St.Lucia - The Wrong Taxiway, by Peter Jones (1983)

What can go wrong, will. On one occasion the incoming 747 taxied to the end of the runway and then, due a misunderstanding between the tower and the flight crew, turned in the wrong direction and proceeded via a long-since disused taxiway which appears to lead in the direction of the airport buildings. When the crew realized they were on an overgrown area that was clearly not the right taxiway, the aircraft stopped.

Unfortunately, the disused taxiway leads only to the former terminal, which is little more than a hut. There was nowhere for the aircraft to turn round. As St Lucia is a small station, there is only a very limited amount of aircraft ground equipment, certainly not a tow truck strong enough to pull a 747 backwards.

With some difficulty, a set of aircraft stairs was positioned and the passengers were able to disembark. However, there was no way to get the high lift loader (used to take off the containers of baggage) anywhere near the aircraft. This meant that the passengers, all 250 of them, had to go to their hotels, having been extensively delayed in disembarking, a tortuous journey of nearly two hours in most cases, without their baggage. Some were understandably fairly mutinous.

A similar number of passengers had already checked in for their flight home, and they too, had to return to their hotels, where arrangements had to be made to check them in again and for them to be accommodated, fed and watered.

Then we had to address the problem of moving the aircraft. Bringing in a tow truck from another island would have taken several days, so we had to find out what was available locally. Through the good offices of the Prime Minister (in a country of 230,000 inhabitants the PM is fairly easy to access in an emergency) we contacted the local manager of the Hess oil terminal. He agreed to make available a couple of large JCBs, they were dispatched to the airport, and the work of recovery began.

Under the guidance of the station engineer, the two JCBs were attached to the main wheel spars and gradually pulled the aircraft back. One problem was that the unused and somewhat greasy surface was covered in some places with light vegetation, and the two JCBs were unable to work in tandem at a constant speed. This meant that they had to keep stopping to readjust their line, but when they stopped, the aircraft continued to roll for a few feet, on one occasion snagging the wing fairing.

Eventually, after many false starts, the aircraft reached the turning circle, the baggage container could be unloaded and the 747 was able to proceed under its own power.

Bonded trucks had to be obtained to transport the passengers’ baggage to the north of the island where most of the hotels are located. However, customs rules dictated that passengers had to present themselves at St Lucia’s other airport, nearer to their hotels, to reclaim their baggage through customs. By this time the mutinous ones were close to apoplexy.

The aircraft was flown to Barbados to be thoroughly checked before being put back into service, and another aircraft dispatched from London to pick up the stranded outgoing passengers whose holiday had been inadvertently extended by two days. It had been an exhausting couple of days.

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