Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

Secrets Of Johnston Island

An emergency landing on a top-secret base

Permission to land? A fuel leak grounds a Piper Mirage and pilot Bill Cox in the middle of the Pacific.
Majuro in the Marshall Islands has to be one of the world's more remote locations. It's smack in the middle of the Pacific, 1,600 miles east of Guam and 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Until a few years ago, when Mobil stopped refining avgas, Majuro was a standard stop for piston aircraft on the road to Australia, Japan and points in and around Indonesia. I made perhaps two-dozen trips through the Marshalls in the 1990s, flying mostly new Mooneys, Cessna 206s and Piper Mirages to or from Australia and Japan. In case you never heard of the Marshalls, think Bikini Atoll. Does that clarify things?

On one ferry flight eastbound from Sendai, Japan, to Aachen, Germany, (don't ask!) in 1999, I was flying a near-new Mirage with a bladder ferry tank in back. This was my first (and thankfully only) trip with a rubber bladder tank, and I was eager to be done with it. Read on.

I departed Majuro at 6:30 a.m. and climbed out toward the next landfall, Johnston Island, which is almost 1,300 miles away and directly online to Honolulu. Predictable trades were in my face all the way, subtracting perhaps 15 to 20 knots from the airplane's 200-knot true airspeed at FL210. The Pacific was benign on that smooth, clear morning in May as I tracked backwards in time toward yesterday and Honolulu, 20 degrees on the front side of the International Date Line.

Just over seven hours out, Johnston came into view far ahead, partially hidden beneath popcorn cumulus that were beginning to materialize as the day heated up. The Mirage was flying smoothly and happily, and so was I as we tracked on toward Honolulu at 180 knots.

The faint odor of avgas is nearly constant in tanked ferry airplanes, but as I closed on Johnston, the fuel odor became stronger. Within a few minutes, it was obvious I had a leak in the ferry tank, and the odor was becoming overpowering.

I initiated an emergency descent to 10,000 feet, dumped the cabin, popped open the left storm window and leaned forward to breathe the cool Pacific air. Johnston was only 30 miles away now; a rectangular island totally covered by a 9,000-foot runway, hangars and a clutch of suspicious Quonset huts cluttering its surface.


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