“Landing gear failures make for great TV, but from a pilot’s perspective they’re pretty far down the list of things that can result in a disaster,” Mr. Smith said.
Still, Mr. Wrona had to maneuver within constraints on both his final approach, determined by the glide path set by the airport’s instrument landing system, and the aircraft’s exact speed, which depends on the its weight but is normally around 150 miles per hour.
He succeeded in keeping the wings perfectly horizontal, touching down gingerly with the tail skid and gradually setting the jet’s low-hanging engines onto the runway, which had been soaked with flame retardant to lower the fire risk.
Had one of the wingtips dropped at touchdown, as sometimes happens in a strong crosswind, there was a risk that the landing would have ended in disaster rather than an uneventful slide down the runway.
“The crew did a fantastic job; they kept the wings level for a very smooth touchdown,” said Kevin Hiatt, a former international chief pilot for Delta Air Lines who is now executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation.
“They thus avoided having one of the engines hitting the ground before the other and possibly getting the plane to go into a cartwheel situation, which could have resulted in a fireball,” said Mr. Hiatt, who flew 767s for seven years.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski thanked the crew and emergency workers “in the name of Poland,” and said the government would decorate them for the feat. And more than 40,000 people congratulated Mr. Wrona on newly created Facebook fan pages, calling him Poland’s “superhero.”
Mr. Wrona also has been compared to Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a crippled US Airways Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009, saving 155 lives.
But Mr. Hiatt noted that Mr. Wrona’s feat could not be compared to the “miracle on the Hudson.”
Mr. Wrona landed a fully operational plane at an international airport where fire and rescue services were waiting. In contrast, Mr. Sullenberger had no power after a flock of geese disabled the engine, was forced to ditch in the Hudson, then waited for local boats to rescue passengers and crew from the wings.
“The Polish pilots had control over their descent and touchdown, while Sully had essentially a glider on his hands,” Mr. Hiatt said.
Associated Press correspondents Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.