Florida bound flight, Allegiant Air Flight 863, make emergency landing at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport

12:23 PM, Jul 29, 2013   |    comments
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Clearwater, Florida -- More than 150 Allegiant airline passengers have arrived in Tampa Bay after a frightening emergency landing in Georgia.

It was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour flight into the Florida sunshine. Instead, it became a 12-hour ordeal when a simple but critical light came on in the cockpit.

They were groggy and sore -- stepping off of buses 12 hours after they had planned to step off a plane at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

But these passengers' memories of their emergency landing in the small town of Albany, Georgia still jarred them.

"We get butterflies in our stomach, the nose was down," passenger Shirley Kruger said.

"That thing dropped real, real, real quick," said another passenger, Bryan Buckert.

"You have that moment when you think, 'What do I want my last words to be?'" said Kristi Bonser, who remembered clutching the tiny hand next to her -- holding tight to her son Brody, who's about to turn five.

"You're looking out the window, I don't see palm trees, so I know I'm not in Florida. And I grabbed his hand, I said, 'I love you Brody, hold on tight,'" Bonser recalled, her voice cracking and eyes filling with tears.

"He said, 'I'll be brave for you, mom.'"

The airline says at 9 p.m. Sunday, the pilot of Allegiant Air flight 863 -- heading from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport -- spotted a warning light showing a possible fire in the cargo hold.

He landed moments later at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport, a facility that was shut down for the night with most of its staff home and ready for bed.

"Our tower was closed, our airline had gone home, TSA has gone home, everyone has gone home -- so our public safety officers responded to the scene," said Yvette Aehle, the airport's director.

Led by the plane's six flight crew members, passengers leapt onto emergency escape slides to get from inside the stopped MD80 jet down to the runway.

"To jump off the plane on that ramp was quite an experience," Kruger said.

"Everyone was going down the chutes, walking away from the plane. And we were standing out in the tall grass, just -- what do we do next?" Buckert remembered.

On the ground, an inspection showed there was no fire. It was a false alarm.

Six hours after the landing, charter buses left the airport, headed for Tampa Bay with 155 passengers aboard.

A lucky dozen folks rode in a limo; it's what the airline could get on short notice.

Six more hours on the road and finally, at a little before 10 a.m. Monday, the caravan pulled up the terminal in Clearwater.

Delayed and exhausted, but relieved, some people were starting their Florida vacations. Others, like the Bonsers, were home.

An Allegiant Air spokesman said the airline is going to refund the round-trip tickets of everyone on board the plane and give each of them an additional $200 credit toward travel in the future.

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