12/1/2000 TKK-HNL Continental Micronesia Flt. 956, Boeing 737-824 N25201 "The Island Hopper"
All too soon our stay in Chuuk came to an end. The weather had generally been good during our stay, with only a few rain showers cropping up, mainly in the late afternoons. However, upon ascending from our last dive of the trip on the Betty bomber, we could see rain hitting the water even before surfacing. The rain would continue for the rest of the trip, as would the wind and fog that accompanied it. We struck out for the Chuuk International Airport in the hotel shuttle van at about 9 a.m. on December 1, arriving 90 minutes prior to the scheduled flight time. We checked in fairly quickly and chatted with a couple from Los Angeles who had been our dive boat companions for the past four days while we waited for the plane to arrive from Guam. All of a sudden we heard a loud roar and looked outside to see our 737 execute a missed approach and disappear back into the mist. We were standing near the security checkpoint, and heard on one of the guard's radios that the plane was going back to Guam due to low fuel. This meant 90 minutes flying time back to Guam, refueling and a new crew, and another 90 minutes from Guam back to Chuuk, in all about a four-hour delay. Later during the flight, we talked to a Continental Micronesia maintenance supervisor sitting across the aisle from us who had been on the plane during the missed approach. He told us that the plane had actually touched down before going around. In his opinion, the pilot had touched down long and became rattled, and was basically scared to try the approach again. He was certain there was enough fuel for another, maybe two more, landing attempts on Chuuk. I don't know - better safe than sorry. This supervisor and two others stayed with the flight until Majuro, and got off at every stop to perform some undetermined duty. Our hotel shuttle driver was good enough to take us back to the hotel during the delay, where we had lunch and lounged around for a couple of hours. Finally, Continental Micronesia called the hotel and summoned us back to the airport. This time we watched as the plane touched down (hard, as evidenced by a couple of bounces) and stayed down. I guess this crew had a bit more intestinal fortitude than the previous one. This plane, N25201, was the same one that had brought us to the island the previous Sunday, and we got the same exit row seats as before, complete with the empty center seat. We took off from Chuuk's 6000' Runway 22 and headed for our next stop, Pohnpei. The delay had the unfortunate result of turning our expected sightseeing flight into a red-eye, and Pohnpei turned out to be the only other island we got to see in daylight.
The islands were each about an hour's flight from each other. Our arrival in Pohnpei was startling, but would set the standard for island landings. The pilots really slam the plane down hard at these airports - there's no room here for a nice, gentle landing. We landed on PNI's 6000' Runway 9 and taxied to the terminal. There are no jetways at any of these island airports, so passengers board and deplane via portable stairs. It seems much of the traffic on this flight is intra-island, as the plane substantially emptied at this stop. Few people boarded for the next stop, Kosrae. I exited the plane for a few minutes and watched a fascinating operation, brake cooling. We had noticed several strange-looking fans in the gate area in Chuuk, and had wondered what they were for. The planes apparently brake so hard on landing that the wheels become overheated, so these fans are wheeled up to the main landing gear and are placed against the wheels, thus cooling them.
After about 30 minutes on Pohnpei, we took off from Runway 9 and headed for Kosrae. By this time it was getting darker, and it was well into dusk by the time we touched down on Kosrae, precluding any further picture opportunities. This island has the distinction of having the shortest runway on the Island Hopper route, 5700'. We arrived on Runway 5, and of course hit very hard and decelerated very rapidly. The runway was pretty much surrounded by water. Another quick turnaround here, and another light passenger load to the next stop, Kwajalein Atoll. There was a brief delay that the captain attributed to a problem getting our clearance from San Francisco Center. It seems strange SFO would have authority all the way out here. The clearance problem was resolved quickly, and we departed from KSA's Runway 23.
Two Polish guys who had been diving at our hotel were with us on the Island Hopper, and they had visited Bikini Atoll before coming to Chuuk. Bikini was the site of two major American hydrogen bomb tests beginning in 1946 - the pictures you've likely seen in history books of a mushroom cloud are probably from the Bikini tests. The first test had involved parking a number of obsolete ships, mostly captured Japanese vessels, in the Bikini Lagoon and detonating an atomic bomb over them to see what the effects would be. These effects were, of course, devastating. These two divers saw one ship that was twisted into a partial pretzel shape. Another ship involved in the test is said to have simply vaporized. The WWII aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga was another of the unlucky ships, but the radiation has now worn off to the extent that diving it is possible. This Polish group had done the Saratoga dive, and had the video to prove it. They were nice enough to dig out their equipment and let us watch the footage during this flight segment. There are Grumman Helldivers in the hangar deck in addition to torpedoes, fueling stations and bombs. Other Helldivers rest on the lagoon bottom nearby. One clip of video showed a light bulb that survived the nuclear blast and 50+ years underwater fully intact. The wooden deck didn't fare as well, as anything wooden underwater is eaten by marine worms in short order. The carrier rests at about 200', a depth which requires technical diving skills and a special type of air called Nitrox that helps to avoid decompression sickness ("the bends"). One must also keep a sharp lookout for sharks - the Bikini lagoon is infested with them.
After the requisite one hour flight time and a snack, we arrived at Kwajalein on Runway 6, our first stop in the Republic of The Marshall Islands. This place is dominated by the U.S. military, and forbidding-looking buildings abound. A hangar contained a number of U.S. Coast Guard Huey helicopters, and a darkened Aloha Airlines 737 was parked next to our plane. We were warned that, for security reasons, we could not get off the plane. An armed guard was stationed at the bottom of the portable stairs. Kwajalein is known as the "catcher's mitt", an apt nickname, as missiles are test-fired into the lagoon here from Pt. Mugu, California. After a long wait, two buses pulled up to our plane from the terminal. The first bus disgorged a number of Americans, who, based on their appearance, must have been research scientists. The second bus contained islanders, and between the two groups, the plane pretty much filled up. Fortunately, we kept our empty center seat. Takeoff was on KWA's Runway 6.
Another hour brought us to Majuro, last stop for the Island Hopper before Honolulu, and home to the longest island runway on the route at 7897'. Despite the longer runway, we still had a very firm touchdown. Many of the Americans who had boarded the plane at Kwajalein got off here. It must have been weekend liberty or something. The Continental Micronesia maintenance support crew also got off. They were replaced by a number of islanders, a few people who appeared to be American businessmen, and a small group of Salvation Army officers(?). We retained our empty center seat for the big jump across to Honolulu, a 4-½ hour flight. The former refueling stop at Johnston Island has been dropped with the introduction of the 737-800, so it was nonstop from MAJ-HNL. It did seem a bit odd to be on board a 737 in the middle of the Pacific west of Hawaii. Somewhere during this flight we crossed the International Date Line.
The flight to Honolulu was pleasant. Dinner was served, and TWO movies were shown, although the second movie was truncated by our arrival in Hawaii. I had a couple of beers en route, and was surprised to see Samuel Adams bottles being offered at $2 a pop. Good stuff. We got into Honolulu at about 6:00 on Friday morning 12/1, the same day we had departed from Chuuk - remember, we crossed the International Date Line, gaining a day in the process. This arrival was 3-½ hours off our scheduled 2:30 a.m. arrival time.