I was a passenger on flight 450 on Saturday, January 22nd, 2011. I was actually flying to Chicago to attend the NFC Championship game. Lucky for you guys, yours truly, an ATC super-fan, was on-board and give give you a first-person account of what actually happened. When I got home, I gathered all the relevant clips I could find in the LiveATC archives, and stitched them together for you.
We took off slightly late from SFO. It was warm and sunny. We were on N460WN, a 737-700. I was seated pretty close to the front - maybe row 5 or 6. I watched as we passed out of the Bay Area, and were possibly over Fairfield/Vacaville. I noted a larger city ahead with a river running through it, which I assume was Sacramento. I took some pictures of the Bay, the last picture I took was 3:05 pm. It was probably 5-10 minutes after that that we were near Sac. I settled in to listen to a football podcast.
All of a sudden, there was a strange noise and it felt like we slowed down. To me, it sounded like something was dragging like the gear, a spoiler, something like that. People noticed, but I didn't sense that anyone was alarmed. I wondered what it was, and since we were still flying straight and level, I assumed maybe there was a large gust of wind or something. All of a sudden we took a steep turn left, then straightened. It seemed strange, but I figured maybe we were just vectoring a little more northward, but then he did another sharp turn left, and we were clearly headed back west. At this point I was pretty sure something was NOT right.
A few seconds later, a flight attendant was up and talking to the people seated at the bulkhead. What I could hear was, "We have a potential emergency situation. Would you be willing to assist with the slides if we have to evacuate." As soon as I heard "emergency," I got that ice-cold chill in my veins and that sense that maybe I was having a bad dream. I don't fly more than a few times a year, but I have never been on a flight that was anything but routine. She repeated this a few times, and I believe she wouldn't or couldn't provide any details when asked by the nervous passengers.
The flight attendants soon made an announcement that we were having an emergency and we would be landing immediately. Since my mind was racing I pretty much only remember a few phrases. They obviously went right by the script, which tells you the common sense stuff like leaving behind everything, getting away from the aircraft etc. The one thing that bothered me at the time was that the flight attendants were clearly very nervous. They did their jobs 100%, but you could tell this was anything but routine.
They then illustrated the "brace" position - leaning forward with your head in your arms, and your arms pressed against the seat in front of you. I remember that seeming like this announcement felt so slow - like I just wanted to get the whole thing over with. It was nearly impossible to pay attention.
The pilot came on and was very brief. I believe he said we'd be making an emergency landing, and telling us to do what the flight attendants told us to do.
We then had some "quiet time." I talked to the people in my row. Everyone was scared, some people were clearly crying and upset. I was scared out of my mind too. I kept telling myself that the plane appeared to be flying normally, the engines sounded good, he appeared to have no trouble steering us. To be honest, thinking that didn't really help my anxiety much. I remember thinking that based on that sound, there might be a problem with the gear, so I was picturing a violent landing with sparks flying, maybe the aircraft tumbling out of control, etc. I talked with the people in my row, trying to reassure them that I thought this was just a precautionary measure. I also didn't make any promises that everything would be OK. That was the worst part - just waiting for the landing, not knowing what, if anything was really wrong.
We were pretty high and fast, so he was obviously trying to dump speed and get down fairly quickly, which I again realized, but the whole process just felt different than an ordinary landing. I also wasn't totally sure where we were going, but surmised that we'd be heading to Oakland. As we got lower I lost my bearings a little (no thats not a pun for having an accident in my pants), and I wasn't sure if maybe we'd be landing a a small airport south of Oakland, or maybe the old NAS Alameda, finally, I saw the golf course that I know is just south of OAK, so I felt better about that.
They told us to get in the brace position, which we did. I had the window seat and I turned my head and saw the water coming closer and closer, then finally the airport perimeter. We hit the ground normally, and some people started clapping. I thought, "can you fools please wait until we ACTUALLY stop?" The thrust reversers came on and I felt better, but then we kept rolling, and rolling. The pilot came on all of a sudden during the landing roll out and yelled, "Keep your heads down! Keep your heads down!" It felt longer than normal. I can only guess he was just very gently easing on the brakes in case something was wrong with the gear.
Finally, we came to a gentle stop. I waited to see if the slides would just pop open, but we just sat there for a minute. In the distance I saw a few OAK fire vehicles driving up to us. I felt secure enough to take a couple of pictures at that point. The first picture was taken at 3:23p. So this entire emergency landing process took about 15 minutes. I think my blood pressure started to ease back below 300/200 and finally into the high-normal range. My hands were still shaking somewhat from the adrenaline.
My next thought was, "Crap. we'll be stuck here in Oakland for the rest of the day, and I probably won't be able to make it to Chicago in time for the game."
The pilot finally came on and explained that they had an indicator light that led them to believe there was a fire in the wheel well. I think the noise I felt/heard earlier was the gear door opening. He said there was no fire, and that we'd be taxing to a gate.
Indeed a few minutes later we taxied to the gate. As we pulled up, the pilot said they already had another aircraft ready to go at the next gate, and that as we got off, we should just head to the right and wait there. For boarding, they were able to print out a list of the order people checked in, and they called us in groups of 10 or so in that same order to board. Most people took the same seats. I had some nice time to chit-chat with my old seatmates, and I think we all just wanted to talk about something else. I guess an in-flight emergency is a good ice-breaker.
In typical Southwest style, the pilot came on said said that they "checked with the company, and we're not going to charge you for the flight to Oakland."
We landed in Chicago no more than 90 minutes late.
Below is a roughly 6 minute mix of the audio I could dig up on the archives. Unfortunately, we were on a Norcal depture sector that doesn't appear to be archived (possibly the KSUU one). So, I don't have audio of him declaring an emergency. Its take-off, departure, then back on Norcal arrival for a couple, then Oakland tower and ground.