Keep the Duty Side Down
The Beech 18 in Ponape was down for maintenance and I actually had 3 aircraft in Yap. So I was asked to fly our Beech 18 across so they would have an operational plane for that area. I have never been good at flying more than one aircraft at the same time so I was happy to do it. It was a nice change from my routine. But Cher’s parents were coming out from the States for their first visit to Micronesia and we were looking forward to showing them our new life. They would only be with us for about a week and I didn’t want to be gone for a bunch of that time, so I thought I would start early and hopefully stuff it all into one day. I would be island hopping a distance similar to Los Angles to New Orleans. about 10 hours of flying alone, not counting all the stops. There were some people and cargo to go to Guam from Ulithi but I needed to get fuel in Guam anyway to make it all the way to Truk, (called Chuuk nowadays), and then fuel there to get the rest of the way to Ponape, (now Pohnpei)….It was going to be a very long day. But that would get me there in time to catch the Air Micronesia flight back the next day. I say this because this would push me to make some decisions I could well regret.
All started out well. Flying in Micronesia was as close to island paradise as you can get.
I often found myself shaking my head to see if I was dreaming at the beautiful sights before me, and today was no exception. The colors of the waters around the Ulithi Atoll were shocking in their intensity. Sapphire, turquoise, aqua, deep royal sea blues. It was magnificent.
I fueled and then loaded the passengers, with Victors help, and was off to Guam. Then, after unloading and fueling again in Guam, I was on my way with only slight delays. I didn’t usually fly the route to Truk so I was excited about something new but hey, it is all water anyway so it was pretty much my normal view out the windscreen. Truk is another atoll with a beautiful lagoon, famous for the Japanese fleet lying at the bottom of it. It was kind of their Pearl Harbor, when they lost many ships to the Americans who found them gathered there during World War II. It is renowned as a dive destination, an underwater museum of wrecks with aircraft and submarines and all manner of military hardware. It was also an air base which was still being used as the only place to land. I remember being shocked by it’s roughness the first time we landed there in the “Air Mic” Boeing 727 on our way out to Yap. You are just not used to that level of rattling and jostling in a big commercial airliner, but that was why the airstrip was undergoing a makeover. There was a large construction crew of Japanese and Micronesian laborers with heavy equipment working around the clock to get it back in shape.
While construction was underway, permission to land was required 24 hours in advance. I had received my permit and landed without incident. I requested fuel but the Air Mic plane was landing shortly and it was not first come first serve. I would have to wait. By the time Air Mic had arrived, fueled and departed and they got around to me, the sky was already darkening. It had been a while since I had flown at night, but I was alone and could get current along the way. It had already been a very long day and it would be another 2+ hours to Ponape, but I really wanted to get back to Yap and it was only 2 hours and I was young and foolish and…what could go wrong anyway?
I saddled up, taxied out to the runway and took off in the, by now, darkness. As I broke ground and climbed through 300 feet I entered a bit of rain that I had not been able to see in the low light but I went on the instruments and felt confident that it could only be a little rain shower, as I had seen many stars before I took off.
I came out of the clouds only a minute later and there were the stars above, beautiful in the crystal clear Micronesian sky. It was so clear and wonderful that I thought I could see constellations above me that I had never seen before. In fact, there was quite an amazing long line of stars close together and all in a row. I was sure I had never seen them before in all my life. It was strange. I am a pretty observant person and to have never seen that before….(Something is WRONG!) It wasn’t stars. It was the shoreline with the lights of houses looking like stars in the darkness. I was actually upside down! I looked quickly at my artificial horizon and it said I was right side up. I looked over at the one on the co-pilots side of the panel and it showed I was definitely upside down and going toward the ground and now my airspeed was picking up fast. I rolled the plane over and pulled out of the dive but I was scared. I turned the plane back toward Truk to land. Forget this getting back home soon. I just wanted to get back alive . I called Truk Radio, which I later found out was not even at the airport but in town, and told them I was returning to Truk with a technical problem. He cleared me to land runway 04 and asked what the problem was. I was starting to get ahold of my emotions and calmly said it was only one of my instruments that had failed but I could not continue the flight at night.
As I joined downwind I noticed that construction had resumed and there were bulldozers and graders all over the runway as well as many workers on foot. But they seemed not to have got the message that the plane was returning because it looked like there was mass panic on the ground. All the vehicles from the left seemed to be going to the right and all the ones from the right seemed to be moving to the left. And people on foot were running in every direction. But as I turned onto base leg it seemed to be progressing well toward clearing. Virtually everyone was off as I turned final and the the vehicles would be well clear by the time I touched down. But as I flared the plane my landing lights picked up one lone man running for all he was worth right down the centerline of the runway. He was looking over his left shoulder in wide eyed terror as I closed on him. I thought “Oh no, I am going to have to steer off to the right and wreck my lovely airplane.” But with my brake squealing behind him, he shot off to the left and dived to the ground just in time as I went by him.
