Hayden."

"No you haven't," the friend replied. "You're in Craig."

"I asked the flight attendant, 'Where are we?'" Akin said, "And he answered, 'I don't know.'"

Chris Kelly, a spokeswoman for TWA, said Wednesday the reason for the "unscheduled landing" had not yet been determined. "I don't know why he landed in Craig," said Kelly, who refused to name the pilot of the aircraft or whether he had flown to Hayden before.

TWA is launching its own investigation of the incident and federal agencies, such as the National Transportation Safety Board could be involved, Kelly said.

TWA and airport officials would not confirm it, but there are indications that the pilot of the TWA jet landed in Craig by mistake. Visibility on the ground at the time of the incident was poor and no flights had landed at Yampa Valley Regional Airport until after 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Jim Parker, manager of YVRA, said winds at the time were at 6 knots and visibility was at 8 to 9 miles.

Yampa Valley Regional Airport does not have a control tower planes bound for the airport are on Denver radar, but disappear from that radar when they descend below a certain elevation. At that point, they make contact with airport personnel on the ground, who can confirm that the runways are clear and what the weather on the ground is like.

Two different parties waiting in the airport for friends to arrive on the plane said they caught a glance of the TWA plane flying overhead through a hole in the clouds. Just minutes later, a Continental 737 from Houston that was due in after the TWA jet, landed at YVRA.

Kevin Meehan of Atlanta has been skiing in Steamboat for several days and came to YVRA on Wednesday to meet a group of friends traveling on the TWA flight. David McKinney, also of Atlanta, was one of those friends, and like Akin, he pulled out his cell phone to announce his arrival.

"He said, 'We're here,' Meehan said. "I said, 'Well you're not at the right airport. We saw the plane fly over.'"

Ben Michiels and stepdaughters Lindsey, 10, and Lauren McWilliams, 12, had begun their traveling day in Shreveport, La., and flew to St. Louis to catch TWA 641.

"I'm real happy to be on the ground," Michiels said. Michiels said the jet never actually came to a complete stop after landing until it became stuck just off the end of the runway.

"He was going really fast and we kind of turned and stopped," Lauren said.

"It kind of tilted," Lindsey added.

Emergency vehicles were at the scene just in case they were needed.

"That's the biggest plane I've ever seen here," Sgt. Rick Holford, public information officer for the Moffat County Sheriff's Office, said.

After the plane landed, five Alpine Taxi buses and one Storm Mountain Express vehicle were sent from the Hayden airport to Craig to retrieve the passengers.

"It was a little crazy for about three hours," said Denise Adams, Alpine Taxi manager for the Hayden airport.

"Most of the passengers," Adams recalled, "said 'This is one trip we'll never forget."

This was the first time a 127,000-pound plane, which is the approximate weight of the MD 80, had ever landed on the runway, Holford said.

Holford said the problem now is it may be difficult to find a vehicle strong enough to pull the plane out of the mud, where officials expected it to sit for at least a day.

TWA officials said once the plane is back on the tarmac, it should be able to fly out.

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