Dan Rattiner's Stories

Wednesday Night: Emergency Landing of the A380 in East Hampton

Last spring, East Hampton town announced strict new aircraft noise control ordinances at the airport. Aircraft would be ticketed if they landed or took off after curfew. Aircraft emitting high-decibel noise would be subject to further restrictions, even banishment from the airport for repeat offenses. The aircraft companies tried to prevent these new ordinances from going into effect, but failed. In spite of this, people living near the airport have continued pressing for even stricter ordinances. One new group has been formed hoping to shut the airport.  Another group, Dark Skies, met with the Town of Southampton last month to show off new software that will allow local residents to see silhouettes of aircraft on their screens and, by clicking on them, the names and flight information of them. Until now, residents have had to call a particular phone number to register a complaint. Or they have to fill out a multi-page form. Noisy aircraft are long gone before anything is done. The Town is thinking about installing the software.

Nothing, however, compares to what happened this past Wednesday night at East Hampton Airport. At 11:15 p.m., the noise from the largest commercial aircraft ever produced knocked people out of their beds and shook the walls and windows in Wainscott and Sagaponack as it came into East Hampton from the northwest for an emergency landing. It was so loud that no one thought it was an aircraft. They thought it must be an earthquake. And so nobody filed a complaint.

The aircraft that landed was an Air Belgium Airbus A-380, a double-decker affair as wide as a football field and weighing more than a million pounds. Its capacity is 800 passengers, but fortunately on this particular flight only 675 were on board. It had taken off from JFK bound for Brussels, developed electrical problems and was forced to come down at the nearest airport, which was East Hampton.

The three men in the airport tower were just putting things away for the night when the silhouette of this plane came into view. It had no lights.

“The last plane in was a Cessna 32, just before the curfew,” said Assistant Airport Manager Red Barber. “We were fortunate it was not still on the runway when this big baby arrived. And we were fortunate not to have turned the runway lights off yet.”

East Hampton’s runway is only 4,255 feet long, and the pilot made it in by jamming the reverse thrusters to full power as he hit the runway. The plane struggled and bounced along and came to a halt just before the fence and the adjacent Daniel’s Hole Road, which, fortunately, had no traffic at that hour.

“We just stood there in the tower with our mouths open,” Barber said.

Soon, the pilot of the craft climbed down from the cockpit and trotted over to the control tower to check in.

“He spoke English with a really heavy accent,” Barber said. “French, I think. I could barely understand him. The name was O’Leary. Or O’Malley. I don’t think I got it right.”

So the pilot left and soon returned with a co-pilot who had less of an accent and could be better understood. He said that the electric power had gone out on the communications system, which was why they couldn’t announce their approach. It also compromised the navigation system.

“They landed by the seat of their pants, the co-pilot told me,” Barber said. “Everything else was working fine. The brakes, the engines. It was just the navigation and phones.

“He also said this was something they should have been able to fix onboard. Warning lights had come on over Hicksville, indicating that a wire inside the back of the dashboard had come loose. They’d just have to push it back in. But to do that, they’d have to unscrew the dashboard cover and that meant finding the three-millimeter diameter Phillips head screwdriver in their toolbox. But it was not in the toolbox.”

Barber got the airport toolbox and gave the co-pilot what he needed. The co-pilot thanked him, said “this should take us about 45 minutes,” and ran off.

Twenty minutes later, two stewards from first class came up to the tower with flutes of champagne and silver platters of caviar and baguettes. Then another steward arrived to return the special screwdriver. There was a note. MERCI, it said. Ten minutes later, another steward arrived with four passengers from the plane who said they weren’t continuing on and wanted to get back to New York.

“We called Hampton Jitney and they arranged a ride. The co-pilot also told us they needed 2,000 gallons of our very highest-test gas. We have such stuff. It’s rarely used because it’s so flammable, but it can provide huge additional power to an aircraft engine for a short period of time. Apparently, they’d need tremendous power to get off. Coming down was one thing on a short runway. Going up another. I told them to take what they needed.”

The pilot put the aircraft through a full pre-flight check of all systems. It went on for another hour.

“Suddenly, the plane’s lights came on and it appeared on our radar screens front and center. The co-pilot also radioed a request to have our two traffic controllers drive their personal cars down to the far end of the runway, where there is 200 yards of lawn before a woods, drive across the lawn, go to the sides, turn around and shine their headlights back toward the tower. In the plane, they’d be able to gauge how far the woods were as they approached.”

The traffic controllers went off. And then, at 3 a.m., the pilot crept the huge aircraft out to the runway’s end at Daniel’s Hole Road, turned to face the woods 5,000 feet down at the other end, and turned the engines up to full throttle.

“Permission to take off,” the co-pilot requested.

“Flight 466,’ I said,” Barber told me, “‘you are cleared to go. Godspeed.’”

“I don’t know what it was like for my two guys out at the far end,” Barber said, “but as he shifted into first, the enormous engines sent streams of fire out the back and made such a racket the entire control tower shook, sending me sprawling. Back at the window, I watched flight 466 start to move. The tires spun and peeled rubber as they strained to push the big plane along. White smoke billowed off the tarmac and this plane—would our runway survive this?—began to gather speed. It seemed an eternity. I held my breath as it reached the end of the runway to cross the grass, but then the nose came up, and like an enormous dinosaur it was off. Sparks flew, but it just cleared the trees.”

The thunderous noise of the plane roaring over Wainscott and Sagaponack sent shivers through the houses again. Windows broke and dishes and glasses fell off shelves. Again, the residents thought it was the earthquake. An aftershock even stronger than the original. Again, nobody called in a complaint.

The next day, this reporter returned to the airport to meet with Barber. He told me he wouldn’t blame me if I didn’t believe his story. But then he showed me the silver tray and the empty flutes, and he took me out to the grass and the woods at the far end. The tops of the some of the trees had their tops sheared off. The branches and limbs lay all around. Go and see for yourself. It had been THAT close.

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