'This might be really the end': The Jazz detail frightening flight that led to an emergency landing

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looks on from the bench in the second half during an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — "For a good 10-15 minutes I think all of us on that flight were questioning if we were going to be here today."

That was how Jazz guard Mike Conley began his account of what happened Tuesday afternoon when the Utah Jazz's chartered plane to Memphis struck a flock of birds, shredding one engine and forcing the flight to turn back and make an emergency landing. It was a terrifying ordeal that featured a loud explosion, flames and minutes of uncertainty as the team wondered if the worst was yet to come.

Here's what happened in their own words.

Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson: "So where I sit on a plane is where I could see the engine and everything. I happen to be being a bad kid and was kind of getting up and grabbing something in my bag while we were taking off. I just remember walking back to my seat and as I got to my seat I just hear a loud bang."

Conley: "I think it was me, JC, Joe (Ingles), Miye (Oni) and (Derrick) Favors — like we're all kind of right there in between both wings of the plane, and all of a sudden it felt like there was an explosion. Like literally, that's what it sounded like for most people on the plane."

Clarkson: "As I got to my seat, I just heard a loud bang, and me and Mike looked at each other and he was like, 'Oh, those are the birds!' I guess Mike had seen the birds passing through the window, and then seen it as it was happening — all I heard was a bang."

A Salt Lake International Airport spokeswoman confirmed the plane's left engine was damaged due to a bird strike. While bird strikes aren't super uncommon occurrences at the airport, Candace Deavila, the airport's wildlife manager, told KSL the damage was the worst she's seen in her 11 years with the division.

Clarkson: "I turned and looked out the window and saw the whole engine shaking and everything. And then you see everybody in the back kind of reacting to what's going on."

Conley: "The plane immediately started to bounce and then just started tilting to the left, and people in the back of the plane said they saw flames. Immediately the altitude started to drop a little bit and we started looking down and wondering what just happened — and nobody knows."

Clarkson: "A lot of people in the back that were sitting behind the engine, they had seen a burst of flames. So, immediately they're probably thinking the plane is fully caught on fire."

Fear sank in — real genuine fear. They had heard an explosion and saw flames and the plane was now tilting and dropping. It's only natural to think the worst is happening. To make matters more terrifying, they didn't get immediate communication from the pilots about what was going on.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder: "One of the engines blew, and there's a time — in this case, probably a 10- or 15-minute window — where the pilots are assessing the situation, and no one really knows what's going on."

Conley: "Everybody was just quiet; we're just in shock. It took the pilots probably about 10 minutes to go through everything — go through the checks and kind of get back to us and let us know what was going on because it was obvious that something was really wrong with the plane. It felt like the plane was breaking apart in midair."

Clarkson: "It was like one of those flights where you're sending out texts — I know you've seen on the movies when the plane's about to crash or something. It got to that point where we all on the plane were like, 'This might be really the end.'"

Snyder: "They're going through their different protocols and checklists, and while that's happening, you're in limbo. And that's a traumatic and eerie feeling."

Conley: "I can't speak for everybody but I know that guys were trying to text family, just in case. It was that kind of situation."

After some excruciating moments, information finally arrived: The pilots calmly informed the passengers the engine had been lost in the bird strike and that they would be turning around and landing back at Salt Lake International. Everything was expected to be fine.

Clarkson: "That definitely was a comforting thing. But we were all looking out the window like, 'Man, just land anywhere! We don't care! We can check everything else later, once we get on the ground. Just please, just put this plane on the ground and just let us live and get past this.'"

Snyder: "The pilots — you get an appreciation for their expertise and their training and everything that they do to keep all of us safe."

The plane landed just before 2 p.m. back at the airport — everyone on board was safe.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black: "The aircraft landed without an incident. It taxied back to its original location."

Conley: "We're just thrilled and thankful for the pilots and the staff and what they were able to do to get us back home safely, and I think a lot of us were shook up obviously."

Clarkson: "It's definitely an experience that I'm happy we're able to tell, because, like I said, a lot of us really came to the point where it was like, 'Man, this might be over for us.'"

Snyder: "The most important thing, obviously, is that everything turned out. We're safe."

Later Tuesday evening, hours after the incident, the Jazz took another plane to their game against Memphis. Everyone, that is, except for Donovan Mitchell. Shortly after the second plane took off, the Jazz announced Mitchell was not with the team for "personal reasons." In the past, Mitchell has made it known he isn't the biggest fan of flying.

Clarkson: "I understand fully why Don didn't come because, I mean, all of us were just like out of there and in limbo like, 'Whoa, what just happened?'"

Conley: "You don't just go through something like that and get back on a plane and head to go play a game again. It put perspective on life for all of us. We're just all thankful to be here and doing what we love to do."

Clarkson: "I kind of just wanted to get on another flight immediately trying to get over that scare. … I don't think that's happened many times on a plane ride. I've talked to many of my friends that are in the league, and they said that's their biggest fear for that to happen."

Snyder: "I don't know that an experience like that is just suddenly passed on and away. Everybody's impacted in different ways, all very significant. And it wasn't something that we were going to solve by just talking through everything, but I think it was important to acknowledge what we all went through, and, really, that same feeling of gratitude and appreciation for the fragility that we all live with, sometimes without being aware of it."

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Ryan Miller has covered the Utah Jazz for KSL.com since 2018.


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