Monday, June 2, 2008

Landing in Honduras

Rescue workers surround a passenger plane which skidded off a runway at Tegucigalpa airport in Honduras, May 30, 2008.

I've landed a few times at Tegucigalpa, Honduras' airport, and let me tell, you, it can be a hairy ride. There is one runway. From the south, Runway 20, the front end of the runway sits atop a high, steep bluff. It's like landing an airliner on an aircraft carrier, minus the arresting cables. Undershoot and you hit the mountain. Overshoot, and you hit the mountain at the other end of the runway. Approaching from that direction means your glide path pretty much has to match the descending slope of the mountains as you approach on final, like this:


I made that approach in a Tennessee Air Guard C-130, having hitched a ride from Panama to return to Joint Task Force Bravo, based in Honduras' Comayagua Valley, in 1989. Since I was a native Nashvillian, I was invited to make the whole flight sitting atop an upturned tool box on the flight deck.

The pilots, two airline captains back in the States, had decided to tease the air defense batteries of then-Communist Nicaragua by flying three miles plus one hundred yards off its west coast. "There's another one," one would say whenever the panel warning light lit to signify that yet another missile-targeting radar had illuminated the plane. Didn't seem to bother them much, but I spent several minutes peering out the right window, looking for rocket contrails.

Over Tiger Island, at the juncture of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, we banked into a very steep right turn to avoid overflying either of the other two countries. We spent several minutes trying to find a gap in the cloud deck below us. But the deck was solid, so "into the weather" we went. The cloud was thick. We didn't drop below it until we were already on long final to Teguc ("tuh-goose" as we called it). I was looking at the dense gray inside of clouds one moment, and the next I was staring at treetops just a couple of hundred feet below. We tracked the mountainside all the way down, descending probably 3,000 feet while remaining only a couple of hundred feet above the ground all the while.

Last Friday, five were killed when an El Salvador airliner, pictured above, skidded off the runway in bad weather. The wonder is not that crashes happen there, but that so few happen. No doubt the airports' reputation "as one of the most treacherous airports in Latin America due to a difficult approach" puts pilots on the keen, making them treat the landing as less routine than elsewhere. Sort of like the airport at St. Maarten, which ends barely off the beach.