I taxied back in and spun the plane around to park for the night as the workers walked toward the plane and they did not look happy. As I got out, so glad to be back on firm ground, the foreman informed me that I had to have 24 hours prior permission before landing on Truk while the construction was going on and I had used mine already! I apologized profusely and told him of my problem so they finally forgave me.
This experience was full of lessons for me. I have often thought that I learn more from my mistakes than I do from doing things right over and over again. It is not an uncommon thing for pilots to have “get-home-itus”, and the chance of the artificial horizon going out right as you go into bad weather is extremely rare, but a more subtle thing that crept up on me was the effect of excessive duty time. It cut deeply into my ability to make good decisions and to handle emergencies. It is hardly ever one thing that makes you have an accident, but rather a combination of factors that contribute to a disastrous event. Casual attitudes do not always go away as you mature in your flying career. In fact, they can get worse and when you are tired, they will sneak right through the filters you have gained through years of good habits and experience. Hopefully, the signs get more recognizable and as you do see cards being stacked up against you, corrective actions can be taken earlier to stop the trend. Sticking your neck out too far in aviation will eventually lead to disaster. By the grace of God I have lived through more than my share of “good stories”. I hope you are able to learn from mine and the mistakes of others because one thing I have learned for sure is you won’t get the time to make them all for yourself.
*The Beech 18 was a World War II light bomber trainer and has the distinction of being the first aircraft flown by Philippine Airlines, Asia’s first and oldest airline. This Beech 18 was modified with a huge cargo door and extended nose for more fuel and cargo. It was a lovely aircraft to fly but this one is sadly at the bottom of the Yap trench which is a story for another time.
In the Grip of the StormWe had a great time in Palau. I had been able to bring Cher and Josh with me and we met up with old friends. Palau has an amazing beauty to it and to fly around the islands is a singular treat to the eyes. The lush “Floating Garden islands” that look like big green mushrooms coming out of the sea and the wonderful coral reefs make it a paradise for divers. I had been down to Peleliu and Angaur airstrips for some flights and now it was time to go back home to Yap. But it was rainy season and the weather was turning ugly. The luxury of Satellite maps was unheard of and we basically only knew the weather at stations around on particular islands. The bigger ones took weather observations. It was not bad in Palau but we were not far out over the ocean before things started getting bad.I climbed to 10,500 in the Dornier DO-28 before I realized that I would never get on top of the clouds. I moved left and right looking for a way around and got around some of it until there was just a long wall extending for as far as I could see in each direction. I went down low, hoping to get into that nice place where you can see around the intense areas of rain like tree trunks below the billowing “leafy” clouds. Finally I was only a few hundred feet above the waves, which were kicking up whitecaps and I was running out of any clear way to go. I have learned a thing or two since then and one of those things is….always leave yourself an out. Well, my back door was now closed and I was not happy. As I looked over at Cher I realized that she was not so happy either. In the back seat Josh continued to smile at me and I smiled back trying to exude confidence, though it was getting harder all the time.After flying for some time and only being able to see down at the waves straight below because of the heavy rain on the windshield I decided to just bite the bullet and climb up to a safer altitude. This plane was really not equipped for serious IFR flying and had only basic instruments for being in the clouds. It had been a while since I had flown on instruments alone as it was not our practice to fly IFR in the islands. But at this point I had little choice. I started a normal climb up into the clouds. This weather was really bad and the thing about thunderstorm type of cumulonimbus clouds is that they are full of cells of updrafts and downdrafts. It will take rain up to freezing altitudes and then down to pick up more water and back up again until you have golf ball size hail even in the tropics. The change in direction is radical as you fly through these cells.Now most planes nowadays have a Vertical Speed Indicator or VSI that indicates up to 2000 feet per minute but this plane had one that indicated to 4000 fpm and I was pegging out the needle at 4000 feet per minute in both directions, first with the nose pointed down and the power back to idle and still climbing. This is not normal flying and I was getting scared. But not as scared as I was when I went out of the updraft into the downdraft. Then I was going down at 4000 feet per minute with full power at climb settings and the nose up with the airspeed just above a stall. At this rate, I thought we would surely crash into the sea in moments, but just then we got into another updraft and we were climbing away with the VSI pegged in the other direction again at an amazing rate. I looked back at Josh and he must have thought we were at Disneyland. He looked like he was on the best ride in the park and he was laughing, having a great time, the complete antithesis of Cher in the front seat with me. Cher was crying now, but it was hard to distinguish the tears from the water that was pouring in through the door seals. On this plane the windshield was incorporated into the door. The door seals had deteriorated over time and now it was as if we were in a shower, completely drenched from head to toe by all the rain coming in. This up and down went back and forth for over a half an hour, I was now up at about 12,000 feet and we would soon be needing oxygen if it continued. I realized that we were not going to climb out of this so I decided to stay as level