34 Years Ago This Week

Many readers will be familiar with the story of US Airways Flight 1549, the so-called ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ with Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger at the controls. Yet in 1988, a remarkably similar incident befell the crew of a TACA International Boeing 737-300. This is the story of how the crew on that flight also pulled off a remarkable landing, saving not only the aircraft but all passengers and crew onboard The story became known as the ‘Miracle on the Levee’.

History of TACA flight 110

On May 24th, 1988, TACA International flight 110 was on a routine scheduled flight from Belize City to New Orleans, USA. The flight that day was operated by a Boeing 737-300 registered N75356. TACA flight 110 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight between San Salvador, El Salvador, and New Orleans, Louisiana, with an en-route stop in Belize City, Belize.

This aircraft was almost brand new, having only had its first flight on January 26th, 1988. It had only been in service with TACA for just two weeks since joining the airline from US-based Polaris Leasing before operating flight 110. The aircraft (MSN 23838) was Boeing’s 1,505th 737 off the production line.

That day, the operating crew on flight 110 comprised Captain Carlos Dardano (aged 29), who had 13,410 total flight hours of experience, with almost 11,000 of these as pilot-in-command. The first officer, Dionisio Lopez, was also very experienced, with more than 12,000 flight hours logged.

Captain Arturo Soley, an instructor pilot, was also in the cockpit, monitoring the performance of the Boeing 737-300, which was a new type of the airline’s fleet, although it had operated the 737-200 for years.

With 38 passengers and a crew of seven onboard, the flight departed Belize City’s Philip SW Goldson International Airport. It was planned to fly across the Gulf of Mexico, crossing the Louisiana coast, before making its descent and approach to New Orleans International Airport.

Double engine flame out

As flight 110 proceeded along its flight path, it commenced its descent towards New Orleans. Passing through 35,000 feet (10,500m), the flight crew noticed extensive thunderstorm activity displayed on their weather radar on the flight deck of their brand new aircraft.

Alongside some isolated areas of heavy precipitation being displayed on their path ahead, the pilots did what they could to avoid the worst of the storm, flying between the heaviest areas of rain, shown as red ‘weather cells’ on their onboard display.

At 30,000 feet (10,000m), the flight entered thick cloud, and the pilots selected the ‘continuous ignition’ switches for both engines to ‘on’. They also turned on the anti-ice systems to protect the engines from the heavy rainfall and potential icing conditions, which can cause a ‘flame-out’ where both engines lose power.

Despite the crew’s best efforts, however, the aircraft entered an area of ​​the storm and encountered severe rainfall, combined with hail and turbulence. As the plane descended through 16,500 feet (4,950m), both CFM-56 turbofan engines experienced total flame-outs, causing the loss of all thrust and electrical power onboard.

This left the stricten aircraft gliding downwards with neither engine producing either thrust or electrical power. The crew had already selected the thrust levers to flight-idle power setting in preparation for landing just before the flameout occurred.

Attempts to re-start the engines fail

The crew, following standard operating procedures, started the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit as the plane descended through 10,500 feet (3,150m), which managed to restore electrical power and hydraulics to the aircraft, giving the pilots some maneuvering capability but also crucially, the power required to attempt to re-start the engines – using the ‘windmill’ effect of air passing through the fan at the front of the engines to re-start them.

However, although the crew managed to restart the engines, neither produced more than idle power. This resulted in the aircraft having no meaningful thrust and preventing the crew from maneuvering the plane towards New Orleans International Airport.

Attempts to advance the throttles only resulted in overheating the engines, so the pilots eventually decided to shut down both engines to avoid engine damage, or worse still, an engine fire.

Unable to reach a suitable airfield

As the crew realized the grave situation they found themselves in, the first officer transmitted a ‘mayday’ call over the radio to New Orleans air traffic controllers. Despite their best efforts to vector flight 110 towards the airport, the aircraft could not make the distance remaining, given its lack of propulsion at this point.

The controllers offered a potential landing site at nearby New Orleans Lakeland Airport as an alternative. However, with height and airspeed both receding rapidly, the pilots knew that they could not reach this alternative landing site either.

Having abandoned attempts to re-ignite the damaged engines, the three pilots scanned the immediate area off the nose of the aircraft for possible sites for a forced landing. Given the altitude and airspeed remaining, no other hard runway landing sites were available.

Consequently, the crew was facing the unenviable task of executing a water-based landing upon the swampy wetlands of Louisiana.

