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Bees, beasts and a blaze plague airport

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Bruce Henderson
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

First it was the bees – a soccer ball-sized swarm that surrounded a tug and stopped a US Airways jet from taking off Wednesday while Charlotte airport officials scrambled to find a beekeeper.

Then it was a fire, with flames shooting out of a moving walkway on Concourse E, filling the area with smoke and forcing an evacuation. Nearly half the 36 gates on the concourse were closed about four hours until 9:15 p.m.

And airport officials were almost reluctant to talk about the coyotes spotted near a runway. They caused only a minor delay.

Oh, yes – don’t forget about the flight to Rome that had to be diverted back to the United States.

“Today has been a tough day,” said Brent Cagle, who has been interim airport director for a week.

The problems were all temporary, and all parts of the airport will be open for business Thursday.

And the good news is that operations appear to be normal at 6:45 a.m. Thursday.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is in the middle of a power struggle between the city and the state. The state legislature passed a law last week giving control of the city’s airport to an authority. But a judge has issued an injunction that leaves the city in control, at least for the time being. And Jerry Orr, the airport director since 1989, is out of a job.

But airport officials spent Wednesday sorting out problems of a different nature.

One problem didn’t develop at the airport.

US Airways Flight 720 left Charlotte for Rome at 6:10 p.m., but it was diverted to Philadelphia, according to several flight-tracking websites. Those sites show the flight never left Philadelphia overnight.

Two people e-mailed the Observer, saying the flight had encountered mechanical problems over the Atlantic Ocean and was sent back to the United States.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of headaches on the ground in Charlotte.

The bees – apparently a wandering queen and her minions – accosted a tug, which pushes planes from the gate, around 1:15 p.m.

The bees were docile and just looking for a new home, said beekeeper Jimmy Odom, who came to the rescue.

But the ground crews didn’t know that. So Flight 2690 sat.

Already delayed a half-hour by a maintenance problem, the passengers had been loaded, the doors locked and the jet bridge disengaged.

Then the pilot came on the intercom: The front of the plane was under attack by bees, said Observer motorsports writer Jim Utter, who was aboard en route to Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

The cabin grew stuffy. A clarification came – the tug, not the plane, had been swarmed. The crew seemed flummoxed, Utter said by phone.

“We haven’t seen a single bee,” from inside the plane, he said.

By 3:45 p.m., passengers had been aboard the jet – but stuck at the gate – for more than two hours as temperatures inside the aircraft climbed. The flight finally took off at 4 p.m., US Airways spokesman Davien Anderson said.

At least one coyote was spotted by a runway in the afternoon, too. Wildlife officers were dispatched, but the coyotes weren’t captured or spotted again.

But the tough day wasn’t over.

Firefighters received an emergency call just before 5 p.m. Flames were coming out of a moving walkway on Concourse E, where many of US Airways’ regional jets take off.

The fire was put out by firefighters, but not before the area filled with smoke. The concourse was evacuated and the fire doors were lowered.

No one was reported injured, and airport officials say the fire was quickly contained.

Airport spokeswoman Lee Davis says investigators determined the fire was confined to the motor of the moving walkway. That walkway was still out of service early Thursday. Concourse E was reopened shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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