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Winnipeg-bound flight makes emergency landing in South Dakota

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When oxygen masks fell from the ceiling Friday night, aspiring musical theatre performer Jade Repeta admits she wasn't sure if the trouble on her flight was real or make believe.

Repeta was flying aboard Flight 1343 from Phoenix to Winnipeg when the plane lost cabin pressure and pilots had to make an emergency landing in Rapid City, S.D.

The plane, carrying 38 passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots, made a rapid descent but landed safety. There were no injuries.

Repeta and the other passengers arrive in Winnipeg later this evening.

"I was like, 'Is this a movie set? This can't be real'" she said, from the Rapid City airport this afternoon.

"I could feel we were going down really fast, and I could tell others could feel it, too. After a few seconds, the plastic masks fell down. I really didn't know how to use it. I got mine on... I looked at other people and they all had the same expression -- shock."

The plane, a Boeing 737-700 series, left Phoenix around 8 p.m. local time. But about 90 minutes to two hours into the flight -- at about 40,000 feet -- the pilots were alerted to a problem.

"Indicator lights came on... the pilots became aware of a malfunction in the cabin pressurization system," said Robert Palmer, a spokesman with WestJet. "They declared an emergency and began a rapid descent that would have taken a couple of minutes to get to 10,000 feet, which is a more comfortable elevation."

Oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and passengers were instructed to wear them.

Repeta said that's when the pilot's voice came over the P.A. system.

"He said something like, 'Crew, please prepare for an emergency landing.' And I was thinking, 'Land on what, a mountain?'" she said.

"It was really loud. It definitely felt like I was facing the ground. We were definitely at an angle and it was like we were speeding up.

"I was freaking out a bit, wondering if these were my last few moments. Once we got to 10,000 feet, it was better."

Palmer said the two WestJet pilots were instructed to head to the nearest airport, which was in Rapid City.

After a safe landing, the crew and passengers were put up for the night in a hotel. A morning flight couldn't be arranged, so they were to leave Rapid City just after 5 p.m. -- without seeing Mount Rushmore.

"We tried to convince our driver to take us, but it was too far," Repeta said, with a laugh.

Repeta, who enjoyed some time off at her family's vacation home in Mesa, Ariz., said the WestJet employees were terrific throughout the entire ordeal.

"They were so helpful and kind," she said. "They stayed so calm through all of it. Their training just kicked in."

Palmer said a maintenance crew from Calgary will head to Rapid City to repair the aircraft, and then fly it back it to the Alberta city.

The National Transportation Safety Board in the United States and Canada's Transportation Safety Board were notified, however, neither is sending out a team to investigate.

"They are satisfied with our actions," Palmer said. "We will do our investigation to determine what happen."

Palmer said the last time a WestJet flight required a rapid descent was "three or four years ago."

"It is relatively uncommon," he said, noting the carrier has about 450 to 500 flights every day.

A flight attendant told Repeta that she hadn't seen oxygen masks drop in the 11 years she'd been flying for a living.

Repeta was set to board another flight tonight to Toronto, the place she now calls home.

"I'm not a great flyer," she said. "I don't ever want to see those yellow masks again."


Updated on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 2:39 PM CST: Corrects typo

4:15 PM: Adds comment from passenger.

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