The “tall tale” about a hero in my family that turns out to be true

Carlos Dardano (Facebook)

If your father told you that your one-eyed uncle landed a passenger aircraft after its two engines burned out in the middle of a merciless storm — without anyone getting killed — you’d totally think he was lying, right?

C’mon, tell me you would, because I feel like a pretty terrible daughter right now.

My dad (Italo Carletti Dardano) first told me about my *uncle Carlos Dardano when I was about 12 years old.

My dad saw a kid who was finally old enough to process an incredible story.
I saw a dad who thought I was still young enough to believe a tall tale.

(To be fair, my dad is kind of like the father in Big Fish: full of grandiose stories that push the boundaries of believability.)

The thing is, my dad was not lying. He wasn’t even exaggerating.

Two days ago, this episode of Mayday was uploaded on YouTube.

The episode confirms the following, based on official reports, interviews and eye witness accounts:

  • Carlos Dardano lost his left eye after being shot in the head by guerrillas during the civil war in El Salvador — but despite his impaired vision, he went on to become a certified commercial pilot.
  • On May 24, 1988, Carlos was flying a Boeing 737 for TACA airlines (TACA 110), which was on its way to New Orleans. The plane was carrying 38 passengers and several crew members.
  • During that flight, a violent thunderstorm killed power to both engines. Shortly after the pilots switched on the emergency backup generator, the engines overheated and there was a dual engine flameout.
  • To avoid a catastrophic fire, Carlos shut the engines off again and put the plane back into free fall, while realizing he wasn’t going to make it to the New Orleans airport. He ruled out the possibility of landing on a highway as the air traffic control tower had suggested (and likely killing people in cars and on board).
  • His co-pilot spotted a levee parallel to a canal, and Carlos began a risky maneuver meant for small planes called a sideslip. There was no way to slow the plane, but somehow Carlos avoided a high cement wall and a steep embankment — and made a bumpy but safe landing. No one on board was killed, or even badly injured.
  • “For the first time in history, a 737 without any engines has landed safely outside of an airport.”

Dardano planes (Facebook)

After watching the show, I promptly called my dad and apologized for being such a skeptical 12 year old, and also for forgetting about this incredible tale for so long.

I also looked up my cousin Charlie on Facebook (Carlos’ son who is around my age) and found out two more things: Charlie has some pretty awesome pictures of his dad and their flight school in El Salvador and, luckily, he doesn’t have very strong privacy settings.

I immediately wanted to message him, but I wasn’t quite sure where to start.

Perhaps with: Our grandfathers were brothers. My dad went to school with your dad in El Salvador. Your father’s tale of heroism was so awesome that I refused to believe it for years. (Or, hey, I borrowed some of your pictures for a blog post – is that cool?)

I think I’ll just send him this post and see what happens. I’m actually pretty nervous!

Until then, I urge you all to revisit the flights of fancy from your youth. They may be better grounded than you think.

—————-

*Note: my dad refers to Carlos as my uncle but, to be more precise, he’s my great grandfather’s brother’s son. I’ll attempt to draw this branch of the family tree after consulting with my grandma, Maria Isabel Dardano Gonzalez.

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24 thoughts on “The “tall tale” about a hero in my family that turns out to be true

  1. Dear Fabiola,

    My name is Mike. I’m a retired FAA air traffic controller. I worked at New Orleans International Airport Air Traffic Control Tower/Approach Control from June, 1984 through December, 1988.

    On the afternoon of May 24, 1988 I was assigned to work an afternoon shift in the radar Approach Control.

    At this time, due to privacy reasons, I’ll not disclose the names of the other four men involved with your Uncle Carlos flight Taca 110, I will use a single initial in place of their names to give you the story from the air traffic control side.

    Myself and another controller, “S”, had just signed in for the afternoon in the radar room. There were two radar positions open. One position was working the west side of the airspace, the other the east side. Traffic was fairly light, but there was something going on. We heard the man working the west side, “L”, talking at a high rate of speed and obviously struggling to keep up with his traffic load. The fellow working the east side, “J”, was obviously under some stress. “S” and I were in the back of the radar room and couldn’t see firsthand what was going on.

