Family of Mexican pilot who landed at Cork Racecourse in 1983 ‘honoured’ his memory is being celebrated
Next month’s Ocana Fest will be a two-day celebration marking four decades since Captain Ruben Ocana was forced into an emergency landing in Mallow
The daughter of the late Captain Ruben Ocana, the Mexican pilot who in 1983 made global headlines after making an emergency landing at the Cork Racecourse in Mallow, has said his family is “honoured” that her father is still remembered with such fondness by the people of the town four decades on.
Mariana Ocana was speaking to The Corkman ahead of Ocana Fest, a two-day celebration taking place in Mallow on April 21 and 22, recalling the dramatic landing and Mr Ocana’s six-week stay in Mallow while a special runway was built so the plane could take to the sky again.
Ocana Fest highlights will include horse racing, aerobatic & drone displays at the racecourse and Mexican themed children’s workshops, musical performances and culinary treats in the town.
One of the more poignant events of Ocana Fest will be the spreading of Mr Ocana’s ashes in a specially commissioned Mexican Orange Blossom bed at the Cork Racecourse.
Mariana said in many ways the moving ceremony will make good an unfulfilled pledge her late father made to someday return to Mallow.
“It is amazing that after 40 years, people in Mallow still remember my father so fondly. Our family is absolutely honoured and thankful for what Mallow is doing through Ocana Fest,” said Mariana.
He could never forget the strong bonds he made with his Irish friends in Mallow. Year by year, he remembered the day he landed as a second great chance in his life
She spoke about the treasured memories her father had of the time he spent in Mallow and the manner in which the local community welcomed him with open arms.
“The way he was welcomed by the Mallow community, received support and friendship and how the amazing people made him feel at home, even though he was more than 5,000 miles away from Mexico, is what he treasured the most,” said Mariana.
“He always felt very thankful for what he received in that wonderful place. He could never forget the strong bonds he made with his Irish friends in Mallow. Year by year, he remembered the day he landed as a second great chance in his life,” she added.
In some way you are making possible one of his last wishes – to come back to Ireland. We know that he would approve of the decision to take his ashes back to Ireland
Mariana said that her fathers last wish before he passed away in 2009 was she get in touch with the people of Mallow and “let them know how thankful he was for sharing those six-weeks in such and amazing place with such wonderful people.”
“In some way you are making possible one of his last wishes – to come back to Ireland. We know that he would approve of the decision to take his ashes back to Ireland and leave part of him in his beloved Mallow,” said Mariana.
She said the decision to come to Mallow was not an easy one to make, particularly as her mother is not in good health and unable to make the long journey.
“But, at the same time, we did not want to miss this wonderful event. My father’s four daughters, sons-in-law and even his grandchildren and some of his nieces will be coming to Mallow. We are all delighted to be coming to share this beautiful and for us emotive event,” said Mariana.
No doubt they too will be given the same warm welcome Mr Ocana received four-decades ago following his dramatic arrival in Mallow.
Recalling the dramatic chain events of April 18, 1983 Mariana said that while her father had flown to Europe on numerous occasions during his career he had never been to Ireland – despite being on his “bucket list”.
Ireland was on (my father’s) bucket list as he had never been there and was intrigued by its people, culture and history – but he never imagined he would do it in such a way
“My father was a very experienced pilot and had never had an incident like this in all his years as a commercial or private pilot,” said Marina.
“Ireland was on his bucket list as he had never been there and was intrigued by its people, culture and history – but he never imagined he would do it in such a way,” she grinned.
On the day he was forced to land in Mallow, Mr Ocana was carrying a number of passengers from New York to Munich, including Mexican media mogul Emilio Azcárraga, who was travelling to meet with FIFA officials for a high-level meeting about the organisation of the 1986 soccer World Cup in Mexico.
While the flight plan had scheduled a refuelling stop at Shannon, strong headwinds added an extra hour to the flight time - with the added complication that Shannon Airport had closed due to fog.
With fuel running dangerously low, Mr Ocana declared an emergency fearing the plane would not make it to Cork Airport.
“My father continued communicating with the air traffic controller in Shannon (Jim Lalor), who played a key role in the happy ending of the story,” said Mariana.
She explained that Jim Lalor, who by a fortunate coincidence had visited Mallow the previous weekend, was not even supposed to be on duty on the day
“It was a case of the right man being in the right place at the right time. When he asked my Dad about his status and location, he immediately recognised the plane was flying above Mallow racecourse and that the only option was to land there,” said Mariana.
“With no time to hesitate my Dad aimed the jet towards the racecourse. He and the crew did not even have the time to tell the passengers to prepare for an emergency landing. When they did, they were already on land,” she added.
The air traffic controller had lost contact with the plane a few minutes before it landed and thought it had actually crashed
Mariana said her “absolutely shocked” father was the last to leave the plane and was surprised to see Gardaí and ambulances were already on the scene.
“The air traffic controller had lost contact with the plane a few minutes before it landed and thought it had actually crashed,” she said.
Some locals had also rushed to the scene, including Dennis Sheehan, who helped transport the passengers to Cork Airport to resume their journey.
Surprisingly, while the incident made instant headlines across the world, news of the emergency landing was slow to reach Mexico.
“Emilio Azcárraga controlled the communication media at the time and he did not want it to make headlines at home, that it was known all around the world, but not in Mexico,” said Mariana.
He didn’t want us to worry about him. He told us that he was fine, in a wonderful place with wonderful people, and that had a lot to tell us when he came back
The Ocana family only knew what had happened a few days later when Mr Ocana contacted his wife when he realised that it was going to take weeks before he could take off again.
“He didn’t want us to worry about him. He told us that he was fine, in a wonderful place with wonderful people, and that had a lot to tell us when he came back,” said Mariana.
She said that while her father was happy to be reunited with his family following his six-week stay in Mallow, “he always missed the Mallow and its wonderful people”.
While he remained in contact with some of the people he met in Mallow, Mr Ocana lost contact with many of them after he and his wife moved in 2001.
However, Mariana said he always told her he would never forget the way he was received by the people of Mallow.
“He always said that following the incident he became 50% Irish and 50% Mexican. He even made himself a passport where he portrayed himself with an Irish and Mexican coat of arms,” said Mariana.
Such was the connection, April 18, was always marked a special occasion on the Ocana family calendar.
Through Ocana Fest we have now found a wonderful connection that I hope will last for many years and generations
Mariana thanked the organisers of Ocana Fest and helping her to fulfil her fathers last wish of reconnecting with the people of Mallow.
Mariana said that while her father left his family with many happy memories, the story of his time in Mallow was “one of the great legacy’s that he could have left us”.
“Through Ocana Fest we have now found a wonderful connection that I hope will last for many years and generations,” said Mariana.
“Once again, thanks Mallow for this wonderful event. On behalf of my Dad I say ‘Mile buíochas Mála’ for receiving him one more time - ‘Beidh Mé Ar Ais’ …… I am back’”.