Passengers appear in their own near-disaster movie as TV networks tune in to stricken jet

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The story began as no more than a buzz in the clear blue light of a southern California afternoon. "Did you hear about the plane?" people asked each other.

Within the first hour, almost everyone had - and so began perhaps the biggest media event Los Angeles has seen since O J Simpson led police on a chase down the San Diego freeway more than 11 years ago.

A passenger aircraft operated by the low-cost carrier jetBlue had taken off from a small regional airport en route to New York, only to realise it could not retract its front landing gear, which had become twisted and well-nigh unusable.

For three hours, the plane circled in slow figures-of-eight above Los Angeles, its every move monitored by media helicopters and ground crews and broadcast on just about every major channel.

In a nation racked by anxiety over the war in Iraq, the threat of attack by shadowy foreigners and the awe-inspiring destructive power of Mother Nature, here was a ready made, real-time drama on a scale intimate enough to be comprehensible, and gripping, to all.

Would the plane break up or burst into flames on impact? What kind of hell must the passengers be going through? The passengers, as it turned out, were not only pondering their mortality: they were following their own progress on the in-flight television monitors, which were tuned to a cable news station on which alarmist pundits cheerily batted about various scenarios involving their injury, mutilation or death.

"It was so eerie watching ourselves," one passenger, Matthew Ash, later told the Los Angeles Times. "It was unimaginable ... We heard people speculating about this and that. It was so odd."

"It's 10 miles out over the 710 freeway," various television anchors announced shortly after 6pm local time, much as they might a minor traffic disturbance. The longest runway at the largest airport in the area, Los Angeles International, was all ready to go with fire and rescue crews.

The news shows didn't want to say so, because it might detract from the drama, but landing a plane with a twisted nose wheel is a relatively straightforward emergency procedure all pilots are trained to handle. Even coming in to land with no wheels at all was a survivable scenario, various pilots later opined.

But all eyes were rivetted on Flight 292 as pilot Scott Burke made his approach. The passengers were ordered to the back of the plane, for weight distribution reasons but also to maximise their safety. The television, which had become a major distraction, was turned off. Finally, the cabin crew ordered everyone to adopt the brace position they had practised for an hour.

The pilot touched down with the back wheels only, and kept the nose in the air until the last possible moment. The distressed wheel skidded, burnt off rubber and finally created a modest streak of flames.

When the plane came to a final halt, the fire had gone out, and the wheel was no more than six inches off the centre line of the runway - a perfect landing. On board, the passengers cheered and hugged the pilot.

According to a transcript of the cockpit conversation, Mr Burke remained so cool he was actually more concerned about the media mob that would await him on landing than he was about making a fatal mistake. "Do we have someone here who is media savvy?" he asked the control tower at one point. "I want to keep the media wolves off my back. I've got nothing to say to them."