“You were right about that water thing.”
People often asked me what was the hardest thing about living on Midway. I think they expected me to say something like, “No pizza delivery,” “Island fever,” or “Same people, different day.” (Fun fact–I actually managed to get pizzas delivered to Midway. We had a lot of military “gas and go” traffic. As long as it didn’t impact mission critical, the military would bring us anything. Pizza. Beer. Starbucks. KFC.
The Hardest Thing
The most difficult thing for me about living on Midway was feeling woefully unprepared for an aircraft emergency, or worse, disaster. If you remember from previous posts, Midway is an emergency alternate for trans-Pacific aircraft. Any aircraft in distress, for sure, but primarily ETOPS, which stands for Extended-range Twin-engine Operations Performance Standards. Without getting too technical here, basically our job was to be ready to accept a commercial twin-engine aircraft that had lost an engine. (This 8-minute video explains ETOPS well, in case you’re interested.)
For an airport to be listed as an ETOPS alternate, that airport has to have a certification from the FAA to accept commercial (airline) aircraft operations. Again, without getting too technical that means, among a host of other things, the airport must have an FAA-approved airport emergency plan (AEP.) The AEP covers in excruciating detail how the airport, with help from community first responders, will respond to:
To put into perspective just how detailed an AEP is, mine at Midway was 109 pages, over twenty-two thousand words, and included two dozen exhibits. An AEP plans for the absolute worst, while everyone hopes for the best. “You don’t build the church to fit the regular Sunday congregation. You build the church to fit the Easter congregation.”
Trouble is, to build a church big enough for Easter requires tons of labor, equipment, facilities, and supplies.
Yes, We Have No Bananas
Yeah. We had none of that on Midway. I had three aircraft rescue firefighters at the airport. We had two 16-year old aircraft fire trucks, one that had to stay plugged in all the time or the battery would discharge. FWS had three to four staff, and always a few volunteers. We had one physician’s assistant who ran a three-bed clinic. No blood (no way to test or store donated blood.) About a dozen hits of morphine. And the logistical contractor, depending on which company it was, had 10 to a couple of dozen staff in various positions, one of them a paramedic.
Now, before you jump all over my shit—the expectation was that any plane diverting to Midway on one engine would land safely. That wasn’t MY expectation. It was FAAs. I was scared shitless we’d get a Sioux City. I actually had a nightmare one night of a Boeing 777 cartwheeling down the runway, nose to wingtip to tail to wingtip to nose.
Unlikely? Yes. HIGHLY unlikely. The logical part of my brain knew this. Planes declare emergencies all the time. No, don’t go jumping all over my shit. They have back-up systems that have back-up systems. But if the primary system so much as hiccups, the captain doesn’t say, “Ah. Fuck it. We got two more. Let’s press on.” No, he declares an emergency and points the nose to the pre-ordained alternate. Statistically, almost every time an aircraft emergency is declared, the plane lands safely.
But I have always just been a bit of a Chicken Little. I didn’t want it to happen on my watch. I wanted desperately to rely on my then-15+ years of experience that we really were just a simple country chapel and would never have to be St. Peter’s Basilica. But I wasn’t about to go blowing smoke up anyone’s skirt either.
I had a meeting with the FWS folks to talk about the AEP, why it had to be such a lengthy document, and why I was concerned we’d not be able to carry out any of its protocols if the shit really hit the fan. They didn’t think the sky would fall. So I said, “Ok. You’re right. Let’s just put a tack in the limited medical personnel, the ancient fire trucks, and no blood. We probably won’t need them. But what if a plane makes a safe emergency landing with 300 people on board?
- We had a reverse osmosis system that processed enough drinking water for seventy people per day.
- We had fresh food for (then) twenty-two people and intended to last between supply flights that were anywhere from three to four weeks apart.
- We had an airport with so many gooney birds flying around that planes could only safely land and takeoff at night, increasing whatever time on island for those 300 people (in terms of relief aircraft.)
Don’t worry about it. It’ll never happen.
And Then It Did
My satellite pager went off at about 1 AM. Continental B-777 inbound with one engine out. 299 passengers and crew, plus two lap-infants. ETA just under two hours. I scrambled the island and we all headed out to the airport to get ready.
I’d done this hundreds of times in 15 years. I’ll never forget the first time, my first aircraft alert. I was shaking so hard that I could hardly keep my foot on the accelerator. After a couple of years at SFO, I was watching the news after my shift when the announcer says, “Tense moments at SFO!” I perked up. Oh shit! What was happening? They cut to video of an alert that had happened earlier that day, that I had responded to. Tense? Who was tense? It was nothing! Slow news day.
I was up in Ops talking to the captain when the acting refuge director, Mike, came loping in with his usual aplomb.
“Ok, so what happens now?” he said.
“Well, first of all, he’s going to land safely.” I said.
And he did just that. And then the plane emptied like a clown car. Two-hundred and ninety-nine adults, children, and two babies. The current-resident island population on that night was under thirty people.
We couldn’t get a plane with mechanics out there before dawn, so we’d have to wait until nightfall. The airline was reluctant to ferry out a relief plane for the passengers because it also couldn’t get there before nightfall, and if it turned out the emergency aircraft could be repaired quickly, they’d be taking a big plane out of service for 24 hours, or more, for no reason. And all flights crews have a required rest period that would put any crew out of compliance if they tried to turn things around too quickly.
So we tried to make our guests as comfortable as possible. If the plane could be fixed, they’d be with us for about 24 hours. If not, at least 48. On a rundown island with leaky roofs, not enough drinking water, limited food, no real air conditioning, and 85 degree temps.
After I was done with the flight crew, I went back to my room for some sleep. I knew perfectly well this would be a long haul, and a few winks were essential. Later in the morning, I went outside, and it was like the island was being overrun!
There were people EVERYWHERE! You can’t imagine what it is like to have spent months on an island with a couple dozen people only to have a few hundred show up out of nowhere.
The logistics contractor had set them up in the movie theater and gym. But they ran out of blankets and pillows. They resorted to carpet padding. There were no diapers for the babies, and obviously no formula. There wasn’t really even much milk. There were gooney birds and other birds that would fly or waddle through the buildings. No fans. Hot. Muggy. And they all had to be shown how to get drinking water out of the “village well,” and sparingly so we didn’t run out. Once all the food from the plane was gone, they were directed to the Clipper House, where we ate—capacity?—well, not nearly enough. They had to dine in shifts. There were only seven phone lines off island, so they stood in line in the heat to call home.
Miserable? No. They were happy as hell to not be on the bottom of the ocean.
The mechanic plane got there just after nightfall, and they were able to fix the 777. Over 24 hours after landing, they were on their way.
We had no fresh food left.
Our phone circuits were fried, so we had to rely on the satellite.
The large-capacity reverse osmosis machine was fried, so we had to rely on a small back up that only produced a few gallons a day.
The next supply plane with food, parts, and techs was a couple of weeks away.
Just after the plane had taken off, the acting refuge manager said to me, “Hey, you were right about that water thing.”