    Then we heard “J” say, “Understand both engines.”

    “S” and I ran over to see what was going on.

    “S” plugged in next to “L” on west radar to help him with the traffic load. I plugged in next to “J” on east arrival to assist with coordination and figure out what was actually going on. It was a shock to find out that Taca 110 had lost both engines and the meteorological conditions in which they were operating.

    I rang the supervisor back to the radar room and briefed him quickly on the situation. When I say *briefly*, I mean it like this:

    “We have a dead stick Boeing 737, 40 miles east of the field, in IFR weather.”.

    Believe me, that’s all the information he needed at that moment.

    I ran back over to the coordinator position. “J” had offered vectors to the Navy base. It was about 10 nautical miles away for them to fly. There were two problems. One, the Navy base was set up to land Runway 4. I called the Navy tower and told them to change to Runway 22 for an emergency arrival. The tower supervisor balked. I’ll not repeat what i said back to him (it includes my using the F-bomb) but it worked. Unfortunately, the other problem was the weather. Another large area of thunderstorms was building between Taca 110 and the airport. NBG (Alvin Callender Field) was not going to be an option.

    Our next choice was the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. It was about 13 nautical miles west of the flight. I had already called Lakefront Tower and told them to suspend operations for an incoming emergency. The controller over there and I were very close friends. He was also an instrument rated pilot and flight instructor. When I told him what was going on, he knew exactly just how bad the situation was.

    Once again, there were two problems. One, the weather was also building between Taca 110 and the Lakefront airport. The other was the glide ratio of the flight and the distance they would need to fly to get to the airport. Just ahead of the flight crew reporting they couldn’t make the airport, I had told “J” they wouldn’t be able to make it. Our radar turned at a rate of 360 degrees per second. By taking their altitude three times in three sweeps I had calculated their decent rate per minute and factored it with the distance to fly.

    Mind you this is all happening at an extremely fast rate.

    That’s when “J” offered up the possibility of landing on Interstate 10.

    Here’s the background on that seemingly odd offer. New Orleans is surrounded by swamps, canals, and various waterways filled with stumps, trees, snakes, and alligators. There’s just not much solid land. There is, however the Interstate. Something the pilots couldn’t know that we did was that by national law, for every five miles of Interstate (regardless of the Interstate) there HAS to be at a minimum of one mile of straight unobstructed highway. We had called up the radar map showing the local roadways and were trying to see if we could identify a place to land there. We all knew the local roadways, Interstate included. As we were discussing it, I heard the crew say they didn’t want to do that. It was understandable on their part. It was risky, but so was everything else.

    At that time “J” offered up vectors for Lake Ponchartrain. The lake is relatively shallow but is protected by a levee on the south shoreline. Still, it was their desire. “J” gave the crew a heading of 330 degrees. At that time I called the Coast Guard stationed at the Navy base. They had to call their crews out. It took a few minutes, but they did scramble a flight of rescue helicopters.

    We watched as the flight approached Lake Ponchartrain and held our collective breath. The bases of the clouds were reported as 1,600 feet at the Lakefront Airport. We knew they’d be out of the clouds soon.

    At 1,500 feet we lost the transponder information (the data tag that tells us the name of the flight, the altitude, and ground speed). It was then we watched as the plane made a hard turn.

    We all thought the aircraft had stalled, spun, and crashed.

    “J’ sat there and just stared at his radar scope.

    “S” had unplugged from his coordinator position.

    “L” was sitting on west radar and began to cry.

    “S” came over and took the east radar position from “J”

    I slid left and got “L” off west radar.

    The supervisor briefed an incoming supervisor on what was going on and went to start the paperwork for an investigation.

    The damnedest thing was, we had an air carrier down, but no alarm on 121.5 (the VHF emergency frequency).

    The Coast Guard was looking for the airplane, but in the restricted visibility conditions, were having little luck.

