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Utah Jazz coach and players share traumatic details from Tuesday flight that sustained engine damage during takeoff

The plane then started to tilt to the left and lose altitude. For roughly 10 minutes the flight crew went through the process of figuring out what had happened and what the next steps were. During that time the Jazz players, coaches and staff were in a state of confusion and fear.

Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder and players Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley have shared traumatic details from a Tuesday flight that sustained engine damage from a bird strike during takeoff.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

On Tuesday afternoon Jordan Clarkson was heading back to his seat after getting something out of his bag on the Jazz’s charter flight to Memphis when he heard what sounded like an explosion during takeoff.

Clarkson and Jazz teammate Mike Conley, who sit near the wing, could see the front of the engine. There was clear damage and it was shaking and rattling around in a way that was incredibly worrying.

“I turn to look out the window and see the whole engine shaking and everything,” Clarkson said. “And a lot of people in the back that were sitting behind the engine and stuff like that, they seen a burst of flames. So, immediately they’re probably thinking the plane is fully caught on fire.”

The flight had struck a flock of birds upon taking off from Salt Lake City International Airport and had completely lost the function of the left engine.

The plane then started to tilt to the left and lose altitude. For roughly 10 minutes the flight crew went through the process of figuring out what had happened and what the next steps were. During that time the Jazz players, coaches and staff were in a state of confusion and fear.

Many tried to send out texts to family members, worrying that it might be the last communication they would ever have.

“It’s definitely an experience that I’m happy we’re able to tell,” Clarkson said. “At least 30 seconds of that flight everybody came to a point where it was like, man, this might be over for us.”

Like Clarkson, Conley said that there was fear that the plane might not be able to land safely.

“I think all of us on that flight were questioning if we were going to be here today, that’s how serious it was for us,” he said. “Guys were trying to text family just in case.”

Eventually the pilots came over the intercom and told all the passengers what had happened and that they were going to turn the plane around and make an emergency landing back at Salt Lake International Airport.

While the calm and positive voices of the pilots and crew were calming and made the passengers feel more at ease, Clarkson said that once they were told they were turning around, all he could think about was just getting out of that plane.

“We were all looking out the window like man, just land anywhere, we don’t care,” he said. “We can check everything else later once we get on the ground, just please put this plane on the ground and just let us live and get past this.”

The flight eventually made it back to the ground safely and though everyone was pretty shaken up by the traumatic event, they were safe, and most of all thankful.

“The pilots, you get an appreciation for their expertise and their training, and everything that they do to keep all of us safe,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “There was probably a 10 or 15 minute window where the situation, no one really knows what’s going on... you’re in limbo and that’s a traumatic and eerie feeling.”

While Clarkson said that his initial instinct was to get on another flight as soon as possible to move past the fear that he was feeling, he understands that everyone deals with things differently.

Donovan Mitchell, who has expressed a fear of flying in the past, did not get on the Jazz’s rescheduled flight on Tuesday evening and was listed as not with the team for personal reasons.

“I understand fully why Don didn’t come,” Clarkson said. “It’s definitely something that you’ve kind of got to push through to get over but that’s just a tough situation.”

The original flight landed without further incident at Salt Lake Airport and there were no problems on the Jazz’s second flight out on Tuesday, but by all accounts, it’s an experience that all were impacted by and one that they won’t ever be able to forget.