Back in 1988, a Boeing 737-300 glided to a safe landing on a New Orleans Levee
Although ‘the miracle on the levee’ doesn’t stick the same as ‘Sully’s Miracle on the Hudson’, TACA flight 110 was truly a miracle. On May 24, 1988, a brand new TACA Boeing 737-300 departed from Belize to New Orleans on a scheduled flight with a distance of about 875 nautical miles. Passengers enjoyed the relative quiet of a new Boeing 737-300 enroute. The first three quarters of the flight were uneventful.
At the controls was Captain Dárdano. He was a very experienced pilot in command of the Boeing that day with a lucky track record even in challenging situations. Years earlier he was shot in the head during the civil war in El Salvador while on the ground before he was supposed to pilot an air taxi flight. Dárdano lost an eye in that incident. Despite his disability, he still managed to become a commercial pilot for TACA.
TACA 110’s Descent Takes It Into Bad Weather
On descent, the captain noticed weather up ahead. Utilizing the radar, the crew attempted to fly between large cells on descent. This is a common technique for pilots to utilize as they deviate around weather. Unfortunately, the radar was not painting additional embedded weather in between the two primary weather cells that were depicted.
Passing 16,500 feet, both CFM-56 engines flamed out due to heavy rain and hail. Captain Dárdano then started the APU to regain electrical power and attempted to restart the engines. An airstart did not work. Utilizing the starter, the crew did note that the engines began to light off. While both restarted, the crew could not get either engine to advance beyond flight idle. Even worse, the #2 engine showed that the EGT temperature was excessively high.
At this point, the crew recognized that it was unlikely that they would regain power. While armchair critics might question their next move, according to the NTSB report, they elected to shut down both engines to avoid further engine damage. They had few choices at this point. They were too far away from New Orleans International Airport to make a deadstick landing. Their choices were to land on water or find an alternate field. ATC attempted to guide the stricken jet towards New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport. While in the final decent, they recognized that they wouldn’t have enough energy to make it to Lakefront. Call it luck or prayer, but on the approach path to Lakefront Airport, there was a levee. It was long enough for a Boeing 737 to land.
The miracle deadstick landing of a Boeing 737
The experienced captain of the jet landed on the grass levee. The AP article from 1988 about the incident featured an interview with a passenger on the flight: ″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.″
All 45 passengers and crew safely exited the aircraft. They had survived with barely a scratch. The aircraft itself was in relatively good shape. After an engine change and minor repair, it was flown to a maintenance facility for additional inspection. The jet was eventually sold to a lessor, reregistered, and ended up flying with successfully with Southwest Airlines for a number of years until the jet was finally retired from service in December 2016.
The NTSB later released a report stating that the engines should have continued to provide power even while flying through that level of precipitation. At the time, FAA water ingestion certification standards did not adequately reflect precipitation amounts likely encountered in actual flying conditions. Recommended changes included keeping a minimum power setting of greater than 45% N1 and restricting the use of autothrottles in heavy precipitation. Additional changes were incorporated into the CFM-56 engine design:
- Spinner profile change from conical to a combination elliptical and conical (spinner shape called coniptical) to guide the hail radially outward
- Cutback splitter that allows more ingested rain and/or hail to be centrifuged out by the fan rotor, away from the core, and into the fan bypass flow
- Increased number of variable bleed valve (VBV) doors that allowed additional rain and/or hail to be extracted from the core flow path at low engine rotational speeds
We found a rare and incredible interview with Captain Dárdano on Youtube
On Youtube, there is an hour plus long interview with Captain Dárdano. In the video, he described the event and his thoughts at the time of the incident. It’s a bit long but interesting to hear him recount the miracle landing on the levee.
In the interview, Captain Dárdano cited that the crew lacked training for such an event. At the time there were no checklists for dual engine flameout. He cited his experience and a bit of luck for a “beautiful, beautiful landing.” After landing, he told a funny story of a passenger rushing off the jet right as the flight attendant opened the chute. The passenger jumped out the door without the slide inflated. Fortunately, the slide rapidly inflated just under the passenger as she was about to land. The full interview is below.