As flight 110 descended through the lower layer of storm clouds and the clear sight of the ground became possible, the pilots noticed a wide drainage canal straight in front of the aircraft. With the flaps and gear retracted, the crew reluctantly decided to ditch their new plane in the canal.

Captain Dardano lined up with the canal located near an industrial area east of the city. He stretched the glide to try to have it glide the longest possible distance without stalling while the first officer ran through the ditching checklist, configuring the aircraft for a water landing.

Suddenly, the first officer noticed a long grass levee to the right of the canal. A levee is a raised embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river or waterway. This levee was on the grounds of the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, near the Intracoastal Waterway and Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

He suggested to the captain that an emergency landing be attempted on that. Captain Dardano agreed, and he subsequently carried out a successful landing of the aircraft along the top of the grassy levee to the side of the canal, bringing the plane to a halt with distance to spare.

The incredible landing was executed atop a grass strip section of the levee measuring 6,060 feet by 120 feet wide (1,818m by 36m). Miraculously, the aircraft sustained minimal damage in the forced landing attempt, and there were no serious injuries amongst any of the 38 passengers or seven crew members.

The investigation of Flight 110

Following an extensive investigation led by the National Transport Investigation Bureau (NTSB), it was found that flight 110 had inadvertently flown into a level 4 thunderstorm. Water ingestion had caused both engines to flame out during descent with a lower engine power setting. This was despite the CFM-56 powerplants being certified to meet the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards for water ingestion.

The engines were severely damaged by hail ingestion and ice damage, and the number 2 engine (starboard side) suffered additional damage from overheating. The aircraft sustained mild hail damage to its nose and cockpit area, but miraculously, the airframe remained relatively unscathed from its close scrape with Mother Nature.

The NTSB gave the probable cause of the incident involving flight 110 as,

” A double engine flameout due to water ingestion which occurred as a result of an inflight encounter with an area of ​​very heavy rain and hail. A contributing cause of the incident was the inadequate design of the engines and the FAA water ingestion certification standards which did not reflect the waterfall rates that can be expected in moderate or higher intensity thunderstorms.”

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To avoid similar incidents in the future, and following NTSB recommendations, the engine manufacturer, CFM International, modified the CFM-56 engine by adding a sensor to force the combustor to continuously ignite under heavy rain or hail conditions.

Additionally, further modifications were made to the engine nose cone and the spacing of the fan blades to deflect hail better away from the engine core to avoid future potential flame-outs. Lastly, additional bleed doors were added to drain more water from the engine should excessive ingestion incidents occur in the future. You can read the NTSB summary report here.

You can also watch a full feature-length interview with Captain Dardano describing his experiences and the successful outcome of TACA flight 110 below.

Subsequent recovery of the aircraft

Equally as incredible as the ‘Miracle on the Levee’ landing itself was that the aircraft was recovered from its rather unconventional landing site and flew for many more years after the incident involving TACA flight 110.

Initially, it was planned to remove the wings and transport the airplane to a repair facility by barge. However, Boeing engineers and test pilots decided to perform a double engine change on-site. The aircraft was towed overland from the levee to the nearby NASA Michoud Assembly Facility for this to occur.

Having been refueled to the minimum amount required for departure, the aircraft was subsequently flown to nearby Moissant Field Airport on June 6th, 1988, where further repair work was carried out.

Following the repairs and its return to service, the aircraft continued to fly for TACA until March 1989, when it was acquired by Guatemalan airline, Aviateca. According to Planespotters.net, the plane was later acquired by America West Airlines as N319AW in April 1991 before joining Morris Air in January 1993.

Southwest Airlines eventually acquired the aircraft in January 1995 (first as N764MA, then re-registered to N697SW in March 1995). It continued service for Southwest until December 2nd, 2016, when it was eventually retired and placed into storage in Arizona, USA.

Following its remarkable landing and subsequent repair, the aircraft went on to fly for many more years. Photo: Tomas Del Coro via Flickr

Although double engine failures are very uncommon, history has shown that they do occur for various reasons. You can read articles about other examples involving Air Canada, Air Transat, and of course US Airways through Simple Flying. However, with great piloting skills, along with a fair degree of good fortune, successful outcomes can indeed be achieved.

Do you recall the amazing events of TACA Flight 110? How do you rate the crew’s skill against other similar double-engine failure incidents of the past? Let us know in the comments.

Source: NTSB, Planespotters.net, Youtube

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