    Remember the New Orleans Lakefront Airport I told to hold all their traffic?

    This is how we found the plane.

    Although, for the record, we were second behind the employees at the NASA Michoud facility.

    Lakefront had a BE20 (twin engine turboprop Beechcraft) filed to fly to points east. It was in the airspace “S” was working. He told Lakefront tower to have the BE20 “maintain two thousand feet, fly runway heading”. I had a really good idea and no authority to do it. Being so close to sea level, we could stop the airplane at 1,500 feet. It would keep them below the clouds. If they flew due east from Lakefront, they’d be just about over the Industrial Canal in the vicinity where Taca 110 went down. I called Lakefront tower and told them to do just that even though the airspace was not under my jurisdiction. It didn’t matter to “S”. As soon as he heard it he knew it was a good idea. The BE20 (King Air) took off with the new instructions.

    He was able to see Taca 110 on the levee.

    “S” asked the condition of the scene. The BE20 pilot reported the aircraft intact and “People are running like Hell away from it.”

    I can’t tell you how happy we all were at New Orleans Approach.

    I can tell you this. I was 27 when this happened. I had been an air traffic controller for about four years, radar certified for just over one year. From that day forward, my career would never be the same. The lessons I learned would serve me and aircraft in distress well until I retired from the FAA in April, 2009.

    “J” showed absolute poise under an unbelievably stressful situation.

    Capt. Carlos Dardano and crew’s actions showed me what the phrase “heroic dedication” really meant.

    On the afternoon of May 24, 1988, “J” became one of my role models.

    Your uncle* (as you typed) became and remains one of my biggest heroes.

    I hope someday to travel to El Salvador and shake his hand.

    Please feel free to contact me via email with any questions you might have.

    My email is provided via the “response requirements”.

    Take care,

    Mike

    • Hi Mike!

      I’m sorry for the delay in responding to you. I have been neglecting my blog lately, but I think fate had it right.

      I read your story about the air traffic control side of things on a night that I was feeling very down. Imagining you as a 27 year old (my age, coincidentally!) experiencing a miracle really lifted my spirits.

      You seem to remember all the small details of that incredible day, and I have no doubt that it’s burned into your consciousness forever.

      “We have a dead stick Boeing 737, 40 miles east of the field, in IFR weather.”

      You remember your exact words.
      (I love that you dropped an F-bomb on Navy tower, and I can only imagine what kind of person would need one before extending help.)

      Your description was so vivid — I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to write it all out.

      I, too, would like to meet my uncle someday but even though we share genetics I think you are actually closer to him in a strange way. You’re cosmically tied by the kind of event that makes “life or death” a very real turn of phrase.

      I’m so glad you happened upon my blog. I am grateful to you for sharing your story.

      I’m going to email you this message as well, in case you’re no longer checking the thread here.

      – Fabiola

      • I think it’s totally uncool that he never replied.
        I just watched documentary on National Geographic about the flight with your uncle. They said in the end that both of his kids (son and daughter) became pilots.
        Maybe you should try to contact his daughter, maybe she’ll respond… good luck!

  2. Fabiola! Heard about this story recently from my aunt who is Carlos’ first cousin. Wanted to research the story for myself and found your blog =)…we very well may be related! Reach me at c h e o j e @ g m a i l . c o m, if you’re interested in connecting. Merry Christmas!

    Cheyenne

  3. Wow, small world. I was researching the origins of the name Dardano with my mom, Frieda Margarita Dardano of El Salvador, and got a hit on this blog entry. My mom is Carlos and he’s my cousin. My mom is the youngest daughter of Jose Antonio Dardano Portillo of San Salvador. Actually had the pleasure of having Carlos tell me of his exploits (not only the levee landing but also the lost eye incident) at dinner in DC (Reston, VA to be exact). Don’t feel guilty about not believing the story, I didn’t believe it when I saw it on TV back in 1988.

    • Hi Greg! My dad asks if you’re related to Dinorah and Eugenio? I’m so excited to see a comment from someone else with a connection to this story!

