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A plane was at cruising altitude — then dropped 15,000 feet in 3 minutes

Harrison Hove’s ears popped midflight — that was the first sign of trouble aboard American Airlines Flight 5916. The second came just a moment later: Oxygen masks tumbled in front of him and dozens of other passengers cruising at 30,000 feet on Thursday afternoon en route from Charlotte to Gainesville, Fla.

Then, a burning smell filled the cabin, he said.

The plane dropped nearly 15,000 feet in about three minutes, according to data from FlightAware, a flight-tracking website. Over the next few minutes, it descended roughly another 4,000 feet, data shows.

“It was really scary,” said Hove, associate chair at the University of Florida’s journalism department.

The Embraer ERJ145 aircraft had taken off from Charlotte Douglas International Airport about 40 minutes earlier, at 3:27 p.m., FlightAware data shows. Over the next 22 minutes, the pilots ascended to a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet as they crossed over South Carolina and eventually, Georgia. It would soon turn into what Hove described as “the flight from hell.”

In a statement, American Airlines apologized to Hove and the other 49 passengers on the flight. The airline said that the three-person crew received an indication of “a possible pressurization issue” while in flight and “immediately and safely descended to a lower altitude.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident. In a statement, the agency said that pilots are trained to fly below 12,000 feet if there’s a pressurization issue because people don’t need supplemental oxygen at that altitude. When doing so, pilots make “controlled descents.”

Hove, 39, wasn’t supposed to be on that plane. But storms held up his flight out of Reagan National Airport, and the delay made him miss his connection in Charlotte, forcing him to settle for a later trip.

Flight 5916 started out normally, Hove said. It was delayed a few minutes, and the crew and passengers encountered a few weather-related bumps during their ascent. But it was nothing out of the ordinary.

After beverage service, as they cruised at 30,000 feet, Hove looked out of the window, admiring the clouds below. Then, his ears suddenly popped, something he would later learn happened to many other passengers. A split second later, the masks fell from above, as Hove wondered if this was a joke or a drill.

“People kind of looked at each other,” he said. But flight attendants walked through the cabin, insisting that passengers put on the masks. As Hove fumbled with his, a pilot in uniform who traveling as a passenger and sitting across the aisle reached out and pulled a cord to activate the mask.

Then, the plane started to drop.

“It wasn’t like you were on a roller coaster, but you could feel we were descending,” Hove said.

Without any information from the crew, Hove’s mind raced with thoughts that took him to some “crazy places.” Why weren’t the pilots telling them what was happening? Had the pilots put on their own masks in time, or were they passed out from lack of oxygen? Were the passengers flying aimlessly?

“You just don’t know, and that’s what was really hard,” he said.

Wearing a mask, Hove wasn’t able to speak, or at least he wasn’t supposed to. So he started typing questions in the notes app on his phone and reaching across the aisle to show the off-duty pilot, who answered in kind. Through that back-and-forth, Hove learned that the burning smell was normal, a byproduct of the chemical reaction required to activate the oxygen system. Hove said he made sure the information got to other passengers by directing them to the off-duty pilot’s phone screen.

“Having his expertise was actually very comforting in a moment where there’s so little information,” he said.

Hove knew the odds of getting cellphone reception were low, but he tried to send texts to his mom and sister anyway. In the first, he told them about the burning smell. In the second, the masks. He made sure to tell them he loved them. None of the messages went through during the flight.

The plane leveled out at just above 10,000 feet, and about 15 minutes after Hove’s ears first popped, one of the pilots came on over the intercom to explain that they had entered into a controlled descent after possibly losing cabin pressure. Everything was going to be okay.

And it was, information Hove made sure to relay to his mom and sister. The pilots maintained altitude for about 15 minutes before descending and landing at Gainesville Regional Airport at 4:51 p.m., some 40 minutes behind schedule.

There was little to no celebration, Hove said.

“One person clapped,” he said. “I think people were so ready to be on the ground.”

Hove included. Like many others, he told the crew how grateful he was that they stayed cool under pressure and kept passengers safe. He did so with as few words as possible, afraid he would start to cry.

Hove got off the plane and called an Uber as fast as he could. Once he got into the SUV, Hove told his driver he’d had a rough flight and warned him that he might break down. And he did. Five minutes later, he composed himself.

Hove said he has to go to Philadelphia later this month to attend a work conference. Then he’s supposed to fly to New York to watch the U.S. Open. He isn’t looking forward to it but plans on going anyway.

“It’s not going to keep me from flying, because I love to travel all over the place,” he said. “So we’re good.”

Read More:A plane was at cruising altitude — then dropped 15,000 feet in 3 minutes