Surprise jet arrival left lasting legacy in town

30 years ago today Captain Ruben Ocana’s Gulfstream II made an unexpected landing on Mallow Racecourse, Ray Ryan recalls

Surprise jet arrival left lasting legacy in town

THE ground was still damp from a slight overnight frost when Captain Ruben Ocana stepped out of the Gulfstream II executive jet he had landed a short time earlier on the five furlong straight at Mallow Racecourse.

“I will be out of here once the ground dries out,” he told me, but, of course, that was not the way it worked out.

He and his crew were stranded in the town for 39 days as a runway was laid to get the 15-seat luxury jet airborne again.

As the days and weeks passed, I got to know Captain Ocana well. We talked about aviation and military history and shared stories about the cultural differences of his native Mexico and Ireland. It was a friendship that continued to the day he died.

He was well versed in the Irish men who fought for Mexico in the 1846-1848 war against America and how their “Batallón de San Patricio” (St Patrick’s Battalion) was still revered in his country. I still have the rough sketches he drew in my shorthand notebook showing some of their battle terrain.

Captain Ocana even saw the humour of being stranded in Mallow and he captured it in some of the delightful cartoons he drew for this newspaper group.

One shows him standing in a room wearing a belted rain coat, holding a closed umbrella dripping with water and looking at a weather forecast wall-chart depicting more wet weather heading towards Ireland.

The artist’s bubble that he placed above his head in the cartoon showed an image of his luxury £8m jet floating down the Blackwater River in one of Mallow’s famous floods.

Captain Ocana and his crew brought a spark of brightness to the community which was then, as it is now, in the throes of an economic recession. Crowds flocked to the racecourse to see the aircraft and wonder how it was going to become airborne again.

That glow continued long after the adventure was over. Among the visitors was Monsignor James Horan, who was at the time trying to build a runway in Knock to facilitate passenger aircraft.

He visited Mallow Racecourse thinking he would see a gravel path from which Captain Ocana’s plane had taken off. Instead he found a lovely airstrip.

The irony was not lost on the dynamic priest with the beaming smile and Russian-style hat. Mallow, he said, had the better idea — get the jet in first and then build the runway.

Captain Ocana, who later returned to Mallow with his wife and family, never lost touch. He regularly corresponded with the friends he had made there.

He spent his retirement in Mexico painting with water colours, playing music, reading, singing, writing and thinking of Mallow every day. He even painted a passport that stated: “Ruben Ocana – Citizen of Ireland.”

Shortly before he died, aged 81, in 2009, he again recalled for me all the nice memories he had brought back with him from Ireland, especially Mallow, and expressed a wish to return. Sadly, it was not to be.

However, his daughter Marianna, a teacher, honoured her father’s wish in 2010 and came to the town where she was accorded a civic reception by mayor Willie O’Regan and the town council.

She visited the racecourse, where her father landed the jet, met many of his old friends and was made presentations. She thanked the people of Mallow in his name and that of her family for the kindness they had shown to him.

“During his last days at the hospital, he asked me about you,” she told the townspeople. “My father had never come to Ireland before his emergency landing in 1983, but he had great references about Irish people. He knew you were kind and friendly, and here, he confirmed it.”

A safe landing and a warm welcome

Gerard Callanan witnessed the plane landing, at 8:15am, and welcomed the occupants.

THIRTY years ago today, Apr 18 1983, a Gulfstream II executive jet made an emergency landing on Mallow Racecourse, in Co Cork. The unusual events that followed inspired a movie, The Runway, in 2010.

The 15-seater luxury jet had flown the Atlantic from Newark, New Jersey and was headed for Munich, in Germany. Its crew was carrying four businessmen. Strong winds added an hour to its flight time, cutting into its fuel reserves. After a couple of missed approaches to Shannon Airport in Co Clare, which was under heavy fog, the twin-engine jet was diverted to Cork Airport. The captain of the plane, Mexican Ruben Ocaña, knew he did not have fuel to make it as far as Cork Airport, so he was redirected to Mallow racecourse. When he landed, he had only three minutes of fuel left. It was 8.15am.

Gerard Callanan, who owns a service station in Mallow, witnessed the landing. “I was opening up the garage at the time,” he says. “The next thing, I see this plane hovering around. It came around a second time, and I saw it landing. I kind of got a fright. It went down about 10 inches into the ground. It ran for about 100 yards or 200 yards, and the wings hit some of the fence posts. It did a small bit of damage to the wing of the plane, where it hit a concrete post. The internal part of the racecourse was all ploughed for sowing. It was a brownie, black colour. I’d say they thought they were coming down on a desert. They hadn’t a clue in the world where they were.

“The first thing I did was to ring the gardaí ... The next thing, I could see the cockpit opening, and people getting out. I went over then, after a few minutes. The gardaí were arriving at that stage. When the captain of the plane came out, I said, ‘You’re welcome to Mallow’.”

Captain Ocaña and his three crew became intimate with the town. They spent 39 days there, until a temporary runway was installed on the racecourse. They stayed in the Central Hotel, and became minor celebrities. They adjudicated the Rakes of Mallow beauty contest.

Denis Sheehan, who brought the plane’s business executives — among them Emilo Azcarraga-Milmo, the owner of Televisa, Mexico’s largest TV network — to Shannon Airport for their connecting flight to Munich, befriended Captain Ocaña and his crew. Sheehan died two years ago, but his wife, Mary, says: “Denis used to go over and meet them at night, where they were staying, because he used to play a bit of music. He’d take over the accordion. They’d have a bit of session. There was Captain Ocaña and Hermann, his second-in-command. I remember Ocaña had a bracelet on his wrist with a snake made of diamonds.

“We had them over for dinner one evening, and the first thing they did when they came over was to cover the beef in chilly. At that time, we never heard of chillies!”

“About seven years after, we got a phone call from Hermann and his wife. They were doing a bus tour of Ireland and he rang us to know would we meet up with them in Killarney. We went down to Killarney and met up with them.”

Plans to take the wings off the plane and ferry it by road to Cork Airport were scotched. The plane’s insurers, Lloyds of London, and Air Claims of America, insisted on a temporary, 3,000-foot tarmacadam runway, which cost £200,000.

The day of the plane’s take-off, in May 1983, was a gala affair. BTV cameras assembled and 2,000 people congregated. Captain Ocaña spoke a few words of Irish as a farewell. He returned the following year, with his wife and three daughters, for a holiday. He died in 2009, aged 81. His daughter, Mariana, visited in July, 2010.

Callanan, who was among the crowd at the take-off, says “he flew out and came back, and flew out over the runway again to give a salute to the all the people he met that time, to acknowledge the goodness he received in Mallow.”

— Richard Fitzpatrick

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