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Landing gear stuck on plane carrying Herd football coaches, crash averted

Mar. 09, 2011 @ 10:44 PM

HUNTINGTON — Marshall University football escaped a potential tragedy by minutes on Wednesday evening after making a safe landing at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.

Around 6 p.m. on Wednesday, a landing gear malfunction aboard ComAir Flight 5359 diverted a flight bound for Charleston from Atlanta to Lexington. The flight included Marshall’s entire offensive coaching staff and two of its defensive coaches.

Entering into its final descent, the landing gear finally came down on the plane and a crash-landing was averted as the coaches made their way off the flight safe and sound.

Marshall tight ends coach Phil Ratliff was one of the coaches on the flight who had to sit helpless during the hair-raising event that hits too close to home for those associated with the Thundering Herd football program.

“On our way back, we kept circling flying into Charleston — three times,” Ratliff recalled. “He (the pilot) went back up in the air and we knew something was wrong.
“The crew basically came back and told us that they were diverting us to Lexington. They didn’t say it but if we had to crash land, it was a bigger runway.”

Blue Grass Airport spokeswoman Amy Caudill said that the airport received a call for assistance from the crew aboard Flight 5359 around 6 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon .

Blue Grass Airport has its own fire department, but the airport requests assistance for emergency situations from the Lexington Division of Fire, which was on scene for the potential crash.
At 6:15 p.m., the plane landed without incident, according to Marshall Griggs, the battalion chief of Lexington Division of Fire.

“We were turned away after they landed, and we were very relieved that was the case,” said Griggs.
The event especially hit home for Ratliff, a two-time All-American for Marshall who is originally from Louisa, Ky., and knows complete the history of the Nov. 14, 1970 plane crash that killed 75, including most of Marshall’s football team and coaching staff.

In fact, Ratliff was only two days old when the crash occurred outside of Tri-State Airport, which is located approximately 30 minutes from where he grew up.

“You grow up hearing about this for 40 years,” Ratliff said. “For this to happen 40 years later, it was just unbelievable. We were all praying. It was calm, but we were definitely praying. It was a situation that you never want to go — thinking about your family, having your life go before your eyes. It was just unbelievable.”

Marshall’s coaching staff had been at Texas Christian University and Mississippi State to visit the coaching staffs there when they met up in Atlanta to fly back to Charleston together.

Ironically, Ratliff said that their flight had been delayed all day because a previous flight had maintenance problems and they brought in a new plane.

After the tumultuous day of flying, Ratliff was talking from the coaches’ rental car that they secured at Blue Grass Airport for a 2-hour drive home.

“Yeah, we’re driving back. We’re not flying back into Huntington,” Ratliff said during the conversation. “We rented a car and are coming home that way.”

As if the story didn’t have enough irony, it was actually the second time on Wednesday that Griggs was answering questions about a potential disaster about a sports figure.

At 10:52 a.m., NASCAR driver Greg Biffle was aboard a flight that crashed into Blue Grass Airport. A landing gear malfunction caused Biffle’s plane to partially collapse while landing. He escaped uninjured.

Marshall coaches aboard the flight included Ratliff, offensive coordinator Bill Legg, quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator JaJuan Seider, wide receivers coach Gerad Parker, defensive coordinator Chris Rippon, safeties coach Todd Hartley and coach Mike Cassity.

Parker and Hartley are new Marshall coaches for 2011.
Marshall head football coach Doc Holliday was not aboard the flight.

Josh Kegley and Rob Kandt of The Herald-Leader contributed to this report.