St. Lucia - There's a Hole in the Runway, by Peter Jones (1984)



The airlines flying into St Lucia were always fairly confident that the runway surface at Hewanorra Airport was among the best in the Caribbean.  It had been built during the second world war years on a flat area in the south of the island, to high standards under US/British lend/lease agreements as a transatlantic staging point. It had been only lightly used since the war, mainly for the small number of transatlantic and North American flights, as most local regional traffic through St. Lucia is able to use the smaller Vigie Airport in the north of the island, which is much more conveniently located close to the capital, Castries and the main areas of population and hotels.

So it was with some surprise, one day, that I received a telephone call from my colleague, the manager of Pan Am, asking whether I knew that a hole had suddenly appeared in the runway… 

As our scheduled B747 flight had operated without incident three days previously, and I hadn’t had occasion since to make the 90 minute drive across the mountains to Hewanorra since then, my answer was a surprised and somewhat shocked negative.

We agreed that we needed to assess the problem ourselves without delay, and hired a twin engined Cessna from a local carrier to fly us over the range from Vigie Airport to Hewanorra.  Our pilot carefully avoided the marked area on the runway where the hole had appeared, set down the Cessna and we set about investigating the damage.  The hole was about half way down and close to the centre line of the runway, nearly 2 metres across and 2 metres deep.  There was some evidence of running water at the base of the hole.  We had with us a Polaroid camera, fortunately quite commonly available at the time, and took a series of photos. (Sadly, I no longer have these)

We then attempted to contact the Minister of Transport, but learned that he was ‘off island’.  Our next call was to the Prime Minister, John Compton, whom I knew slightly (this is after all a nation of only some 240,000 people) and he agreed to a meeting that afternoon, where I showed him the pictures, and advised him that we really had no alternative to suspending our services to St. Lucia immediately until the runway was repaired and fully operational again.  As tourism is one of the two  main sources of revenue for the island, he was understandably quite upset.

 I arranged with BA Operations Control Centre in London for them to send out an expert in runway maintenance to offer guidance on the specification for the repair.  It was also necessary to explain the position to the various UK and European Tour Operators and the Hotel Association and help them either to reroute St Lucia booked passengers via Barbados or divert them to alternative destinations.  It was several months before the runway repairs were satisfactorily completed, and St. Lucia’s tourism industry could return to normal.

During the repairs, it was established that the problem was due to an underground river that, until the runway was built, had crossed the runway area at right angles, but during the construction, had been diverted around the concreted area.  Over the years it had regained its original course and had gradually undermined the runway, until one day it broke through, washed away part of the foundations and caused the sudden collapse in the concrete.

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