It was a dark and stormy night, well, it would’ve been in a few hours.
A group of 10 researchers were stranded on a tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific as Hurricane Neki bore down on their tiny speck of coral. Forecasts called for 25-foot waves that would have surely meant their watery doom on the remote Tern Island just 3 feet above sea level.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife called the Coast Guard when they realized their people there were in peril.
“The storm was moving in and they couldn’t get in their with their smaller planes,” said Lt. David Shook, a C-130 pilot from Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii. “The Coast Guard was their last option.”
This was a sticky situation for Shook and his flight crew. The tiny air strip was extremely short and was likely covered in mud that could bog their plane down. Even worse, the island is a bird sanctuary and the threat of bird strikes meant they could easily loose an engine or two. It was already iffy that they would be able to escape from the mud and take off from the very short runway. Losing an engine could be the difference between getting home safe and facing the hurricane on little more than a sand bar. Shook didn’t mince words when he briefed his crew for the mission.
“There’s a good chance we’re going to get stuck,” he told them. “If any of you feel uncomfortable, let me know now and we’ll find a replacement. No harm, no foul.” The response was unanimous, “I’m going.”
The hour-long trip from Oahu went uneventfully. Luckily conditions were still fair when they arrived because they found the runway wet and muddy just as they had worried. This mission was already in serious jeopardy. Shook said if any other factors were going against them he wouldn’t have tried for the landing.
He asked his flight crew over the intercom what they thought. Again the response was unanimous and without hesitation, “Sir, let’s go.” He said their confidence made all the difference. “Having their backing allowed me to make that decision.”
The landing was rough. Several birds hit the plane but they avoided serious damage to their engines.
“We were on the ground for less than 10 minutes,” said Shook. His crew got everyone aboard, surveyed the damage to the plane and readied for take off with lightning quickness. Aside from over-torquing the engines on the extremely short takeoff, they returned to Oahu no worse for the wear. “I couldn’t have done it without my crew. I just couldn’t have.”
The other members of the flight crew that day were Lt. junior grade Phil Ortega, Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Blume, Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Johnson, and Petty Officers 3rd Class Michael House and Case McCrodden. Well done, shipmates!
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