      So cool.

      • Obviously meant to say Carlos is my cousin (not mom as I now realize I wrote…) My mom is the daughter of Antonio and Julia Dardano and sister of Tony Dardano (Tio Tony to me), who in turn is father of Carlos (or Carlitos as my mother calls him). Had dinner with Carlos when he piloted a TACA flight to DC some years ago. Very cool to hear the stories from the man himself.

        • Amazing! And I laughed at the mom thing – I figured you must have typed that one quickly.

          As I mentioned above, my dad refers to Carlos as my uncle (for the sake of simplicity) but, to be more precise, he’s my great grandfather’s brother’s son.

          The oldest living person on my branch is my grandma, Maria Isabel Dardano Gonzalez. She’s 80. I’m pretty sure her dad was Carlos, too. He died way before I was born so I’d have to check with my dad on that.

          Does your family know my grandma?

          My dad (her son) is Italo Carletti Dardano.

          We live in Toronto, Canada. You’re in DC?

  4. Pingback: Time to pay attention to what’s happening in El Salvador | The Fab Files

  5. Thanks so much for sharing your story! I just watched the Mayday episode on YouTube and it was 1 of the best episodes I’ve ever seen. The landing was incredible, it was so good it was almost like it was on a runway. Your uncle is a true hero!!! God Bless you and your family!!!!

    • Danny, your kind words are so heartening! Thanks so much! I am pretty proud to have any small connection to this great story.

  6. I found your blog this past weekend as I researched a new blog I’m putting up on my blog site http://www.jerrybeatyworld.com. The next one will be about a flight to El Salvador on a TACA flight. I ran across and Flight 110 and will be linking that you tube piece on it that you also used. Having a bit of aviation background I immediatly saw what a feat that was. You should be very proud of your family. I think your blog is great and I have subscribed. Keep up the good work!
    Jerry

    • Thanks so much, Jerry! Your site looks great, too. I wouldn’t mind an office in the Bahamas, that’s for sure.

      I’ll be watching your blog, too : )

  7. It’s awesome that you’re related to such a hero! I just saw the episode and decided to google him!

    It would be even cooler if you got to meet your “Uncle” (did you ever do the family tree?)!

  8. I want to commend Carlos Dardano for his airmanship and superior flying skills, HOWEVER (and many will not like this comment) it used to be (I don’t know anymore) that TACA pilots were so over confident and almost had a rebel attitude towards WX avoidance. I know…. I have been in the cockpit with them many times (before 9-11) and remember one time in particular commenting to the Capt. in a kidding tone: “At my airline, we would go around all those red returns in the radar”. his response as we all exploded in laughter (I had to play along) : “ES QUE ESOS GRINGOS SON UNOS GRANDES CULEROS!!!” (Those gringos are a bunch of sissies). My point is simple: avoid the weather, avoid situations like this one! 🙂

  9. my story is that as a young boy wittness antonio dardano flying a bi-plane (crop dusting) going down on a cotton field in el paraisal concepcion batres that was in the morning and he just missed a sugar cane field for about 10 meters at the most as a boy i though it was exiting because the mechanics disassambled the plane and that same day they put it altogether in the hiway it was evening when don tono dardano got on the cockpit and went airborne to take the plane to la danta airstrip not too far from there because of don tono in my mind i had to lean to fly he was my inspiration I did my solo and that was it Hopefully Don Tono told you kids the story

  10. Hi, Fab!

    I used to live just outside New Orleans, and remember the landing quite vividly, and the interviews with your uncle. I was most impressed with his, “it was nothing special” attitude, when, to all those on the plane, and the citizens of the New Orleans area, it was quite special. I was pretty disappointed when TACA/Boeing/FAA wouldn’t let him fly his bird out, but, I also remember the Boeing test pilots that took her off being quite concerned that there could be issues with the flight. Your uncle is quite a man, and is up there with Capt. Sully, and all the other pilots that saved lives in the face of disaster.

    Take care, and Merry Christmas!

    Sam Costanza

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