Eduardo Íñigo, son of the Spanish journalist and actor José María Íñigo, first realized that something was wrong when he looked out of the airplane window and was able to see people walking along Madrid’s Gran Vía. The aircraft was flying much too low.
He sent a concerned message to the WhatsApp group he shares with his siblings, his stepmother and his sisters-in-law. For the next four hours, until the Air Canada jet made an emergency landing at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas airport, Eduardo remained in touch with his relatives, who followed the aircraft’s movements on a flight-tracking website.
The first 20 minutes were the worst, according to several people on board the Toronto-bound flight. The Air Canada Boeing 767 had taken off cleanly at 2.30pm, but it was not gaining altitude. At first there were murmurs of concern among the 128 passengers; then the voices grew louder as fears mounted.
Nobody knew exactly what was going on, until the pilot explained that there was an issue with one of the wheels and with an engine, and that they would have to make an emergency landing back at Barajas airport. The pilot gave assurances that the aircraft was prepared for this kind of eventuality as it has 10 wheels, and explained that they would have to circle the capital for a while to burn off some of the fuel before landing.
Passengers spent the next four hours communicating with friends and relatives via their cellphones, reading, or watching series. Some of them followed the live news coverage of their own plight. From time to time, a baby was heard crying.
Toñi Ballesteros, the wife of one of the passengers, found out about the incident when her husband sent her a message via cellphone messaging application WhatsApp. She said that she got very nervous and that it was he who calmed her down, explaining how they were circling the city to burn off jet fuel. Ballesteros drove to the airport and by the time she had parked the car, the plane had landed safely.
An executive from a multinational said that at the time of landing, “everything was shaking, but we all made it safe and sound.” A video made by one of the passengers shows a cabin in the dark, a slight rattling motion as the plane touches down, then applause breaking out.
Back at the airport terminal, there were numerous signs that something out of the ordinary had happened. Ambulances were coming and going, and the flight screens were showing one highly unusual route: AC837R, departure Madrid, destination Madrid.
Two police officers stationed at Terminal 1, where the passengers disembarked, were reminded of a 2012 accident that took place at Madrid airport, killing 154 people. “I can’t get the Spanair [crash] out of my head,” said one, explaining that he was on duty that day as well. “I have relived that day today.”
But there was a happy ending on Monday. In fact, there was even room for humor when the pilot, upon landing, cheerfully told the passengers: “Welcome to Barcelona!” As laughter broke out, he quickly corrected himself: “Madrid, sorry, Madrid.”
It had been a difficult day at Barajas, where the airspace was shut down in the morning and 26 flights were diverted due to the presence of unauthorized drones near the runways.
English version by Susana Urra.