as I could and kept heading toward Yap.Now I was getting concerned about what to do when I got there, because if it was like this there I was in for trouble getting down. Yap had an NDB approach, which is not really a precision approach but it can get you down to about 700 feet above the ground. By now we were getting close and I pulled out the approach chart for Yap and tried to mentally prepare as water soaked everything. The rain was still so intense on the windshield that we could not even see the nose of the plane 3 feet away let alone any landmarks or the ocean below. There are times in life that drive you to pray. I had no trouble asking God for help, as the situation was beyond my experience level. This storm was more of a typhoon and very wide spread. I was not seeing how it was going to get better.We were now only 10 or 15 minutes away from Yap by my best estimation, although the way the winds were up here I really had no idea how much longer we would be in this storm. I would just have to cross over the Yap NDB before I knew for sure. But as we were praying, with total dark gray on the windshield, we suddenly popped out of the clouds into bright sunshine. I mean suddenlytoo.Both Cher and I had the feeling that we had just been pushed off the edge of a cliff because from 12,000 feet there was a tube of clear blue sky all the way down to the ocean below. And in the bottom of that tube with dark clouds all around was our little island of Yap. Sun shining on it’s white sandy beaches and green coconut trees and as we caught our breath, it was a sight to behold.We circled lazily down in smooth air and landed on the old World War II, Japanese runway, pulling the plane up to the hangar in front of our home. I got out of the plane and bent down and kissed the ground. I think that is the only time I have done that in all the time I have been flying.This flight shaped a lot about my future flying and decision making. It is very easy for a pilot to get going where he is going and think he really needs to get there no matter what. Especially if it is home and he has been away for a long time and he misses his wife and kids. But I decided then that it was better to actually make it home sometime….later if necessary, than die trying to get there. I have lost 3 friends who died in bad weather. I flew over the wreckage of one only 5 hours later in bright blue sky. I wish he had waited.When you are bush flying the big trick to carrying on is to always have an out. You need a place to go if the weather gets bad. You don’t just keep flying and hope it gets better on the other side. That has kept me alive for the last 30 years. It gets easier now with GPS and the ability to have the 10 closest airstrips to your present position at the touch of a button and the heading and distance to each place. Most of the time you can just look out the window in that direction and see if it is really a usable out or not. The ability to sit at your personal computer at home minutes before the flight and have the big picture from a satellite of what weather you will be dealing with and which way you should go, or if you should go, is a huge jump in technology and information. But in the long run you must use your head and make good decisions. Life is like that in many areas and life teaches you if you live long enough, in spite of bad choices, that choosing well is a very good thing.
Dornier DO-28 A-1
The Dornier DO-28 A-1 was a German made plane as tough as a Panzer tank and about as heavy. It has a very unique look with its slotted leading edge and the two Lycoming IO-540 engines and main landing gear out on short pylons that were attached to the front of the fuselage. The windshields were also the doors. It was a great STOL aircraft and was very interesting to fly. We purchased our two Dorniers and lots of spares from Air America. They had bullet hole patches all over them to prove they has spent time fighting! I have had the plane in harsh weather that would have ripped the wings off of any mortal airplane. It has got to be one of the sturdiest planes I have ever had the privilege of flying.
Night Medivac from Ulithi
We got the crackling call over the HF radio that a young boy who had been playing with a machete had fallen and cut his leg severely. We were needed to come and pick him up as soon as possible or he might bleed out before the next day. It was still light, but we could not get back to Yap before sunset. We couldn’t even get to Ulithi before dark so it was going to be interesting. We didn’t do a lot of night flying over the ocean, although we tried to keep current at night. But none of our runways were lighted, which just added to the problems of flying over the ocean in the dark. We arranged to have the one, beat up, rusting pickup on Ulithi to be at the end of the runway shining his lights on the threshold and a couple of motorcycles along the one edge for a bit more directional vision. But there was still apprehension in the air as we got the plane ready for the flight. Jerry Roquemore and I would make the trip in the Evangel together this time, so we would have two sets of eyes and help with loading and taking care of the patient for the return.
We took off with the sun going down behind us for the hour long flight and watched it get darker and darker as we went. Soon it was as if we were being swallowed up in the inky black of a moonless night. As the moon rises it makes a gleaming trail across the sea and it is often so bright that the plane casts strong shadows on the ground below as we climb away from the runway at Yap, every palm tree seen in detail. But tonight there was no such light. Soon the stars came out, but as they did, their reflections in the water below tried to trick us into believing that there was nothing at all but sky in every direction. No up and no down, just space, filled to overflowing with stars. Half the stars were bobbing around a bit in a way that might make you sick if you let it. We knew it was our eyes playing tricks on us but it was still impossible for our minds to make sense of things with no horizon and if we did not trust carefully in our flight instruments to tell us which way was up we would easily end up on our backs, even though it was a cloudless night.
