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WARNING – MAY CONTAIN EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
Catastrophes, Mishaps, & “I did not sign up for this shit.”
There were a few things that happened on Midway that tested my coping skills, both professionally and personally. Since most infrastructure on Midway was anywhere from mildly to wildly decrepit, system malfunctions were common. At least three times, the electrical circuits for the runway edge lighting failed, plunging a quarter of the runway into darkness. The motherboard for the automated weather station managed to get fried. Phones and Internet went down for days and weeks on end, sometimes concurrently with runway lighting failures, making it that much more difficult to notify airlines and pilots who might want to use Midway for an emergency landing.
I had a mission. I had a job to do. My whole reason for being on that island was to ensure that if a plane got into trouble over the mid-Pacific Ocean, it had a safe place to land. Midway is the only safe runway for a thousand miles in literally every direction. If we weren’t at 100%, if the entire runway wasn’t lit, if we couldn’t give accurate, timely field conditions, and if we couldn’t receive a distress call, we weren’t doing our job.
Airports in the real world have system malfunctions all the time. It’s only when the phones go out in Chicago’s tower for five minutes, and the entire air traffic control system goes tango uniform (tits up) as a result for twenty-four hours that it makes the national news. But every airport in the world is made up of electrical, electronic, automated, computer, mechanical and human machines, components, bits, and pieces. None of which are infallible. All of which have a useful life.
By the turn of the 21st century, virtually the entire infrastructure on Midway was decades beyond its useful life. The first serious outage we had was in my first few months. The center section of edge lighting on the runway, about 2,000 feet on both edges, crapped out one night. If the outage had been on either of the ends, I could have kept the runway open with notice that it was, essentially, now shorter than it’s usual 7,900 feet. A runway that is dark in the middle is illegal, so I had to close the entire runway at night.
The airlines went apeshit. Without Midway to list on their flight plan as an alternate, they couldn’t fly straight—essentially—across the Pacific. They’d have to go hours out of their way by hugging the coast of Alaska and the Aleutians to the north, or south to be in range of Johnston Atoll or Wake. Aside from totally screwing up their schedules, it cost a fortune in extra fuel. Within minutes of putting the notice out I was bombarded with emails, phone calls, and pages from frantic dispatchers who had no earthly concept, nor did they give a shit, about the challenges we were facing 1,200 miles from the nearest hardware store.
At a normal airport suffering a system failure, you probably have spare parts in inventory. If you don’t, you have a supplier who can overnight them. Or, you might even have a nearby airport that has the same make and model, and can loan you some bits and pieces. Midway is not a normal airport, though, and it is futile to try to explain this to a disgruntled, anxious, freaking-out voice coming to you from Japan Airlines dispatch in Tokyo. It’s also futile to try to explain to them that my outfit was not a 24/7 shop. I slept, or tried to sleep, in the middle of the night. Waking me up at 3:00 am for an update didn’t get the lights working quicker and only served to piss me off.
It took a few days just to figure out what was wrong. For days, my crew and island maintenance staff trenched and inspected wire until they found the fault. The runway lighting wires were not in conduit, and thus were buried under about eight inches of asphalt in muddy sandy muck that had to be pumped out before the wires could even be seen. It was a dirty, hot, and backbreaking effort, but everyone knew the stakes.
The second outage was not long after the first, but was a piece of cake, comparatively, because we had the smoking gun of a burned and nearly melted edge light that led us directly to the fault. That repair took hours, instead of days.
The third outage was brutal. It lasted for over a week and happened during the winter rainy season, during a torrential storm that knocked out our phones and Internet. I could send fax updates to the frantic airlines using the satellite phone, but at $7 to $14 a minute, sending even a one-page blast email to dozens of recipients cost an arm and a leg. So I would fax one page to my corporate office in Santa Monica, CA, and an angel named Phebe (executive assistant) would blast it out to my world wide list.
My satellite pager still worked though, and the usual bombardment ensued at all hours of the day and night. It was fine when they left text messages, because, aside from waking me up and requiring me to drag ass out to the airport, they came through immediately on the pager’s display, and I could respond easily with the sat phone or a fax. It was the voice messages that made me want to crawl into a ball and cry. To retrieve a voice message sent to the sat pager I had to call a toll-free number and then enter a 12-digit access code. The access code was completely impossible through the sat phones. They were pure sat, and had too much delay to register the tones. But there was another phone on the island, not part of our day-to-day phone system, and not knocked out by the storm.
It was a partially land-based, partially satellite-based phone in the tsunami-warning shack, near the middle of the island. None of us ever paid it much attention. It was owned and operated, remotely, by NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration). The warning wasn’t for us on Midway. It was for Hawaii. By the time Hawaii would get word a tsunami was headed their way, we would have all been under water, along with the shack.
This phone was tough enough to sustain a tsunami and my only shot at returning voice mails.
Even with frequent fax updates, which became increasingly shrill on my end, saying in bold shouting letters WE HAVE NO PHONE AND NO INTERNET SERVICE DO NOT LEAVE VOICE MESSAGES ON PAGER – ONLY TEXT MESSAGES CAN BE RECEIVED AND ANSWERED, there was almost every day some asshole who couldn’t read or didn’t care that would send me a voice message.
In the winter rainy season on Midway, when it rains, it rains sideways. Midway is typically too far north to get cyclones, but it’s not impossible. This particular event had everyone wondering if we’d all be witness to a freak meteorological event that brought one to us.
We didn’t make history, but the storm came darn close and dumped a ton of rain and blew us nearly to smithereens. And there I was, in the middle of fucking pitch-black night, wrapped up in rain gear like Kenny
steering a golf cart being tossed around in gale force wind and rain to the middle of a tiny island to a tiny shack and the only phone that could call the outside world.
Sorta. It may have been partially-land based, but it was still satellite. And it may have been sufficient to send a pre-recorded message to Hawaii over that satellite, but it still had enough delay to make my 12-digit code grueling. Over and over I tried until I managed to get exactly the right timing of all twelve digits to get into the voice mail system. It was so frustrating that one particularly wet and blistery night I screamed to no one in particular in the shack, wiped away tears of anger and sat on the floor wishing a tsunami would actually hit so Hawaii could then tell the world Midway was closed.
I’d had enough.