July 7, 2008

Obama’s Plane Makes Unscheduled St. Louis Landing

By Ken Leiser, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 7--ST. LOUIS -- A chartered plane carrying Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made a precautionary landing at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport this morning after the pilot reported a flight-control problem.

The Midwest Airlines MD-80 had taken off from Chicago's Midway Airport and was en route to Charlotte, N.C., where Sen. Obama, D-Ill., is scheduled to take part in a town hall meeting. Some time after takeoff, the pilot reported "a little stiffness in the controls" and diverted to St. Louis as a precaution, said Midwest spokesman Mike Brophy.

"There was never a loss of control," Brophy said.

The Associated Press reported that the plane experienced a problem maintaining the proper pitch, or control over keeping the nose at the proper angle, as it was taking off from Chicago.

The plane landed without incident at 9:51 a.m. and was being examined at Signature Flight Support, which provides business aviation services at Lambert. No emergency was declared, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. Emergency crews were standing by when the plane landed.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the incident.

During an inspection of the plane, crews discovered that an emergency evacuation slide had partially deployed in the plane's tail cane and that may have put pressure on some cables involved in the control of the aircraft, Brophy said. The tail cone was still intact upon landing, he added.

The plane was being taken out of service and Obama was expected to board a plane flown by an other airline, Brophy said.

Following the landing, Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, talked to reporters and was asked if he was frightened.

"Well, you know, any time a pilot says something's not working the way it's supposed to, you make sure you tighten your seat belt," he said.

The Illinois senator and a small entourage eventually left the plane and the tarmac to wait out the maintenance at a local hotel; the North Carolina trip was postponed until a future date.

On Saturday, Obama appeared in St. Louis to address delegates attending a national conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church at the America's Center.

Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said the plane did not declare an emergency, but simply "requested a diversion for mechanical issues they called a flight control problem."

As the plane was being evaluated on the ground here, Obama was reading the paper in the front cabin, but ventured briefly to chat with the press at one point.

"I just thought we'd spice things up a little bit today," Obama said, smiling and joking.

The Illinois senator and a small entourage eventually left the plane and the tarmac to wait out the maintenance at a local hotel; the North Carolina trip was postponed until a future date.

There was no immediate word on how Obama would spend the rest of the day. He has two fundraisers in Atlanta scheduled for Monday evening.

Upon takeoff from Chicago, passengers had felt the plane dip briefly, causing a stomach-rolling sensation as if being in a roller coaster, but the unexpected movement did not cause visible alarm for the frequent fliers on the plane.

About an hour later, reporters among the 44 passengers on board were made aware of the problem. A flight attendant, who was clearing the aisles, told reporters the plane wasn't heading to North Carolina as planned.

Minutes later, Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass came to the back of the plane to inform reporters of a "minor little problem with the airplane" and said the plane would make a precautionary landing in St. Louis.

Then, the pilot came on the overhead speaker and provided more details.

"We detected a little bit of controllability issue in terms of our ability to control the aircraft in the pitch, which is the nose up and nose down mode," announced the pilot, whose name was not released in accordance with Midwest policy.

"The autopilot and the aircraft are just fine. As we descended, whatever was inhibiting our ability has now been rectified. However, just for safety purposes we are going to be stopping in St. Louis and making sure that there's nothing binding our controls. We have full authority of the aircraft. We will not need to brace. It will be a normal landing," he said.

The landing at 9:51 a.m. CDT, was, in fact, normal.

A mechanic was traveling on the plane at the time, and was inspecting the problem on the ground in St. Louis.

Obama, his staff, the Secret Service entourage and the press sat on the plane for over an hour as it was being checked out at Signature Flight Support, a facility which handles private jets, at Lambert Airport.

During his visit with reporters, Obama shook his head "no" when asked if he was worried.

"Anytime a pilot says something's not working the way it's supposed to, then you make sure you tighten your seat belt," Obama said. "Everything seemed under control. The pilots knew what they were doing."

Obama's campaign charter hasn't made a precautionary landing before.

"This is a first," he said, and then returned to the front of the plane to confer with staffers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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