After an hour of this, we saw some lights from huts on the shoreline of Ulithi and breathed a sigh of relief a little later when we picked up the headlights of the vehicles shining down the runway. We flew overhead to check the strip as best we could, then circled around onto final. I made sure the gear was down and set the plane up in a 400 foot per minute decent carrying just a little power as our landing lights reached out, seeking the surface below us in the dark. The runway is a leftover from World War II made of coral by the Navy Seabees some 40 years earlier but it is still in great shape. A testament to the “Can Do” quality of work by the Construction Battalion. We were happy to have our wheels touch down on its rugged surface.
We taxied back to where a crowd of people stood waiting. A man held his injured son in his arms and, after checking to see what we could do to help stop the bleeding, we quickly got people on board and headed back to Yap. It was more of the same; concentrating hard to not believe what our eyes were telling us and rather trust to our instruments in spite of our desire to gaze at the beautifully hypnotic night lights.
Cher had mustered vehicles from some of our friends for our return and was even out on the airstrip herself in our little Honda miniature truck making this landing much easier. In the end, the boy was saved and all was well when we flew him back out to Ulithi the next week. As we were to find out later, in island culture if everything turns out well in a story like this, then there really was not any crisis in the first place and we had all panicked for nothing. So there is nothing really to be grateful for. On the other hand, if the patient were to die during the rescue attempt then we, as the pilots, were the heroes of the day for our valiant attempts in the direst of times and were showered with gifts of beautifully woven lava lavas and carved statues with shell inlaid eyes, lobsters and amazing flower leis. In spite of the lack of hero status and gifts, we were still very glad we had been able to help this young boy in his time of need. To see him running with his friends was reward enough.
Pedro Yamalmai was a wiry old man with graying hair and skin wrinkled up like a turtle from so many hours in the sun. In his thu with his little basket over his shoulder, he was not an impressive sight to see but, as is usually the case, looks can be very deceiving and you are likely to miss out on some very interesting things if you underestimate people. (I like that… under esteem people)
He introduced himself to me at the Ulithi Airport and said, “I am a navigator.” I had heard of these legendary men who could roam the seas without compass or map and I was very keen to learn how they did it. They used other things of course, little things that work without batteries or programs but are rarely seen by most of us. Things you have to be a part of your environment to really notice. The repetition of watching the sky going by, night after night, until the placement of stars is part of your consciousness. . Yeah, sure, they do a lot of it under the influence of tuba, the locally made coconut wine that ferments over night and must be drunk before it goes off. But they usually can still see the sky. This is accomplished in the “drinking circle”, a group of male friends who spend the evenings together talking of the events of the day and solving the troubles of their world as well as passing down the stories that are the history of the island. The funny tales get more humorous and the tragic ones have all of the sharp corners removed by the buzz of the wine. Everyone is equally buzzed in the circle. This is assured by the custom of one man being in charge of distribution. Each man is given a drink in turn from a common cup, which he consumes at his own pace until all have been served. You wait patiently as each man drinks and the conversation flows. This carries on around and around the circle until all the drink is gone. In this way, the joy of spending time with each other can last the whole evening. If one of your company has been detained by a demanding wife or some duty that can not be avoided and comes late for some reason, he is the next one to drink and if the cup has already gone around the circle 4 times, he must “catch up” and gets the next 4 cups. They spend hours each night lying on their backs on the beach watching the stars rotate by them, seeing how everything is related. People and Planets. Stories and Stars. Every detail is memorized by repetition. There is the Southern Cross and Big Dipper for North and South but maybe they would be covered by cloud and you would need something else. If you didn’t know better you might mistake the False Cross for the Southern Cross and miss the little island you were aiming for. It is at almost the same angle and in a similar place in the sky, but to a navigator the little details are significant and must not be missed.
The early navigators would make up songs with directions in them. They have passed this guarded knowledge down from generation to generation to a carefully chosen one or, if you could pay, they might train you. These songs had words that told the star trail to follow in order to get to different islands. It is a slow chanting song that would go something like this:
“If you want to go from Ulithi to Urapik in the season without rain, you take the star directly over the east point of the island when the cross is still on its right side. Follow that star until it is almost directly above your mast. Then you will see another star below and to the left, which is bright and seems to glow red. Follow the red star until it is as high as your mast and the cross is pointing straight up. You will see another star a bit to the right of red star. Follow this star until morning and you will see the island in the sun as it comes up.” The song has many verses and although monotonous, it is the key to a map on a grand scale that unfolds before you in its own time to take you to unknown destinations on a road that is neither visible to you or under you. But like the maps we use with little red or yellow lines showing us the road and how many miles to go before we sleep, the song with it’s directions to all the islands you might have never seen will take you there in the end if you trust to it. One wonders how long and how many mistakes had to be made before this song was perfected.
