The Runway

The town of Mallow, Ireland is home to about 12,000 people, and unless you live nearby or have relatives in the area, it’s unlikely you’re going to stop by for a visit. It’s an industrial town with a handful of factories, and there’s not a lot to do there otherwise; as Wikipedia summarizes: “Mallow has a cinema as well as other community amenities such the Youth Centre and a nearby swimming pool. It also has several gyms. The town also has several pubs and nightclubs.” Most notably, it does not have an international airport, which shouldn’t be a surprise because, again, only 12,000 people live there. If you want to take a flight from Mallow, you have a few options — there are three airports about 50 km (30 miles) away.

Or, if history is any guide, you can wait six or so weeks and maybe the townspeople will build you a temporary runway.

Oh, and you need to supply the plane.

At least, that’s what happened to a man named  Reuben Ocaña in 1983. That April, as the Irish Examiner recounted, Ocaña was captaining a 15-seat private jet from Newark, New Jersey to Munich, Germany. But conditions across the Atlantic made it impossible for Ocaña to reach his intended destination. He tried to refuel at Shannon Airport, about 85 km (50 miles) from Mallow, but fog prevented him from landing there, and was instead redirected to Cork Airport, about 130 km (80 miles) south. But, that was a bit too far from Ocaña’s Gulfstream II. Ocaña and his crew made an emergency landing on a rarely-used racetrack in Mallow, safely bringing the plane back to Earth with only minor damage.

The immediate disaster was averted but a new one emerged: The Gulfstream — an expensive vehicle designed to shuttle rich people across long distances — was stuck in the middle of nowhere, Ireland. Ocaña’s passengers were able to get a car to take them to an airport and ultimately to Munich, but Ocaña (and perhaps some of his crew) stayed behind to figure out how to get the jet out of Mallow. While it was still airworthy, you can’t just drive a jet plane on country roads to an airport 30 miles away, and similarly, the plane is too big to tow that distance. Ocaña and his employer considered taking the plane apart and transporting it, piece by piece, back to who-knows-where for reassembly. And for a moment that seemed to be the only option. But while the people of Malow could have left the pilot to fend for himself, they instead showed unusual kindness and agreed to turn the emergency landing into a new economic opportunity during a recession: they built him a new runway.

At a cost of about $200,000 in today’s dollars — funded by Ocaña’s insurance company as it was cheaper than taking the plane apart and rebuilding it — the citizens of Mallow built a 3,000-foot tarmac intended for one-time use, according to the Independent and as seen above. The construction took 39 days from the moment Ocaña landed, during which time the pilot became a local hero — he was selected to be a judge of a local beauty pageant — and Mallow became his adopted home away from home. On the day of his departure, most of the town came out to the runway they built to see him off, waving as he took the Gulfstream back to Mexico.

The runway, for a while afterward, was used by the locals to help teach people how to drive — as a long, paved area not connected to the regular traffic patterns, it was a great place to do so, safely. And while the tarmac doesn’t service commercial flights, it’s used — occasionally — for airshows and the like.

Bonus fact: Ten years after Ocaña’s flight didn’t make it to Shannon Airport, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s plane almost suffered a similar fate — but bad weather wasn’t to blame. Yeltsin was en route to make a diplomatic visit to Ireland — his first — and the Irish prime minister and his entourage were at Shannon Airport to greet Yeltsin when he disembarked. But as the BBC reported, the prime minister and his party “stood while his plane inexplicably circled Shannon airport for an hour, and for another 15 minutes after it landed, before they were told the president was too tired, and then too ill, to see them.” Yeltsin, who was widely rumored to have a significant drinking problem, was widely believed to have been drunk, and as the BBC later reported, “the phrase ‘circling over Shannon’ briefly became a euphemism in Ireland for trying desperately to sober up before an important event.”

From the Archives: The Never-Built Airport That Was Never Intended to be Used Anyway: The opposite of Mallow’s runway?