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'It was so eerie watching ourselves. . . . It was unimaginable'

LOS ANGELES -- For Matthew Ash, a 24-year-old on a church trip to New York's Catskill Mountains, the first sign of trouble came from a cartoon JetBlue plane.

The plane -- on the animated map at his seat -- ''wasn't going anywhere," he said, ''just hanging around in Los Angeles."

A few minutes later, he heard the calm male voice of Flight 292's pilot speaking over the plane's intercom: ''For those of you who may have noticed we are flying in circles," Ash recalled the pilot saying, ''we are currently experiencing difficulties with the front landing gear."

The landing gear had not retracted, the pilot said. A young woman turned to Ash nervously: ''So what does that mean?" she asked.

A second announcement followed: The wheel was crooked.

After that, the situation took an abrupt, bizarre turn.

JetBlue flights are equipped with small television sets on the back of each seat. As passengers watched, live MSNBC news and Fox News began to show their airplane. Ash glanced at the television of the passenger next to him: ''At first I just thought, 'Of course, Fox News,' " he said, discounting the story as sensationalized. ''But then it was on MSNBC."

People started to worry. ''It was so eerie watching ourselves," Ash said. ''It was unimaginable. . . . We heard people speculating about this and that. It was so odd."

Somehow, being on the TV news, ''made it a big deal."

Passengers reacted with a range of emotions -- some quietly upset, but most very calm. A few began laughing. Ash joined them. Once he saw the humor of it, the sense wouldn't leave him: ''It was just such an absurd situation," he said.

But his humor faded as he listened to television commentators. ''One guy was saying, 'You know, I'm just speculating, but the landing gear will break off, and the nose will drive into the pavement. . . .' "

The news shows continued to be beamed to the passengers until shortly before the end of the flight, when the headlines beneath the televised image began saying the plane would make an emergency landing, Ash said. Then it was shut off.

The crew moved passengers to fill the back seats, reasoning the extra weight in the rear would help keep the damaged front wheel in air longer upon landing.

As the plane drew closer to the ground, emotions intensified, Ash said. Many people held hands. A few cried.

The pilot told passengers to brace themselves. Everyone bent over, heads between their knees. The flight crew began chanting: ''Brace, brace, brace!"

The landing itself was surprisingly smooth, Ash said -- ''Like driving a car with a flat tire."

The cabin erupted in cheers.

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