There is also a way of telling your direction by looking at the water in the bottom of the canoe. It is a smaller version of what is happening in the waves. There are three different sets of predominant waves and if you know your section of the ocean well and if you are very observant, you can see these three sets of waves in miniature in the water in the bottom of your canoe. Line yourself up in relation to them and keep your heading consistent as you sail and it is like a rough compass with a general instead of very precise heading.
The navigators talk of lights in the water that guide them as well. I have never seen this myself, except for the phosphorescent lights that are stirred up sometimes when you walk through the seawater inside a reef or dig your paddle into the water. That is an amazing sight. But the lights the navigators talk of are thought to possibly be a reflective bounce of the sun off of an island or reef. This may be how an island could direct you to itself.
These techniques are not fool proof. Pedro has twice been lost at sea in stormy weather when the sky was covered in cloud. Both times, after days of looking for the way, he set sail for the Philippines almost 1000 miles away. He stayed alive on rainwater or the liquid he got from eating raw fish. After a month he landed at an island around Cebu and had to work there for over a year before he had made enough money to get back to Ulithi. By the time he got back his wife, who thought him long dead, had married his best friend. It is a small island. Everyone realized it was a mistake and after some discussion, his friend gave him his wife back. You might think that this is harsh but in such a small community there is hardly room to hold a grudge or bitter resentment. It has developed over the years to be a non-confrontational society if you are on the inside.
I have never seen people so accustomed to living in and on water. I was once snorkeling with Pedro and I pointed out some eels in a pipe that had been left over from WWII. He stuck his spear in and shot, hitting at least one. They boiled out of the pipe stirring up so much silt that we were totally blinded, but for the wide mouthed eels that swirled out of the murk every once in a while. Pedro was totally calm. I saw some very large teeth very close up! We would find big clams and Pedro would cut them off the coral and open them up and give me pieces to eat while still under water. To him it was no different than being on dry land, but for the need to get a breath every once in a while. We were just gathering things from his garden and eating as we went. We tied our fish to palm fronds and towed them along behind us. When the sharks came to eat from our catch, Pedro just turned and beat at them with the butt of his spear and continued fishing. I, on the other hand, thought of walking on water out of the area. There was so much to learn from this old pro.
I remember taking the family out to the island one weekend and staying in the family hut of Pedro. His wife was very worried about the new electricity they had brought to the island. The generator could only run a light or two for most of the houses and maybe a few freezers for common use, but Pedro’s wife didn’t want anything to do with it. She wouldn’t have that in her house. “What if the light bulb is not screwed in tight enough and the electricity leaks out and falls down on us while we sleep and kills us? Not in my house!” Pedro asked me if this could happen and if I could tell his wife it would be alright if we kept them screwed in well. We were able to help each other. It was a privilege to have Pedro as a friend and to learn from him many of the old ways of navigation and sea survival for which I am grateful. There is a pride in being a connection point in the line between past and future. A wizened older person trusts you, the younger immature person, with the knowledge of ages. I like that process and hope I might get involved in it from the older end of things some day.
When a friend asked me to write about the Evangel 4500 aircraft which I flew in Micronesia for PMA, before we joined MAF and came to Africa, I told him that I had been a pretty inexperienced young pilot then. When I was flying the Evangel my stories were not as much about the aircraft as about me trying to get out of some sort of trouble I had gotten myself into. This is one of those. Hope you enjoy it.
Lost at Sea
Flying over the ocean is a distinctly lonely occupation, even when there are people with you. Vast openness or sameness as far as the eye can see gives you a sense of small on a grand scale. This is especially true when you are lost. I have only been really lost three or four times in my long flying career. Pilots are not supposed to be lost. Pilots are never lost, they are just temporarily disorientated. We don’t have the luxury of Daniel Boone who could say when asked if he had ever been lost, “No, but I was a mite confused for a few weeks one time.” A pilot is on the clock much more than the driver of a boat or automobile who, if out of fuel, will not immediately crash. He has just so much fuel and that is all. Then something very interesting is going to happen. Lostness like that is the whole bunch of fear you would have getting lost for weeks in the woods, distilled down to the time it takes to empty your fuel tank. And yet you can get yourself very well lost in a very short time going the speeds the plane is traveling. I heard a story of a passenger who asked the confused looking pilot where they were. The pilot said, “I am not sure exactly, but we are making very good time.”
Woleai was an island that had not seen an aircraft land since before the end of World War II. It had been a Japanese air base during the war and the Americans had bombed the hell out of it. The runway was totally unusable, peppered with craters over 10 feet deep. But the people of Woleai were anxious to establish air service again. Their only contact with the outside world was the occasional field trip ship from Yap and an HF radio that was used to report the weather and make orders for supplies when the ship was coming. I talked to the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion Seabee’s on our island who did community projects like this throughout the district, and they agreed this was a worthwhile venture. So after getting permission from higher up they arranged a landing craft, (LCU1466), and loaded it up with graders and rollers and front end loaders and shipped off to Woleai, some 370 nautical miles away from Yap. A few weeks later I got the call that they had finished. We made plans to go open the airstrip. I was to take the Seabee lieutenant Mike Schaefer who was in charge of the project with me. We loaded extra life rafts, food and water for the trip. This was new and exciting for me. I would be the first one to land there since the war and there was a big celebration planned.
