The extraordinary story behind the world's emergency landing capital
Bangor Airport, Maine
Pub quiz question: which airport deals with more emergencies than any other?
Let’s think. Well, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta is the busiest (104m passengers a year), but Madeira's airport is renowned for its tricky landing. Or what about the dramatic peaks of the Himalayas that tower around the runways of Paro in Bhutan?
The answer actually feels a lot more mundane.
Introducing Bangor Airport, Maine.
The New England airport, perched as it is on the north-east corner of the United States, is perfectly placed to deal with any emergency situations that arise on aircraft crossing the Atlantic heading west.
And since 2005, BGR (its official code) has handled 1,170 “diversion or emergency type flights”: 22 security related; 709 fuel; 254 weather; 95 medical; and 90 mechanical.
“We get notice while the aircraft is in the air - sometimes from the aircraft direct and sometimes from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) tower,” explains Tony Caruso, airport director since 1996.
“Then we put our plan into place. Emergency personnel. Government agencies. Security personnel. Hospitals, fire, police. All called into action.”
Formerly a military base but still home to the Maine Air National Guard, Bangor is well equipped to deal with any aircraft that needs its help - military, cargo, passenger - in part thanks to its 3.5km runway.
“It’s something really that grew out of our geographical location,” says Tony.
“But we have a good, long and wide runway, our airspace is not congested and we have good support from the FAA. Our infrastructure means we can service any aircraft, civilian or military.”
Bangor’s lack of fame does not match its utility. On top of the unscheduled emergency stops, Bangor handles the refuelling of some 10,000 transatlantic flights a year and is regularly the entry point back into the US for members of the armed forces before they continue their onward journey to bases across America. Many are returning from active service.
But it is its unplanned arrivals that earn the airport its reputation.
In September 2004, it was here that a flight carrying Yusuf Islam - better known as singer Cat Stevens - was diverted after officials discovered he had boarded a plane in London despite being on the US government’s no-fly list.
Mechanical issues have led the likes of Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford to the apron of BGR, while presidents (and presidential candidates) frequent it.
On a Sunday in May in 2001, two international flights were diverted to Bangor within three hours of each other, both caused to do so by unruly passengers from England on trips to Mexico. “Back-to-back diversion are unusual,” an airport official said at the time. All three men, one from the first flight and two from the latter, were charged with disorderly conduct.
BGR's new Gate 3 is now officially open. The additional jet bridge and new seating will help serve growing passenger demand. pic.twitter.com/KUTC9SUtQ5— Bangor Intl Airport (@FlyBGR) January 4, 2017
It is not this day, however, that Tony remembers best.
“St Patrick’s Day, 2007,” he starts. “The whole of the east US was being battered by a blizzard - Boston, New York, Philadelphia airports all closed. We ended up with a ramp full of aircraft. One of those rare diversion emergencies when we had our ramps full of domestic and foreign carriers - that really taxed our personnel and equipment.
“We managed. We had over 1,000 people working and we attacked each airplane as best we could but it really tested us.”
It must be stressful not knowing what sort of situation is going to land on your runway next?
“Every job has its stressful days and moments, especially in this industry,” says Tony. “Then there are days that are somewhat stressful. But it comes with the territory.”
Tony also highlights a day in 2012, when an aircraft from Paris due for North Carolina was forced to divert to Bangor, after a woman on board handed the flight attendant a note in French saying she was “a victim of a group of doctors” and that she had “an object in her body that is out of my control”.
The flight landed and the woman was taken into custody by the FBI, before she was later sent home, with no evidence found of a threat to the plane. “That was an issue of high concern,” says Tony.
“We’ve got a really good system in place here. We’re continually tested. We plan and do exercises, but we’re constantly training every day through our jobs,” he says. “Every situation is unique but we work well with the key agencies.”
He explains how all staff are “cross-trained” so that even the chap cutting the lawn alongside the runway could be on-hand in minutes to provide emergency maintenance to an aircraft.
“It is not uncommon for us to get a call from an aircraft 20 minutes out and be ready to handle it,” he says. “Our staff truly understand the role that Bangor serves the industry. There’s a sense of pride our employees feel. I don't think there's anywhere else in the world like us.”
And what of Bangor’s gentler side?
“We’re the gateway to a beautiful state,” says Tony. “Acadia National Park is our back yard. Maine is obviously known for its sea food, especially lobster.”
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