August 14, 2008— -- The incident involving Sen. Barack Obama's campaign plane last month was much more serious than the airline or the Federal Aviation Administration said, according to FAA control tower tapes obtained by ABC News.
At the time, an FAA spokesperson said the pilot did not declare an emergency and the airline owner, Midwest Airlines, said safety "was never an issue."
The tapes, broadcast Thursday on ABC News' "World News with Charles Gibson," show otherwise.
Just 41 seconds after discovering he no longer had full control of the plane's up and down movements, the pilot told an FAA air traffic controller "at this time we would like to declare an emergency and also have CFR [crash equipment] standing by in St. Louis."
An FAA spokesperson acknowledged today that its statements at the time of "no emergency" were wrong, based, the spokesperson said, on erroneous reports from FAA air traffic managers.
"We later learned there was an emergency declared," FAA spokesperson Elizabeth Cory said. The FAA had not publicly corrected the record until today, after being contacted by ABC News.
Obama's plane, an MD-81 chartered from Midwest, was diverted to St. Louis, shortly after takeoff from Chicago on July 7. Over the plane intercom system, the pilot told Obama and campaign staff and reporters there was "a little bit of controllability issue in terms of our ability to control the aircraft in the pitch, which is the nose up and nose down mode."
In contrast, the FAA tapes reveal the pilot reported he no longer had 100 per cent control, with only "limited pitch authority" of the aircraft.
A few minutes later, the pilot formally declared an emergency situation. (click here to listen to an edited version of the audio)
Asked by the St. Louis tower controller which runway he wanted to land on, the pilot responded, "Well, which one is the longest?"
The pilot then reported, "We have Senator Obama on board the aircraft and his campaign."
Unbeknownst to the pilot, an emergency evacuation slide had inflated inside the tail of the jet, affecting control cables there.
As tension mounted and the pilot rapidly descended from 32,000 feet, he was asked how many were on the jet.
"51 souls on board," he responded.
Then, at 10,000 feet, the pilot suddenly regained control.
"Ah, sir, we had a pitch authority problem. Now that we've come down to a lower altitude, it seems to have rectified itself. We do have pitch control of the aircraft at this time," the unnamed Midwest pilot reported to the St. Louis control tower.
As the jet landed safely in St. Louis, Sen. Obama called his wife and, apparently unaware of the drama in the cockpit, tried to laugh it off.
"Just thought we'd spice things up a little bit today," he told reporters.
Asked if he was afraid, Obama said, "Anytime a pilot says, you know, that something's not working the way it's supposed to, then you know, you make sure you tighten your seat belt."
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident. In a preliminary report, the NTSB said it detected "marks consistent with rubbing of elevator control cables" and a broken railing that "impinged upon elevator control cables."
A spokesperson for Midwest said the company would not comment on the incident while the NTSB investigation is underway.
The Obama campaign had chartered the MD-81 from Midwest while its current campaign plane, a Boeing 757 chartered from North American Airlines, was being reconfigured. It was put into use on July 20.
The McCain campaign also debuted a new plane last month, a Boeing 737-400, chartered from Team Jet. A spokesperson, Brian Rogers, said he was unaware if the incident with the Obama plane had led to any safety evaluations of Senator McCain's campaign plane.
Eric Longabardi is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles who is a frequent contributor to the Blotter on ABCNews.com.