‘ROLLERCOASTER’ FLIGHT FOR RUGBY TEAM

flightmap_01A scheduled four-hour flight home from Barbados turned into a 12-hour ordeal for members of a Red Bank club and other passengers Sunday. Here’s a portion of the route the plane followed, from Boston to New York, courtesy of FlightAware.com

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

It was supposed to be a fairly quick, stress-free jaunt; a routine flight home for most of the Red Bank-based Monmouth Rugby Football Club following a rare overseas match in Barbados.

Even after American Airlines Flight 1384 to New York made an unexpected reroute to Boston, player John Russoniello and his teammates were feeling jovial, despite the prospect of having to spend the night in Beantown, he said. This was around 8:15p, just about five hours after the plane left the Caribbean.

“We joked that we hoped the Sam Adams brewery was still open and we could get a beer,” said Russoniello, 25.

But things got hellish shortly thereafter.

The diversion to Boston was only a segment of a ride that had gotten off to an inauspicious start, Russoniello said.

The plane, a Boeing 757 with about 200 passengers aboard, had encountered heavy rain and unsettling turbulence over North Carolina, said Russoniello. Then, somewhere between Red Bank and Kennedy International Airport — the plane’s destination — the turbulence kicked into another, more unsettling, gear.

After circling the airport several times, the plane headed north unannounced, Russoniello said, and landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Passengers were told shortly afterward that landing at JFK was deemed unsafe.

According to an account on the New York Times website, the plane was diverted because of weather conditions and went to Boston to refuel.

The plane wound up staying on the tarmac for an hour after landing, and passengers were “jerked around” with intermittent announcements about where they were going and when, Russoniello said. Yes, they were heading back to New York. Then: no, we’re staying here. Then they were told that customs wasn’t logistically prepared for the passengers, said Carlos Oliveira, a fullback and scrum half with the team. Again, they were told they were heading back to New York, he said.

“After that, things got much more serious,” Russoniello said. “There was a tension on the plane. Real tense.”

The plane then headed back to JFK, and came within 100 feet of touching down, Russoniello said.

“I swear, our back wheels were inches off the ground,” he said. “Then the pilot pushed up. I felt like I was on an aircraft carrier.”

Oliveira said that’s when passengers started looking around, sharing the same sense of anxiety and worry.

“Everyone felt that awful weight-lifting feeling, kind of like you’re on a rollercoaster ride,” he said. “You feel that zero-gravity resistance. That’s when everyone started really getting worried.”

According to the Times, a second attempt to land at JFK was also aborted. Passengers were then told, again, it was too dangerous to land in New York, so they were heading to Pittsburgh instead, Oliveira said. One of the plane’s bathrooms was out of commission and passengers were told the flight was running low on food and water.

Then Pittsburgh was ruled out. They were heading to Philadelphia next.

At about 2a, Flight 1384 hit the tarmac in Philly. For good.

The rugby team was put up in a hotel for the night on the airlines’ dime, but there was no direction from the airline, no help in getting transportation back to New York and the hotel was grimy, Russoniello said.

Russoniello made it home to Middletown at 3:15p Monday, 24 hours after taking off from Barbados.

Looking back on it, he and Oliveira both said they understood the pilot’s decision to pull in, pull out, pull in, pull out, in order to keep the crew and passengers safe. But the lack of thorough communication and the failure to help accommodate passengers after they finally landed left a sour taste in the players’ mouths.

“As far as safety, we understand the pilot’s decision 100 percent, because the outcome could’ve been worse if he attempted a landing,” Oliveira said. “I feel flying is a safe form of transportation. It’s just this one situation was pretty much a little of a nightmare scenario.”

Monmouth Rugby occasionally travels outside of the tri-state area for matches, and every few years gets the chance to travel outside the country to play other teams.

Russoniello says he’ll be reluctant to board a plane next time the team does.

“I will definitely not be flying American Airlines next time we go,” he said. “I’d much prefer a cruise.”