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What Happened During That 'Flight From Hell?' Stockton Metropolitan Airport Director Weighs In

STOCKTON (CBS13) - Digging into the failure, the Stockton Metropolitan Airport director weighs in on the unanswered call that led to the 17-hour "flight from hell."

First-time flyer Alyssa Martinez was on her way to Las Vegas with her husband to celebrate her 30th birthday. Her mom warned her ahead of time of what people are now calling the "flight from hell."

"She was like 'Did you hear about the towers?' And I was like, 'No,' and she left it at that not to scare me," Martinez said.

Allegiant flight 161 was headed to Stockton Metropolitan Airport on Monday. But mid-flight, officials say the visibility sensor, an automated system, failed.

Russ Stark, the Stockton Metropolitan Airport director, says that the sensor shows the weather conditions on the ground, and the pilot cannot legally land without an "all clear."

"We hope this never happens again, we want our passengers to get from point A to point B," said Stark.

The control tower at the small Stockton airport closes at 9 p.m., so calling an operator on the ground wasn't an option. There's no backup landing plan, other than rerouting to another airport.

So that's what happened on flight 161, first to Vegas and then Los Angeles, and 17 hours later, the flight finally made it back to Stockton.

Jade Watts was on the plane and said, "it was absolutely horrible."

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says pilots are trained to handle those situations when there is a tech glitch.

CBS13 asked whether airport officials think it's safe to rely on some of these automated systems and sensors.

Russ Stark said yes.

"Sure. People fly across the country every day relying on automated navigation systems," he said.

Aviation experts agree it is safe, but pilots need to know how to handle system glitches.

Steven Thompson with Executive Flyers says landing a plane when the tower is unmanned happens every day.

Though, he worries pilots are becoming more dependent on this technology, and many won't know what to do in emergencies.

"People are getting so technically bound by just believing in technology they forget how to fly the airplane," he said.

The FAA says air traffic towers and hours operate based on demand.

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