Once, while mowing the grass on the levee of the Michoud Slip, I was overtaken by a rapidly developing thunderstorm. Shifting my tractor into high gear, I crouched low and bounded through the fields to the sanctuary of my truck. Now safe, though drenched to the bone, I marveled at the intensity of this blinding downpour. My excitement of the day was nothing compared to the drama unfolding overhead.
An airliner coming in from Central America encountered this same storm. It makes no difference whether it was a lightning strike or the torrential rain that drowned the fire in the turbines. This became a plane with nowhere to go except down. The pilot radioed his Mayday and prepared to ditch into the Intracoastal Waterway. With their chances of survival essentially nil, I’m pretty sure the passengers and crew were preparing to meet their maker. Descending through zero visibility conditions, what they needed was a miracle. Quickly approaching the end of the road, through a break in the rain, the pilots noticed what appeared to be a runway next to the water. With seconds to go, they changed course toward this miraculous apparition.
Performing a textbook dead stick landing, the aircraft rolled safely to a halt on this much-needed landing strip.
It turns out that what appeared as a runway to these desperate pilots was actually just that, a runway.
Across the slip and less than a half mile from where I started my run for refuge, these most fortunate people landed at the Michoud Assembly Facility. Michoud is known for producing the Saturn V moon rocket booster and now manufacturing the external fuel tank for the Space Shuttle. It has a long history. Built by Chrysler during World War II to build tank engines, it included the largest building in the world, with seventeen acres under one roof. During the war the plant possessed an aircraft landing strip. Unused for perhaps forty years, this strip appears from the ground as an ordinary patch of land. From the air, did this field retain some signature of a runway? Maybe these guys needed an answer.
Within a few days, Boeing inspectors checked the plane out. Everything was fine and this aircraft departed for points unknown.