Jetliner Makes Emergency Landing on World War II Auxiliary Strip
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A jet making an approach in nasty weather Tuesday lost power in both engines and made an emergency landing near an abandoned World War II airstrip about five miles short of the nearest airport, authorities said.
The TACA International Airlines plane was on its way from San Salvador and had made a stop at Belize. All 36 passengers and nine crew members scrambled unharmed from the plane to a nearby levee as a driving rainstorm started.
A TACA official, Peter Messina, said the the cause of the engine trouble was unknown and that the apparently undamaged aircraft was only three weeks old.
It landed on a narrow strip of grass, its wings barely fitting between a drainage canal on one side and a levee on the other. Witnesses said the plane was close to but not on the actual landing strip.
Crew members brushed past reporters without talking. Passengers were given little opportunity to talk as they were escorted away by police and Customs officials, but when they did speak they heaped praise on the jet’s pilot, identified by Messina as Carlos Dardano of El Salvador, about 35 years old, a veteran of about 5 years with TACA.
″It was a very smooth landing,″ said passenger July Mora, a travel agent from New Orleans. ″I thought we were at the airport. I was surprised to learn we had landed on a levee.″
″As the pilot said, ’By the grace of God, I got this sucker on the ground,‴ said the Rev. Leo Humphrey, 52, a Baptist missionary returning to New Orleans from a ministry in El Salvador.
Although the landing was smooth, the preceding moments were frightening, passengers said.
″We went through rain and severe turbulence and I thought I heard them say lightning hit the plane,″ said Mora, although officials later could not confirm that lightning hit the aircraft.
″I’ve never been on a plane that was so violent. I’m sure the people were pretty bruised from their seatbelts,″ said Humphrey. ″The plane was going up and down, sideways, and twisting. Lightning was everywhere. The lights went out on the plane and the engine died. Everyone thought it was over.″
The pilot radioed shortly after noon that he lost power in both engines of the Boeing 737, said Paul Bourg, an area supervisor at the control tower at New Orleans International Airport.
″Control was in the process of trying to direct him to Lakefront Airport, which is our civil aviation airport, a little small, but a 737 could use it,″ Bourg said.
″About five miles from that airport, the pilot informed controller that he couldn’t make it. That he was going in. The pilot spotted this unused airstrip.″
The grass-covered strip is between a National Aeronautics and Space Administration complex and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a straight-line shortcut paralleling the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans.
A thunderstorm warning from the National Weather Service was in effect at the time and there were high winds and lightning in the area.
Bourg could not say if weather was a factor in the plane’s trouble.
The plane landed behind the U.S. Department of Agriculture offices at the NASA complex.
Kathy Fernandez, a USDA employee, said she had stepped outside and saw the plane come down about 400 yards away.
″It was a clean landing,″ she said. ″It came down nice. Just fine. As soon as it landed, the door opened, the chute came down and the people came out and ran away from the plane.″
″As soon as they got out, they just ran up the levee in the back. It started raining about five minutes after that. It really started to pour.″
She and Bob Ural, another USDA employee, said they heard no engines as the plane came down. Ural said the plane descended as silently as a glider.
Passengers and crew were sequestered in an area of the NASA complex for more than three hours, then taken quickly in a group to a waiting chartered bus and on to New Orleans International about 24 miles away.
TACA has been based in San Salvador, El Salvador, for over 50 years but is U.S.-owned and has its main office in New Orleans. An officials at the main office said the airline did not have any more information on the reason for the landing.
Tom Branigan, a spokesman for Martin-Marietta Corp., the main contractor at the space facility, said there is an overgrown paved strip at the facility, but that the plane came down on the grass.
He said it did not appear that the landing gear collapsed and that from a quarter-mile no damage to the plane was visible.
He said two passengers with pre-existing medical problems - one recent surgery and one high blood pressure - were taken to the medical facility on the premises for observation.
Customs officials were called, he said.
Employees at Martin Marietta helped the passengers get to nearby buildings. Branigan said.