Plane carrying debate team home from Penn MC makes emergency landing in St. Louis

Matt Mitgang, Washington University in St. Louis "Student Life," used with permission

Nate Erez, Community Editor, and Ari Feuer, Opinion Editor

All students and chaperones arrived home safely in Los Angeles on Monday morning after the jet carrying most of the Model Congress team made an emergency landing at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on its way home from Philadelphia.

Barely an hour into the flight, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 185 calmly announced that it would make an emergency landing due to a failing hydraulic system. Twenty-one members of the debate team, along with team adviser Mr. Christopher Buckley and co-chaperones Mr. Noam Weissman and Rabbi Hertzie Richler, were on the plane.

Though most did not comprehend the gravity of the situation at the initial announcement, several noticed that Mr. Buckley was visibly not at ease.  The normally affable science teacher and friend to many students stopped talking and donned a kippah, though he is a Baptist.

Mr. Buckley said later that he knew the hydraulic system gives the pilot control of flaps on the wings, which are used to land and stabilize the plane. He later called the incident a “near-death experience.”

“I knew it was a bad situation,” Mr. Buckley told the Boiling Point on Monday. “You can’t land a plane without control of the flaps.”

At first, the plane was set to land in Chicago, but bad weather there sent it on to St. Louis — further away, meaning there was time for more hydraulic fluid to leak out.  While some students slept, a few were afraid but most were calm.

About 45 minutes later,  the plane neared the St. Louis runway feeling much more out of control than would be expected 50 to 100 feet above the ground. One moment the windows were angling toward the ground, and the next moment they were leaning upward toward the sky. The plane was also shaking.

Dozens of fire trucks surrounded the runway as Flight 185 touched down, the trucks’ flashing lights visible to anyone who looked out the window. The landing was itself was less violent than the shaking had been, but some found it scary even after touchdown.

“One of the things that made me uneasy was the fire trucks,” said senior Ari Tuchman, “And I don’t know if anyone noticed this, but when we landed we didn’t land straight.”

Mr. Buckley agreed.

“We came in faster than usual and the plane was swerving.” said Mr. Buckley.

Passengers erupted into collective clapping of appreciation and audible sighs of relief as it rolled to a stop on the runway.

They were forced to stay on board the plane while maintenance crews reviewed the damage, but could call loved ones to tell them of the news and delay.

“My dad, who’s been a pilot for 20 years, says we’re all lucky to be alive,” sophomore Daniel Schwartz announced to fellow passengers after speaking to his father.

After about an hour of waiting on the plane, the pilot announced the damage was not repairable within reasonable time and that the flight would be transferring to a different plane to complete the journey to LA.  The Shalhevet debaters, fresh from a 14-win showing at Penn Model Congress that included several sleep-short nights, spent the several-hour layover being re-ticketed and just waiting.

Instead of arriving in Los Angeles 12:30 a.m. Monday morning as planned, students stumbled into taxicabs and tired parents’ cars at around 4:30 a.m.  No one but Mr. Buckley and Rabbi Richler came to school before noon.

On Monday afternoon, the few students who attended classes embraced and celebrated their well-being.

Sophomore Michael Lenett walked into the doors of Shalhevet shouting, “That was the scariest thing of my life. I’m so happy to be alive.”

Everyone who heard the story was relieved.

“Thank God for the fact that everyone is okay,” said Penn Model Congress captain Justin Brandt-Sarif.  “I’m relieved that nothing happened to the team.”

Senior Staff Writer Leona Fallas also contributed to this story.