June 10: As the Air India plane took off from Silchar airport amid a drizzle, ground staff saw something drop from the sky. It was one of the ATR-42 aircraft's nose wheels.
The 48 Guwahati-bound passengers learnt about it about half an hour later. Ratu Hazarika clearly remembers the on-board announcement that set off "the scariest moments of my life".
"The crew asked us to fasten our seat belts and announced the plane might have to make an emergency landing because of a technical snag. It created panic inside the aircraft," the divisional sales manger with pharmaceutical company Akumentis Healthcare told The Telegraph.
Eventually, Flight ATR 9760 touched down safely after circling over Guwahati airport for nearly an hour to burn up fuel and reduce the risk of a fire, with ambulances and fire engines lining the runway.
None among the passengers or the all-female crew of four ' two women pilots and two airhostesses ' was injured, but Hazarika said the 65-odd minutes since the announcement were nerve-wracking. Soon, the cabin crew began giving safety demonstrations relating to emergency landings and fires.
"An airhostess told us some emergency situation was anticipated and the plane might even have to land in a river. She showed us how to use life jackets," the Guwahati resident said.
To Payal Jain Agarwal, a 35-year-old jewellery designer from Surat who was travelling with her two young sons and mother, it seemed like a nightmare. "They showed us the emergency exits and told us we might need to run or jump. For a moment, it seemed like I was watching a disaster movie," she said.
Two passengers fainted. "There was a lot of turbulence and the plane shook violently while landing," Hazarika said. "When it touched down safely, I felt as if I had been given a second life."
A pilot and aviation trainer, Samar Desai, said there wasn't really much risk provided the "standard procedure" for landing with a damaged nose wheel was followed.
"In such a situation, a pilot is expected to land on the main landing gear (the wheels under the wings) and keep the nose in the air, using air brakes to generate drag and reduce the aircraft's speed," said Desai, who handles Indian operations for an aviation college in Australia.
"The goal is to slow down the aircraft as much as possible before the nose wheel touches the ground."
As the pilots burnt up the excess fuel, it also reduced the plane's weight: a crucial step for a safe emergency landing. The crew moved the luggage to the rear to shift the centre of gravity further to the aft and away from the nose.
Sources at Guwahati airport said the ATR-42 planes that Air India uses in the Guwahati-Silchar sector are mostly old and poorly maintained. They said this aspect was being investigated.
The passengers did not know what exactly the problem was till after the landing, said Agarwal, who was travelling to Guwahati for a "family function". She described how her horror increased with every titbit of information and every assurance.
"First, the airhostess stressed the correct sitting posture during landing, leaving us wondering what was amiss. Prodded, she said there was some problem with the landing systems," Agarwal said. "Then they started moving the luggage, saying this was for our safety. Then came the bolt from the blue: the announcement about an emergency landing."
She added: "They issued a slew of dos and don'ts: don't panic, don't get up, move to the closest exit on landing, don't carry your belongings...."
But Agarwal praised the cabin crew. "All along, they were very calm and composed, attending to the fainting and panic-stricken passengers, offering them water and helping them relax."
When the crew assured everyone that ambulances and fire engines were standing by, "all kinds of thoughts were going through my mind, like what was going to happen next, how to tackle a fire, what would happen if we had to jump.... Everyone was praying."
Eventually, no emergency medical help was needed. After the plane landed, the passengers cheered loudly and shook hands with pilot Urmila Yadav and co-pilot Yashu.
Moloy Dutta, a senior air traffic control (ATC) official in Guwahati, praised the Silchar ATC for promptly informing the pilots and Guwahati as soon as the wheel mishap was noticed. Several other airports in the region ' Imphal, Dimapur, Agartala, Tezpur and Aizawl ' too prepared for an emergency landing.
"We asked the aircraft to fly lowpass (low) so that the ground engineers at Guwahati airport could see what the problem was," Dutta said. "Good piloting helped avert a disaster."
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi called up Yadav to say: "Hats off to you and your co-pilot."
The errant nose wheel, retrieved from the runway, has been kept at Silchar airport.