A passenger airplane carrying nearly 300 people made an emergency landing in Billings Sunday morning after the crew reported an engine fire warning in one of the aircraft's two engines.
Israeli airline El Al landed the Boeing 777 shortly before 6 a.m., because warning lights showed a fire in the right engine. A Billings airport fire official confirmed that there were 279 people plus crew members aboard.
After about 12 hours total, the passengers boarded a new plane and departed Billings.
Fire crews from around Billings were on hand as the plane landed. No fire was visible. Originally, the airliner was going to make a first, low-level pass before landing, but instead just landed.
Mike Glancy, chief of the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Division at the Billings airport, said that although no flames were visible, the pilot discharged fire bottles — fire extinguishers — at the right engine.
A passenger on board, Soroush Arani of Los Angeles, said the flight was to have taken passengers from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, but the airplane experienced turbulence, he said.
Shortly after that, a flight attendant announced that the pilots had seen a cockpit light indicating a fire in the right engine and that the plane would land at the nearest airport — Billings.
"I was very glad we were in the States," Arani said. "There are lots of airports. I'm glad this didn't happen anywhere else."
Because of the aircraft's large size, it could not park at the terminal. Instead, a landing ladder was used to unload passengers. Billings has no customs agents at the airport for flights. Glancy said that customs officials were en route from Great Falls on Sunday morning and were expected sometime after 1 p.m.
Calls to U.S. Customs and Border Protection offices were not immediately returned.
Passengers were removed from the aircraft and then bused to an airport terminal in a process that took about 30 minutes. Glancy said the passengers were being sequestered in a Billings airport terminal.
El Al was making arrangements to feed the passengers and was making lodging accommodations for 20 crew members, Glancy said.
Arani said he flies with El Al three or four times per year and has never experienced anything like Sunday's events.
"We did not have any difficulty on the airplane at all" regarding the emergency landing, Arani said. "The way (the pilots) handled it was very professional."
After flying over the Atlantic Ocean for several hours, Arani said he was glad the issue occurred over land rather than over the ocean.
Billings Logan Airport crews spent the afternoon offloading baggage from the grounded aircraft. Glancy said the freight companies that regularly fly out of Billings use the same type of equipment needed by the 777 to offload their jets so they didn't have a problem removing the cargo.
A spare aircraft from Newark, N.J., was dispatched to Billings to enable passengers to complete their journey to Los Angeles International Airport. It arrived at about 4:45 p.m.
After about a 12-hour wait in total, passengers began boarding shortly ahead of a 6 p.m. departure.
El Al reportedly has six 777s in its fleet. The aircraft is primarily used for transcontinental flights and has a range of about 6,000 miles.