Copyright 2018 Francey Jesson, The Jesson Press. All rights reserved. (Sharing, reposting, reblogging, and printing of this blog is authorized and encouraged by the author only if the copyright notice is attached.)
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WARNING – MAY CONTAIN EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
Henderson Field Airport when I got there was one remaining but delicately crumbling 7,900 foot runway, an old runway seriously crumbling and converted into a taxiway, a 12-place airplane ramp overrun with vegetation, and a 50,000 square foot terminal building that, had it been in the inner city, would have been the scary abandoned building where the homeless, hookers, and drug addicts hung out.
Very, very vintage everything. Very, very falling apart everything. I stepped into the radio room, took one look at the console and had visions of John Wayne, the mike to his determined yet calmly set mouth, talking down a shot up B-17 Flying Fortress being piloted inexpertly but bravely by the belly gunner, the flight crew shot dead on the cockpit floor. There were navigational aids on the field that were as old as I was. I had at that time twelve years in the airport business, and I was looking at equipment from a different era, an entirely different generation.
There’s Always A First
The first flight my staff and I worked was our C-130 that same day heading back home to Hawaii. I’d been on the island a grand total of about one hour. I fumbled my way through the ancient radios, communicating with my erstwhile deliverers, giving them wind speed and direction, temperature, due point, and barometric pressure. I wished them a good flight, and then that magnificent aircraft, with those great big beautiful engines, rumbled on out to the runway for departure.
But they struck two birds on take off roll and had to abort. They taxied back to the ramp to inspect the aircraft for damage, and luckily, found none. Except the two dead birds. The plane was fine, but the crew was by that time past their allowed workday so they were shipwrecked for the night.
I have never before or since seen a plane buttoned up in so short a time. Post-flight check done, doors secured, wheels chocked, tight as a bug in a rug in no time flat. And Coasties apparently are all Boy Scouts, subscribing to the Always Ready motto, because they were quite prepared to be castaways, with flip-flops, swimming trunks, and—beer.
Our mutual missions complete for the evening, we all in very short order found the bar. Yes, Midway has a bar. Midway, in fact, has three bars. But I only yet knew about the one that night.
Man, can Coasties drink—and they know how to enjoy the moment, wherever that happens to have landed them. I have the highest regard for all our armed forces, my nephew having served honorably himself. But there is a special place in my heart for Coasties that comes from personally witnessing them on the job and seeing them as real people off the job. It’s not something I’d ever had a chance to see. This young flight crew was consummate professionals when the flight was active. They were absolutely all business when the mission was a mission, getting us, their human cargo, and all our crap, safely, courteously, and respectfully, with sirs and ma’ams, to our destination. Once they were off duty, though, they relaxed into the young men of their early to mid-twenties that they were. Loud, laughing, drinking, enjoying an unexpected shore leave on a warm Pacific island with white sand beaches and blue water. I can’t see the Coast Guard colors or emblem, or a C-130 for that matter, without remembering fondly that crew that first deposited me on Midway.
The next day, we all headed back to the airport to launch the Coasties on their way. I had had more time now to take stock of what would be my work environment. What I started calling Operations at the airport was the radio room. Once upon a time, when Midway was still a Naval Air Station, it had had a fully functional air traffic control tower. But in 1997, the Navy shut down what had been a vitally historic station, and transferred the atoll to the Department of the Interior, to be run as a wildlife refuge by the Fish & Wildlife Service. Much of the communication equipment from the old control tower, long since demolished, had been transferred to Operations in the old and decrepit terminal building. Operations had a commanding view of the aircraft ramp, most of the taxiway and the approach end of runway 06. It also had a pretty darn good view of the thousands of Laysan albatrosses—gooney birds—up to nine pounds with six-foot wingspans, soaring slowly and authoritatively over the airfield. This was their island, after all. It had been their island long before man and his machines had ever come ashore.
Man and his machines, such as they were, had come ashore in 1859 when the atoll was discovered by US Navy Captain Brooks, (also sometimes known as Captain Middlebrooks) and then became a US possession in 1867. It was nothing but sand, sea birds, and guano then, but by 1903 a trans-Pacific cable station was established and Midway became a link on the communications chain connecting the west coast of the United States with the Philippines. By the 1930s, Pan American Airlines was using Midway as a stopping point for trans-Pacific commercial air travel. The construction of the naval air facility began in 1940 in response to Imperial Japan.
First Lieutenant George Cannon, the first US Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in WWII, gave his life and earned his medal for, “distinguished conduct in the line of his profession, extraordinary courage, and disregard for his own condition during the bombardment of Midway Island by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941”. The Battle of Midway was fought from June 4 – 6, 1942, and was the turning point for the Allies in the war in the Pacific.
On June 2, 2002, the radios in Operations were a day older than they had been on June 1, and still ancient. I flicked a switch to get the current weather from the automated weather station near the runway. It was transmitting information. That was good, because I wasn’t a certified weather observer, not yet, and could not have given the flight crew accurate, certifiable current field conditions without it.
A little bit of fuel was uploaded and the flight crew did their pre-flight. I had staff out on the runway clearing goonies roosting on the surface and giving me reports of how many and where the birds were aloft and soaring. Ready for taxi and field condition report. Someone turned on a microwave in the radio room to heat his coffee, blew a fuse and I lost all radio contact with the Herk.
Seriously? Ok fine. Plan B. I’ll just scream and gesticulate widely like a mad woman out the window at them. It was a cluster. And it might have been disaster if I could have stopped laughing. I learned quickly that on Midway I’d not be able take anything too seriously. Like water and electricity.
Nothing here was going to be easy or straightforward.