LONDON (AP) — A Virgin Atlantic Airways plane flying from Britain to Florida returned to Gatwick Airport for an emergency landing Monday, forcing more than 300 people to evacuate the plane using slides. Fifteen people were taken to the hospital with injuries, ambulance officials said.
Fire officials said there were reports of a small fire on the plane, an Airbus A330-300, and it flew back to Gatwick about two hours into the flight.
"Due to a technical problem, the captain decided as a precautionary measure to immediately evacuate the aircraft," Virgin Atlantic said in a statement, adding that Flight VS27 from Gatwick to Orlando, Florida, carried 299 passengers and 13 crew members.
The airline declined to provide details of what exactly caused the emergency. But disputing the fire officials, a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic told The Associated Press the flight crew had been debriefed and said they did not see or smell smoke on board.
Fifteen people were injured while evacuating the plane, with some suffering from suspected fractures, said Dr. Jane Pateman, medical director of the South East Coast Ambulance Service.
The airline said it was working closely with authorities to establish the cause of the incident and that Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgway went to the airport.
The flight took off at 10:48 a.m. (0948 GMT, 5:48 a.m. EDT) and landed safely back at Gatwick just under two hours later.
A spokeswoman for Gatwick said the airport was closed for more than 90 minutes as passengers on the stricken plane used emergency slides to get to safety. The airport reopened using a backup runway just after 2 p.m. (1300 GMT, 9 a.m. EDT).
Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson tweeted an apology to those on board the plane. He said the airline's staff was doing everything possible to help passengers.