On the morning of the trip it was cloudy and overcast. Although the plane was ready to go, I decided to wait for a while to see how the day developed. I took my camera and maps back into the house, an afterthought which had been stuck onto the back of the hangar, separated by only a thin wall of wood paneling. I put my camera and all the maps by the back door except for the one with Yap and Woleai on it, which I spread out on the table. Cher made us coffee and we relaxed while the weather cleared.
Flying over water is different than over land. You can track your progress over land by looking at ground references, but all those waves look pretty much the same after a while. So maps are more for the planning portion of the flight than for keeping you on track when flying over water. So I looked over the map one more time, checking my heading and distance for accuracy and just seeing the big picture of the islands in the area.
Micronesia is over 4000 islands covering a huge area the size of the United States, but if you were to squash all the land together it would not even cover an area the size of Rhode Island. This made navigation a very interesting thing in a little airplane with no GPS or even Loran.
The way to navigate using “Dead Reckoning” is to draw a course line on the map between your two points and figure out what the heading is between them. Then you figure out how far it is between the two points and, knowing about how fast the plane flies, you can figure out how long it will take you to do the trip. After taking off you just fly that heading for the correct length of time and you should be at your destination. Sounds pretty simple. Not rocket science. One problem that can change everything is wind. It is impossible to tell its exact strength and direction. Even with a good weather briefing things change rapidly and over the great distances we often flew quite a lot of deviation from course could take place without you knowing.
The weather finally cleared and we went out to the plane to leave. As I checked the Evangel aircraft over one more time I remembered my maps and Camera and asked my lovely wife Cher if she would please get them for me. She dutifully ran off and came back with the pile and I stuck them behind the wall between the cockpit and the cabin area. As we took off we could see that it was turning into a beautiful day. The large clouds were breaking up, leaving only scattered puffs with a few big cottony piles, giving some depth to the endless blue of the sea. There is only the occasional interruption in blue when flying the Pacific and about an hour out of Yap we passed the island of Sorol, the only island between us and our destination.
I turned to get the map out of the back just to double check our position in relation to the island, but to my dismay I could not find the one I needed. It was probably still on the table unnoticed, separate from the pile which I had left by the door. I asked Mike, the Seabee Lieutenant to climb in the back and check if it had slid back where I couldn’t see it. It hadn’t.
Now, as I have said, you don’t always use a map when flying over water. I often flew for week without looking at a map. We talked it over and both decided that since there was nothing else to see between us and the island we were going to and since we had already delayed the day for weather and there was a celebration party waiting for our arrival we would just carry on without the map. “What could go wrong anyway?!”
Well, I will tell you. As we got to the time when we were supposed to be over the island I didn’t even have an island in sight! In my little plane, I couldn’t carry enough fuel for a round trip. I needed to find this island!
When you have been flying the islands for a while your “island eyes” kick in and you start to be able to detect these little dots of land from very far away. Even up to 50 miles away. Not by seeing the island itself, but from the little lens cloud that is formed by air rising and cooling just a little bit as it flows over it. You can get people thinking you have the most amazing eye sight with little tricks like that. But I didn’t even have anything like this to help me as I scanned the whole horizon. I flew on hoping that the little headwind I was into had slowed me down and I was just not there yet. After about 15 minutes of hard looking I caught a little cloud out of the corner of my right eye. Hurray! There it was. I turned the plane to the south shaking my head at being blown off course again. As we approached the island and I could see it better, my heart sank. This was not the Woleai atoll. It was too small and not enough islands. Now I felt I must carry on and see if I could identify where I was. Who knows. Maybe there’d be a water tower with the name on it or something. We approached closer and the smallness of these islands gripped me. There were only a few huts and four or five dugouts on the small pieces of sandy ground.
Now I had a big decision to make. I had no idea where I was. The worry constricted my thinking process down to the tiniest passages of logical thought. Should I just land in the water inside the reef and make sure we were at least found? I circled using up valuable fuel. I started to pray, I can tell you. Lord help me! As I circled, I thought back to the map on my dining room table and tried to bring the picture back to the screen of my mind. Alright, this can only be one of two islands. Eauripik of Ifalik. Either way, if I guess wrong I will be over nothing but water when I run out of fuel. Wait! If it was Ifalik, I would have had to fly right over Woleai. I am almost positive I didn’t do that. But I have done some pretty dumb things today! No, it must be Eauripik. Now if that is so, remembering back to the picture of the map on my table, it would be kind of Northeast from here to Woleai, maybe 45 to 50 degrees. This is not the way to navigate, especially when you are short on fuel. But I took off on the course I pulled out of my hat and prayed that I would make it. By this time my fuel was already getting low; less than an eighth of a tank on each side. This was crazy! I kicked the rudders to watch the needles on the fuel gauges move more. Yes, there was fuel still there. Not much though. I was still doing a lot of praying.
