Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

Secrets Of Johnston Island

An emergency landing on a top-secret base

Johnston was the worst-kept secret in the Pacific. Seemingly everyone knew it was America's repository for chemical and biological weapons, and the U.S. Navy was systematically burning them up in furnaces at the southwest corner of the island. The trades blow so consistently across Johnston from Hawaii that the smoke plume nearly always blows straight toward the Marshalls, 1,300 nm away with not even a rock in between. If there was ever an accidental release of chemical or biological agents, it would have plenty of time and distance to dissipate. (Still, traditional wisdom in the general aviation ferry business was never to cross Johnston below 10,000 feet. "Doctor, I have this strange cough…")

For obvious reasons, landing at Johnston was strictly prohibited, unless you had a real emergency. Running short of fuel wasn't considered a real emergency. A Beech Baron A55 on the same route had landed there two weeks before when the pilot's "howgoesit" suggested he'd misjudged the winds and wouldn't make Kauai—the Navy hadn't been sympathetic. With not a drop of avgas on the island, they put the pilot on the first military shuttle back to Honolulu, where he had to arrange for a shipment of two barrels of fuel to Johnston. He then returned, refueled the airplane and continued the trip. Subtract $5,000 from his potential profit.

I dialed up Johnston's frequency and punched the push-to-talk. "Johnston, November 3274B, we're 30 southwest out of Majuro for Honolulu, and it looks as if we have a fuel leak in a ferry tank." Short pause, then, "Roger, 74B, this is Johnston, how may we be of service?"

He doesn't get it, I thought. "Johnston, I don't know how long I've been leaking or how much fuel I've lost. The fuel odor is pretty overpowering," I said.

Long pause, then, "Sir, you have to say the words," came the bored reply.

I relented. "Okay, Johnston, November 3274B is declaring an emergency."

"Roger that, 74B. Altimeter is 30.01, wind is 030 at 12, and active runway is 05. Would you like the equipment?" Still bored.

"Negative on the equipment, Johnston," I said. "I'm okay so far. I'll enter a left downwind for 05."

"I understand, 74B. By the way, we'd suggest you not fly through the plume of smoke coming off the smokestacks at the southwest corner of the island." Hmmm.

I turned tight to avoid the ominous smoke, landed and taxied to the small terminal building where a Jeep full of shore patrol cops was waiting—with weapons. They were friendly enough, but also very businesslike. While a young lieutenant JG was checking my paperwork, another shore patrolman climbed into the Mirage, rummaged around inside for a few minutes, then came out, nearly staggering as he climbed down the bottom clamshell.

"Jeez, he's right sir, he has a bad fuel leak. There's nothing in the airplane," the chief told his lieutenant, shaking his head from the fumes. We could see a constant trickle of fuel leaking from the Mirage's belly. The officer smiled, handed back my license and medical, then said, "Okay, sir, it appears you had a legitimate emergency, but you need to fix it and leave. This is a secret military installation and we have no facilities for civilians here."


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