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Pitt cheerleaders safe after plane makes emergency landing in Charlotte, N.C.

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, 2:27 p.m.
US Airways jets are parked at their gates at the Charlotte/Douglas International airport in Charlotte, N.C. in this 2015 file photo.
US Airways jets are parked at their gates at the Charlotte/Douglas International airport in Charlotte, N.C. in this 2015 file photo.

A plane carrying University of Pittsburgh cheerleaders en route to Saturday's Pitt-Wake Forest football matchup made an emergency landing Friday in North Carolina.

All 59 passengers and four crew members of AA Flight 5118 deplaned safely at Charlotte Douglas International Airport about 8:30 a.m., less than 30 minutes after their flight began.

The aircraft reversed course and turned back toward Charlotte Douglas International Airport "shortly after takeoff this morning due to an odor in the cabin," American Airlines spokeswoman Crystal Byrd told the Tribune-Review Friday afternoon.

"The smell came right away, literally right when we went up into the air the smell started," Ken Strauss, a passenger and loyal Pitt enthusiast who rarely misses a football or basketball game, whether home or away, said by phone a few hours after the incident.

The diehard Panther fan was excited to see about a dozen Pitt cheerleaders, including women and men, and a coach on his connection to Charlotte aboard the relatively small plane, with two-seat rows separated by a single aisle.

At first, Strauss told a few fellow passengers that the scent resembled burnt coffee.

"Then it didn't go away, it started getting stronger, and people started panicking," said Strauss, 44, who lives in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Some passengers began standing up and trying to ask flight attendants what was going on, Strauss said.

"Everything is under control," was all they received in response, according to Strauss.

Then some passengers noticed the plane was headed back toward Charlotte. Strauss looked out the window and saw the ground approaching.

"No one knew we were landing in Charlotte," Strauss said. "When we landed, we were flying down the tarmac. When I stood up, I found it really smelled like fire, and they said there was like a haze of smoke in first class."

Officials did not say what caused the odor but confirmed there were no reports of a fire.

Fire trucks and firefighters waited on the tarmac as the plane returned to the airport.

Before re-entering the airport, Strauss took a photo with a few cheerleaders and a fire official entering the plane in the background and shared it via Twitter.

"I kept thinking they have parents and grandmothers and grandfathers who would want to know that they're OK," Strauss said.

The plane was back in service Friday afternoon.

The passengers, including Pitt's cheerleaders, boarded another plane that departed shortly after 11 a.m. and arrived in Greensboro at 11:43 a.m., nearly three hours later than originally scheduled.

Pitt officials could not immediately be reached.

With Saturday's game against Wake Forest, the Panthers are a victory away from clinching the ACC Coastal Division championship.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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