The next time I kicked the rudders there was very little movement on the fuel gauge needles. I was getting very close to empty now. Wait. What was that little cloud on the horizon? Yes! It was the islands. As I got closer I was quite sure that they were the most beautiful islands in the vast Pacific. A necklace of shiny green emeralds surrounded by stunning turquoise and all set in the deepest sea blue that you can imagine. Now, if I could only make it inside the atoll I could land in the water next to one of the islands. I kicked the rudders again and there was no movement of needles. I was getting short of breath. The island with the airstrip was on the far side of the atoll. I could see it now as I crossed inside the necklace. Good. Remember, this is going to be the first landing ever made on this strip since WW II and lots of damage had hopefully been repaired. It is normal to fly over a strip like this to see if it is fit for landing. We sometimes make three or four passes. I didn’t have time for that. I just headed straight for the end of the runway and left the mixture lean, as well as the gear and flaps up till the last minute. On short final, gear lowered and flaps down, I passed over a little sign the Seabees had made that said, “Welcome to Woleai Jon!” I smiled as I pulled the power back and knew that I had the field made.
Everyone on the island was there! It was going to be a great party. I turned the plane around and taxied back to where the crowd was waiting. But as I rolled right up to the dancing, celebrating people both engines quit. I was completely out of fuel. My momentum carried me quietly up to where everyone stood. The Seabees rolled a couple of drums of avgas up to the plane and started fueling. It was as if there had never been a problem, we were never seconds from ditching in the ocean. Everything was fine. I was covered in leis and surrounded by happy people. I was the hero instead of the dummy. Life isn’t always fair. And sometimes that is good.We left Micronesia a few months later and the pilot that replaced me, Jerry Roquemore, was doing the same flight from Yap to Woleai. He was in the Beech 18 which carried enough fuel for a round trip and a good reserve. He got a weather report that their was a 10 knot headwind, but somewhere not too far along the 370 mile trip it switched around to a 15 knot quartering tail wind. When he thought he should be there, he was already miles past the island. He flew on for another half hour before he was sure he must have missed Woleai. Then he turned around into the headwind to fight his way back home. He missed Woleai on the way back as well and when he was still miles away from Yap, he realized he would never make it. He radioed Guam on the HF and told them where he thought he might be and that they only had 10 more minutes in the air.The plane ran out of fuel and Jerry made a good landing in the water. A Beech 18 stays afloat for 3 minutes, as they found out. Everyone was able to get into the life raft before the plane nosed down and went under. Funnily enough, the same Seabee Lieutenant was on the plane with Jerry. Since he was a Navy guy, Jerry turned the “ship” over to him and they spent the next 24 hours in a storm with 20 foot swells. Jerry told me it was the worst time of his life. He never wanted to talk about it.The water activated Emergency Locater Transmitter from the plane was putting off a signal and a C-130 from Guam was able to find the raft and radio its position to a ship that came and picked them up. A good end to the story. Much better than being with the plane at the bottom of the Yap Trench, some 17,000 feet deep. It is the second deepest place in all the oceans in the whole ocean.The Evangel was an interesting design to say the least. It was very boxy. It made for easy repairs with no compound curves except for the fiberglass bits. Its’ skin of sheet metal could be fixed in the field with no special bending tools at all. Its’ 300 hp Lycoming IO-540′s, made it strong and dependable in spite of how Ugly it might have looked. You could put a couple of drums of fuel in it, and that is all. 110 gallons always seemed a bit stingey for flying over so much water. I nearly came short on a couple of occasions. It had a useful load of around 1975 lbs, but I would have traded some of that for space in the fuel tanks.
A Woleai memory:
I remember that some of the houses were built up on floors made of huge brass shells for Japanese warship cannons. In the places where there was lots of movement to and fro they were polished bright from contact with the peoples’ skin. Most of the shells showed evidence that the center primer in the base of the shell had been hit by a firing pin meaning that it was an empty shell. But I was invited into one hut to share some food and as I sat cross-legged on the floor and started looking around I noticed that not all of these shells had been fired! They had used live rounds. It did sit up higher off the ground than all the other houses in the village, but it was an errie feeling being on top of such a large amount of very old explosives. I left as soon as it was politely possible.
