An Insider’s Story From United Airlines Flight 878, Which Slid Off The Runway In Green Bay

When my cousin Maria Wasnick and her husband, Alex Wasnick, were flying home to Minnesota yesterday from their Belize vacation, the last thing they expected was a twice-diverted flight, and an experience that left them trembling.

Due to severe weather in Minneapolis, United Airlines Flight 878 carrying 160 passengers made two unscheduled landings in Madison and Green Bay. Below is a personal account of the experience from Maria and Alex:

Alex: So we get on the plane [in Houston], everybody’s on the plane, and all of a sudden the pilot comes on and says, “I’m sorry we are having mechanical issues with the plane,” it was something with the engine cooling system, and they were checking if it would be safe to fly into the ice and snow. But it wasn’t safe so we all had to de-plane, and they had to find a new plane for us. They found a new plane, people started boarding, and then ten minutes later they started walking off of that plane because they had the same issue. So two planes were not suitable to fly into the winter conditions because the engines literally could have locked up. They could’ve just frozen up.
Masha: So then they found a third plane and then finally we started boarding.
Alex: And then thankfully they caught that because we could’ve taken off in a plane that wasn’t suitable to fly in the winter conditions which would have been extremely bad.
Masha: It was also still pretty hazy in Houston too and very rainy.
Alex: There was some turbulence along the way, and when we started getting close to Minneapolis, and we started going down for landing, it was pretty low like 3000 feet above ground. We saw it on the flight tracker in the plane.
Alex: 3000 feet is pretty much when you are going in for the landing,
Masha: So we were about to land and then the pilot said that they just shut down the runway in Minneapolis on us so we couldn’t land because it wasn’t plowed, and the pilot didn’t say it right away.
Alex: All of a sudden we heard the engines rev and we were just going up into the air.
Masha: And then I noticed that we were just cruising very low above ground, just cruising and circling in the air probably three times, and then I saw the next neighbor’s flight tracker and I saw that our plane was going back somewhere. And then the pilot made an announcement and he said that they closed the runway on us when we were about to land and we were going to Madison, Wisconsin instead.
Alex: They said that the runway in Minneapolis would be ready in 20 minutes, but we didn’t have enough gas to sit there in Minneapolis and circle for twenty to thirty minutes, so we had to fly really quickly to Madison to make an emergency landing to get re-fueled. So we come down into Madison and that was a pretty rough landing too, we came down pretty hard and it slipped a bit.
Masha: And then the pilot said that we only had 35 minutes to fill the tank, otherwise the flight would have to be canceled by law and we would have to get onto a new plane. So they were trying to do this very quickly. So they filled the tank in 35 minutes and then the stewardess asked everyone to get back into their seats as soon as possible so for take-off.
Alex: And then the pilot came back on the intercom and he said he spoke to the flight control at MSP and they said that everything is fine, the runway is clear, and all should be ready by the time we arrive in 20 minutes from Madison.
Masha: Because the flight is so short from Madison to Minneapolis we were flying lower than usual because the distance is short and then once we approached the Twin Cities you could see the wind and snow here, you know, so then we started to go down again at 3000 feet and then I noticed we started turning. And we circled again for 35 minutes in the snowstorm and it was bumpy with a lot of turbulence, and you could see a lot of land sometimes. And then the pilot was notified that we could not land, and that MSP was shutting down the runway again because it would take them an hour and a half to clean it, so then we went back up again to Green Bay.
Alex: And this was actually a really turbulent flight because the storm was coming out kind of across Minneapolis on the edge of Wisconsin and we were kind of riding the edge of it over to Green Bay, and the plane was just shaking like crazy!
Masha: And then we started going down it was so shaky and I was so scared and freaking out and I thought we would slip and start rolling. It was also really windy.
Alex: When we landed in Madison for the first time for the re-fueling, we were doing like 108 miles an hour, but when we did the touchdown in Green Bay it was 180 miles an hour!
Masha: And usually when you do the touchdown, you roll for a little bit on the runway, but then it was like 10 seconds, 15 seconds, and it was going very, very fast.
Alex: You could tell the pilot put the brakes on hard, the noise was loud, the tires were burning rubber. And we thought that we should have stopped by now, and that there cannot possibly be more runway left, and we could not see out in front of us so we were scared.
Masha: And in the end there was a jump at the end of the flight and we skidded off into the grass and it was very muddy. I mean, if the plane jumped any harder it could have even snapped in half probably.
Alex: Everyone literally looked around at eachother and were like we aren’t on the runway anymore! We also had to wait on the plane for a couple hours.
Alex: And apparently on these runways normally they are supposed to put down salt and chemical spray which melts the ice. But because it wasn’t snowing in Green Bay, they only laid sand down. They didn’t take that pre-caution. And another interesting thing about Green Bay airport is they aren’t use to having planes as big as a Boeing 747 land there. Then they brought out the air-stairs and they brought us to the Green Bay airport with school busses.
Masha: Then we sat in the airport for like four hours, and we had to wait for our luggage to come.
Alex: In all, we were in the plane in Green Bay for 2 hours, then since there were like almost 200 people on the plane only so many people could fit into the busses to the airport so we had to wait. Then it was a four hour wait in the airport and then a 5 hour drive to MSP.
Masha: then they gave us the option of either take a flight 1pm or take a bus to MSP. But we got home even before the plane lifted off so it was a good decision that we made. Plus we didn’t even want to fly again after that experience. And then when we entered the airport in MSP there were a bunch of reporters already there waiting for us. I don’t know how they figured all of this out so quickly.
Alex: Right now they are doing the investigation about what really happened, and who was really at fault for all of this confusion.
Me: What do you think was the problem? Who is at fault here?
Alex: I don’t know how all of this really works, but I think that it is flight control’s fault at MSP. They told us twice that the runway was clear, and it wasn’t. It was bad information, and they communicated poorly with the pilot. And this pilot, he sounded all frustrated and tired of everything. He even said the second time when we were trying to land, “Unbelievably, they closed the landing strip for the second time.” He definitely sounded annoyed and stressed.
Masha: And it could be the actual airline’s fault too because we didn’t make it the first time to MSP, and when we landed in Madison we should have just stayed there and de-boarded there. They were trying to cram everything into 35 minutes of re-fueling and they didn’t take the time to even de-ice the plane, which was dangerous. The airline might also have faced some sort of monetary consequences if they didn’t do the re-fill in 35 minutes.
Alex: Many of these people on the plane had connecting flights at MSP so the pilot was doing his best to not make people late, but at the same time he was very concerned about safety. Hopefully we will get re-funded, but most importantly, we’re alive.