Deb Shapiro knew there was a problem when she saw the flight attendant's face "go blank" during a call from the pilot of her flight into Philadelphia.

Shapiro, of Souderton, first thought the delay in her usually 15-minute flight from Allentown on the morning of Nov. 16 was routine. Instead, the 35 passengers and three crew members found themselves bracing for a landing without the plane's front wheel.

Crew members on the de Havilland Canada Dash 8 turboprop, operated by Piedmont Airlines as a US Airways Express flight, reported hearing a "creaking and groaning noise" as the plane taxied to the Allentown runway. They thought the noise was normal. Once airborne, the nose gear took "three to four seconds longer to retract than the main landing gear," according to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report.

Upon the approach to Philadelphia, a red light indicated unsafe nose gear when the crew tried to extend the landing gear.

"That is when the pilot made an announcement," said Shapiro, 49, a computer trainer for Oracle, who was on her way to San Francisco for business. Her heart sank "about a good foot."

Crew members tried other ways to drop the gear, according to the NTSB report. They contacted the control tower, and performed a flyby. The nose-gear doors were open, but the gear was not visible.

In the cabin, Shapiro said, the flight attendant prepared passengers for an emergency landing. One passenger, who was also an airline flight attendant, helped explain the crash position - feet on the floor, hands on legs, head down - and answer questions. No one panicked or cried, Shapiro said.

"I'm sure we were all getting religious or getting upset inside, but for the most part, we were pretty good," she said.

A passenger across the aisle from Shapiro pulled out the air-sickness bag.

When the attendant "said no sharp objects, and take your glasses off, I think a lot of it really hit home then," Shapiro said.

As the plane descended, she heard the two attendants yelling, "Head down, brace; head down, brace," even as one went hoarse.

The plane landed on its back wheels. The crew tried to keep the front of the plane from coming down until the slowest speed possible, according to the NTSB report.

Shapiro thought she would "fly out of her seat" when the plane's nose hit the runway and skidded 525 feet.

"Oh, that was rough," she said. "It is amazing how much smoother a landing is with wheels."

When the plane stopped, the cabin erupted in cheers and applause for the crew. Out the window, Shapiro saw emergency crews surrounding the plane with hoses.

"They just started foaming us like crazy," she said. "They were all dressed up in those suits and looked like space guys."

The preliminary NTSB report said the links - cables or tubes on top of the steering columns that help center the wheel - in the nose gear were broken.

Steven Farrow, president and chief executive officer of Piedmont Airlines, called the landing "very, very unusual," and praised the crew.

"This is the first time we have had to make a landing without all three wheels," he said. Piedmont has 55 planes and about 150,000 landings each year, and has flown this type of 50-passenger plane since 2001. Farrow declined comment on the specifics of the investigation.

According to the NTSB, there were 32 landing accidents involving large U.S. commercial aircraft between August 2000 and November 2007.

Passengers got off the tilting plane in Philadelphia using stairs pushed up to the front exit. A bus took them to a US Airways lounge, where they were treated to fruit and pastry. Airline personnel retrieved luggage left behind and rebooked missed flights.

When a friend asked if she was going to continue on her trip, Shapiro said she would.

"Unless I flap my arms, I'm not going to get to San Francisco any other way," she said.

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.