Ulithi Atoll was an amazing place. It shone like an emerald necklace in the surrounding satin sea of turquoise blue. I remember stopping in Ulithi for fuel one time on my way back from Guam. There was going to be a wedding on Yap and everyone wanted to go with me. There was a crowd gathered as I opened the door on the *Beech 18 and walked down the stairs. I was given probably 10 leis made out of wonderful smelling flowers. These are not the simple Polynesian ones that are strung together, one flower on another, on a piece of string, but proper Micronesian ones that are multiple strands of finely braided pandanus fiber with the leaves and petals of flowers worked in that are too wonderful to be as short lasting as they are. Each one is a work of art and I was honored to have them stacked up around my neck. The women of the island are weavers and spend much of their time at this endeavor. They make wonderful baskets from pandanus leaves as well as simple baskets out of the coconut palm fronds for every occasion from carrying food or rubbish or their babies or fish or the beetle nut that they chew all the time. They also weave their Lava Lava’s, which are their cloth or plant fiber skirts, and the only clothes that they usually care to wear.
But the leis are my favorite. Everyone wore flowers there. I thought it unusual at first to see big, tough men of the sea with a big red hibiscus flower behind their ear but found myself doing it as well in time. It was a simple enjoyment of the beauty all around us that can change our view of the world into a softer, more likable place. It takes “stop and smell the roses” to a new level of submerging yourself in splendor.
The decision was made that all the women should go on the first load and start preparing the food and taking care of all the other arrangements for the wedding. I would come back first thing in the morning on a second trip for the rest.
It was only me, at the end of the very long day, flying off in the smooth dusky air into the tropical sunset, up to my neck in beautiful smelling leis, with the back of the plane full of women in grass skirts, topless. What a unique life.
Once we were spending a few days on the Chiefs’ island of Mog Mog and I was asked by some of the men if I wanted to go fishing. I am always up for that kind of thing and gladly joined the party. There were about 10 of us. One of the men carried a net and we walked casually along the beach until we saw about 4 sets of shark fins congregated in the water. Then the men got excited and, where most sane men would look for another place to fish, the Micronesian men are not bothered by such things as sharks around their feet and they started to spread the net out. We all stood about 10-15 feet apart, about six of us each holding a section of net up in a line perpendicular to the beach. Where the fish were the water was only about a meter or less deep and six of us walked the net toward where the shark’s fins were. I was second from the end in deeper water, up to my armpits and wondering how this was all going to work.
The other four men walked down the beach to the other side of the sharks and came in a line out into the water on the other side of the fish. They had stones and sticks and started hitting the water and throwing the stones into the gap between them and us. We continued to move toward each other, my group bringing the net around on each end until a circle began to form around the fish. The sharks shot through the gap with great speed. I hear this doesn’t always happen but they were just sand sharks and not big enough to worry about. There were still many fish inside the net. Although I didn’t know it, these fish had been our goal all the time and the sharks were just indicators of their presence.
As we closed the gap in the net the men jumped inside the circle and started grabbing the fish and biting them on the head to kill them. I was encouraged, like a very slow child, to do the same and did so, at first with “very long teeth”. But soon I got into the spirit of the occasion and was grabbing fish quickly, popping their heads in my mouth and giving them a good, hard bite. Then I was told to watch out for the surgeon fish that have razor sharp blades on their tails and can give you a nasty cut. It was all so easy and natural for these men to live with the sea.
We walked back up the beach, very happy with ourselves, with palm frond strings of fish over our shoulders. I felt as if I was in a dream, in a time long ago. The bronze skinned men wearing only the traditional red or turquoise “thu” wrap around cloth, and not a sign of any kind of modern technology anywhere. One of the men started singing and the others joined in. It was perfect. Suddenly I recognized the tune and words of the old cowboy song: “I ride an old paint, I lead an old Dan, I’m gon’ to Montana for to throw the hoolihan.” The incongruity of it all made me laugh out loud and I am sure they had no idea what the words meant, but I joined in with the song that had probably been taught here by some US Navy sailor back in World War II and passed down through the generations. The dream carried on.
Ulithi Atoll World War II- Sent by my brother Steve when he read my story. I count at least 55.
USS Tennessee that my father Richard Cadd had served on as a radarman
It was not always so. I once tried three days in a row to get to Ulithi with my father and mother when they visited us from the Philippines. Friends of ours on the island had made many woven leis and prepared a feast. We were turned back each time by the torrential rain, but finally made it on the third day. The feast had had to be eaten but the Lays were still lovely. I remember my Dad getting out of the airplane and saying, “It hasn’t changed much”. Come to find out, he had been there during World War II as a radar operator on the USS Tennessee, a big battleship. Ulithi atoll had been used as a base of operations for the US and Yap had been a Japanese air base.
I have seen old pictures with 50+ big warships anchored inside the lagoon. In fact, the Japanese had used one of their two-man kamikaze subs to get inside the atoll, full of American ships, and sink a huge tanker ship full of fuel. It still sits at the bottom of the lagoon in about 300 feet of water. The water is so clear that professional divers diving on this wreck have said it is the clearest water they have ever dived in, any place in the world. They could back away far enough to film the whole ship underwater with the surface in sight as well. It is a very rare sight.