I'd overflown Nauru perhaps a dozen times. It's almost directly between Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, and the famous Henderson Field at Honiara, Solomon Islands. When I was regularly delivering airplanes to Australia in the '80s and '90s, I often looked down on the small, oval-shaped island, which is 26 miles south of the equator. Its interior looked moonscaped and jagged, like something out of a science-fiction movie. I wondered why on earth (or more accurately, water) anyone would want to live there.
Nauru is a relatively tiny dot in the Pacific. It's only eight miles across and, because of its proximity to the equator, is subject to the vagaries of weather peculiar to the intertropical convergence zone. The world's smallest island nation has a population of just 9,000, one airport, a single 12-mile, coastal highway and, until recently, an economy totally dependent upon, well, bird droppings.
Technically, the mining product is called phosphate, and it's used all over the world as fertilizer. Nice to be known for something, I guess. At one time, phosphate mining provided Nauruans with the Pacific's highest per capita income, along with the world's highest obesity rate (more than 90%). More than coincidentally, Nauru also suffers from the world's highest type 2 diabetes rate, with 40% of the population affected.
For years, when phosphate mining was proceeding apace, the otherwise inconspicuous island was known as the "Kuwait of the South Pacific." There was no income tax, most government services were free and virtually everyone was rich, all thanks to those obliging sea birds.
Trouble was, phosphate was the island country's only resource. The beaches were only fair, so tourism was unlikely; there wasn't much vegetation; and the limited fresh water was provided by an aging desalination plant. In short, there was little reason to visit Nauru unless you were in the guano business.
Mining experts had long warned the government that the supply of phosphate was finite and that it would run out quickly if the country didn't manage it properly. Nauru's succession of administrations ignored the advice and continued to plunder the island's interior, stripping away all vegetation and leaving an uninhabitable volcano-like surface over 80% of the 12-square-mile country.
A combination of corruption, government malfeasance and bad business decisions caused the phosphate to be depleted by the beginning of this century. Today, Nauru is an economic and environmental disaster area. Unemployment is around 90%, and of the 10% who do work, nine out of 10 are employed by the government.
When the country was riding high, it had the obligatory international airline consisting of a number of Boeing 737s. Gradually, as the economy scaled back, Air Nauru (now renamed Our Airline) sold off its jets until there was only one remaining. That one was a 737-300 (VH-RON), and it was famous in the South Pacific. In those days, it flew all over the region, from Hong Kong, Manila and Guam to Nadi (Fiji), Brisbane, Pago Pago and Apia (Samoa), and Honiara.
My chance to fly Air Nauru came 10 years ago. I had contracted to pick up a Fijian-registered 58 Baron in Tarawa, Kiribati, and return it to California. The airplane had been flying back and forth from the international airport at Nadi to a small strip on the island of Vanua Levu, a few miles from a resort hotel. The Air Pacific captain who owned both the airplane and the hotel had decided the job could be done just as well (and a lot cheaper) by the Twin Otter commuter that serviced the island.
Accordingly, I flew an Air Pacific 747 to Nadi, stayed an extra three days to pick up a Fijian pilot's license (hey, it's a tough job) and finally boarded one of Air Nauru's twice-a-week flights to Tarawa.
The airplane was overbooked, but the captain, a friendly Australian, volunteered the empty jump seat in the cockpit. (Remember, this was pre-9/11.) The Boeing looked brand-new; it was completely immaculate inside and out, though the panel betrayed it as an older-generation 737. As it turned out, the sole remaining Air Nauru airplane was totally crewed and maintained by Qantas (out of Melbourne, Australia).
It was the copilot's leg to fly, and the captain and I commiserated about common friends, destinations around the South Pacific and airplanes in general. As we drifted northwest toward Tarawa, looking down from 35,000 feet on a myriad of ring atolls, dazzling coral reefs and the bottomless blue Pacific, I couldn't help but reflect on the differences between my kind of flying and airline travel. The Boeing sailed smoothly with rock-solid stability, cruising far above the occasional weather at 460 knots (compared to my normal 160 to 200 knots). It was relatively immune to the turbulence I so often counted as normal at levels below 18,000 feet.
As we tracked on toward the Kiribati Islands, the captain told me a little about flying for Air Nauru. He had been flying under contract for a few years, and he loved it. He said the airplane was easy to handle and had good short-field characteristics, an important advantage on some abbreviated Pacific island strips. The legs were mostly short and Pacific weather was generally benign, except for the occasional typhoon. The route structure had contracted considerably since the glory days, and he knew most of the approaches by heart, all factors that made the flying comfortable and fun.
Perhaps the most amazing detail about Air Nauru was that the single Boeing was flying an average of 100 hours per week! In fact, it was more like 100 hours in six days, as most of the seventh day was dedicated to maintenance and a 100-hour inspection, usually conducted in Melbourne. (The latter inspection is a requirement for ICAO signatory countries.)
That means the 737 was being operated about 17 hours a day (obviously with multiple crews), six days a week. It took six dedicated, two-man crews to keep the airplane in the air for a full 5,300 hours per year. Now, that's impressive utilization. I put 110 hours on my Mooney last year.
The Baron turned out to be a dud. The ferry tanks and the HF radio didn't work, so I wound up flying back to Nadi the following day and then back home to California while the folks at Tarawa got things sorted out. I returned two weeks later and flew Air Nauru one last time from Nadi to Tarawa, as luck would have it, with the same crew.
As the lightly loaded Boeing leaped out of Tarawa and headed back to Pago Pago, I couldn't help envying the crew their first-class ride across the Pacific. I'd need at least 15 hours the following day to make Honolulu, and by that time, they'd probably be home in Australia or relaxing by the pool at Pago Pago's Rainmaker Hotel. The path not taken.
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 [email protected].