Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

Secrets Of Johnston Island

An emergency landing on a top-secret base

While the shore patrol looked on, I went back to the airplane and discovered the source of the leak in about 30 seconds, a cracked, clear plastic fuel line coming out of the bottom of the rubber tank. Fortunately, there was plenty of extra tubing, so I pulled out my trusty Swiss Army knife, sliced a new length, clamped it in place and was ready to continue in about five minutes.

Trouble was, now what? How much fuel had I lost? The 150-gallon rubber tank gave me no clue. How much less bulbous should it be when there are five gallons missing? Twenty gallons? How about 30? The leak seemed so small, I couldn't imagine I'd lost much fuel, but I had no way of knowing for sure.

It was 640 miles to Kauai, 700 to Honolulu. While the Navy had assured me I wasn't in trouble, they'd also made it clear I had to leave. Now.

I made a SWAG estimate of remaining fuel, called the tower and had them put me back on file for Honolulu, and departed Johnston with an uneasy feeling. The plan was to run the fat ferry tank until it was flat, then switch back to the mains and finish the trip with some idea of known quantity.

This time, I climbed up to 15,000 feet and began tracking R584 toward Choko intersection and Honolulu. Before I'd gone far, the depth of my stupidity overwhelmed me. I was crossing the Pacific Ocean, and I didn't know how much fuel I had on board. I punched the mic button on the HF and told San Francisco that I was diverting to Kauai. I turned slightly left, cranked the identifier for Kauai into the GPS, and hoped the wind would be a little friendlier on the new heading.

It wasn't. Instead, the Mirage lost about 10 knots as I plunged on through gathering darkness.

As I closed on Kauai and finally saw the lights of the island appear in the distance, I was back on the main tanks, having long since exhausted the rubber ferry tank. My GPS counted down the miles at a glacial speed as both wing fuel gauges dropped toward zero.

I crossed the coast, spotted the rabbit and followed the lights to the most welcome touchdown I've made anywhere in the world. Nine gallons. That was the answer to the big question the next day. That's about a half hour in a Mirage, and if that seems like a lot, remember that I started the day with 270. When we're in our right minds out on the ocean, we like to land with two hours of reserve.

I'll certainly never make that mistake again. Next time, I'll find some new ones.

Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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