These post-storm aerial views of Hewanorra International Airport in Saint Lucia show how close the water and mud remained to the runway threshold and all along the touchdown zone and (top) the course of the mud-coloured river around the airport. (NEMO pictures)
By Caribbean News Now contributor
LONDON, England -- Under the headline “Terror as Virgin jet avoids disaster landing on flooded runway in dark, storm-hit St Lucia”, Britain's Daily Express newspaper on Tuesday described how a “plane carrying terrified British tourists on a luxury Caribbean holiday came close to disaster when it landed on a runway suddenly flooded with water, mud and debris from a river that had just burst its banks.”
As previously reported
by Caribbean News Now
, a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330-300 flying from Tobago suffered substantial damage to its landing gear when it touched down on a flooded runway at Hewanorra International Airport in Saint Lucia on Christmas Eve. No injuries occurred.
According to reports of the incident, flight VS-98 was on its final approach to Saint Lucia at about 7:40 pm and had just received landing clearance when a nearby river burst its banks from torrential rains and flooded the airport, washing away the weather station and depositing mud and water on the runway. The aircraft touched down on the flooded runway and managed to come to a stop.
According to one report, the entire airport terminal building was flooded with muddy water.
A Google earth graphic showing the river adjacent to the airport, which may have tried to reclaim its pre-diversion route to the sea. (Graphic: AVH/Google Earth)
Pilots of the Virgin Atlantic jet were said to have been given no warning of the night-time flash flood at Saint Lucia’s main airport, where the runway lights had also been obscured, the Daily Express reported.
According to the newspaper, an internal investigation has now been launched by the airline to determine what happened.
A spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic said 18 passengers had been on the Airbus when it landed in Saint Lucia.
In a statement, she added: “Upon landing in Saint Lucia airport on December 24, Virgin Atlantic engineers spotted minor damage sustained to the aircraft. Safety and security is the airline's first priority so an internal investigation has been launched to determine the cause of the damage.”
In response to an inquiry by Caribbean News Now on Tuesday, the duty officer at Britain’s Department for Transport press office, was not aware of the incident or any official investigation but promised to respond more fully to a follow up email.
Virgin Atlantic’s press office was closed for further comment until January 2.
The damaged Virgin Atlantic Airbus landing gear
One unconfirmed online comment suggested that the plane may have hit a large luggage container that had come loose and floated across the runway in the storm. However, one aviation expert contacted by Caribbean News Now
discounted this theory as, he said, the damage would have been far more severe and could have resulted in a major disaster which, he suggested, would have been greatly exacerbated by the contemporaneous breakdown of much as the island’s infrastructure, including emergency and medical services, as a result of the bad weather.
The flooding in Saint Lucia resulted from torrential rains on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when over six inches of rain fell in the space of 24 hours.
The storm caused widespread damage on the island, washing away roads and bridges and killing six people.
According to aviation experts, responsibility for the state of the runway, and the timely reporting of any actual or potential hazards, rests with the airport operator. This information is forwarded to air traffic control for transmission to the aircraft.
Clearance to land indicates to the pilot that the runway is safe to land on and air traffic control must not issue such clearance in the event that a hazardous runway condition is known.
A passenger on Condor flight DE 4258 from Frankfurt to Barbados via Saint Lucia on December 26 reported that the captain of that flight took the precaution of inspecting the runway and asked the fire service to wash the runway clean before taking off again.
One person described as a “bit worrying that the captain had to remind them to wash the runway. Keeping runways clear is usually the airport's responsibility.”
A majority of the Condor passengers reportedly disembarked in Saint Lucia and one passenger asked why was the aircraft allowed to land there and if the Condor pilot was informed of the condition of the runway prior to landing on December 26.
In the meantime, repairs to the Virgin Atlantic Airbus in order to make it airworthy may prove to be problematic since even temporary repairs will need specialist parts, technicians and equipment and may need approval from the manufacturer as, according to one comment, any aerodynamic deviation can adversely affect airflow all the way to the tail surfaces.
Even an empty ferry flight with fuselage panels missing or holed may not be possible, due to further potential damage from slipstream to the remaining fairings.