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At least fifteen people were injured when a packed Florida-bound Virgin Atlantic passenger jet made an emergency landing at Gatwick Airport today after reports of a mid-Atlantic on-board fire - sparking chaos for thousands more travellers.
The giant America-bound Airbus A330-300 was forced to turn around mid-flight and land back in Britain around 30 minutes after take-off as the cabin filled with smoke.
Once back on the ground, the captain ordered emergency chutes to be deployed so nearly 300 passengers and 13 crew could escape onto the tarmac.
Such was the seriousness of the incident that the stricken airliner did not taxi to the airport buildings, but remained blocking a runway.
This caused scores of flights in and out of the West Sussex airport to be suspended indefinitely, causing disruption for thousands more Gatwick passengers with rival airlines including British Airways.
Virgin Atlantic said the aircraft had 13 crew and 299 passengers on board when it made the emergency landing at around 12.30pm - just over 30 minutes after taking off from the same airport.
Fifteen people, many with broken bones, were taken to hospital by ambulance after the Airbus A330 bound for Orlando in Florida was forced to return and make the landing as a precautionary measure due to a 'technical problem'. Their injuries are believed to have been caused by the emergency evacuation.
It is understood fire extinguishers were used mid-air to tackle the blaze, which is believed to have broken out in a rear cargo area.
The pilots' website PPrune reported 'fire or smoke' in the rear hold and 'extinguishers' deployed'.
The plane made a safe landing with emergency services on stand-by, and passengers were disembarked, said a Gatwick Airport spokeswoman.
She said: 'A Virgin A330 left Gatwick at 11.48am bound for Orlando but returned to make an emergency landing at 12.30 due to reports of a technical issue.
'The aircraft made a safe landing, the emergency services are on the scene and passengers have been safely disembarked from the plane. All flights in and out of Gatwick are currently suspended until further notice.'
She said passengers involved were being looked after in a specially set-up reception area at the airport.
Virgin Atlantic's president, Sir Richard Branson, tweeted: 'Very sorry to all passengers on board VS27.
'The staff @virginatlantic are doing everything they can to look after everybody. More info soon.'
Virgin Atlantic confirmed that flight VS27 from Gatwick to Orlando had made an emergency u-turn to its home airport and been evacuated adding in a statement: 'Due to a technical problem, the captain decided as a precautionary measure to immediately evacuate the aircraft.
'Virgin Atlantic can confirm that all the passengers and crew have now safely disembarked. We can confirm that there have been four minor injuries.
'Our teams at Gatwick are now offering full support, looking after our passengers and assisting with their immediate requirements.'
It added: 'Virgin Atlantic is working closely with the authorities to establish the cause of this incident. The safety and welfare of our crew and passengers is Virgin Atlantic's top priority.'
But the incident caused knock-on delays to other airlines operating in and out of Gatwick- with some incoming flights diverted, and others landing at Stansted Airport in Essex instead.
Gatwick operated a reduced service and warned passengers could expect knock-on disruptions and delays.
British Airways warned customers: 'Flight delays, diversions and cancellations are expected so if you are due to travel to or from London Gatwick, please check the status of your flight before leaving for the airport.'
And easyJet's website said its flights were experiencing 'signification disruption' and recommended passengers check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport.
Eyewitness Lorna Willson, 23, who works in a building that overlooks the runway, said she saw the immediate aftermath of the landing.
She said: 'I was just eating my lunch and I noticed the plane - they usually take off quite quickly but this one didn't go anywhere.
'Then I realised all the chutes were out and there were lots of fire engines and police. I think the passengers had been taken off, but you could see a few stewardesses. There was quite a lot of emergency services there.'
An airport staff member said: 'The plane is waiting on the runway. Police officers and other vehicles are surrounding it. It looks pretty serious, but the airport is dealing with it well. They are not letting anyone else through security at the moment.
'It looks like the height of summer here. They have made announcements that all flights are suspended until 3pm and there is a crowd scene.'
The closure is the second to hit Gatwick in three days. Last Friday, all outbound flights were briefly suspended after a hot air balloon drifted into the flight path.
It is the first incident involving a Virgin flight since 2008, when another passenger jet with 320 passengers was forced to turn back to Gatwick Airport less than an hour into its journey because of a technical problem. The plane to Barbados returned to Gatwick to be met by fire crews after the Boeing 747 circled over Gatwick to burn off fuel before landing.
A Korean Airways jumbo jet made an emergency landing at Heathrow airport in January after a mayday call on a transatlantic flight.
The Boeing cargo plane carrying cattle from Chicago to Brussels issued the call over the Bristol Channel when a fire warning light flashed on in the cockpit, before diverting