Copyright 2018 Francey Jesson, The Jesson Press. All rights reserved. (Sharing, reposting, reblogging, and printing of this blog is authorized and encouraged by the author only if the copyright notice is attached.)
Names may have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
WARNING – CONTAINS EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
Catastrophes, Mishaps, & “I did not sign up for this shit.”
After that minor meltdown in the tsunami-warning shack, I pulled myself together, and when the weather cleared enough for crews to safely get into the electrical circuits, that’s when the weather station went to hell. As the crews were re-energizing the runway lighting circuits, something (we never figured out what) went wrong, and the motherboard for the automated weather station got fried.
Fuck. Fuck. FuckFuckFuckFuck.
The automated weather station is aptly named because that is exactly what it does. It collects weather information near the runway that is pertinent to anyone trying to land several thousand pounds of iron on Midway. Without that weather information, however, a commercial aircraft cannot legally land on Midway. With our station out of service, we were potentially right back where we were with the runway lights being out.
Fuck. Fuck. FuckFuckFuckFuck.
There was a back-up plan that didn’t involve the tsunami-warning shack, though. The FAA, and our contract with FWS, required that airport staff be certified weather observers to ensure weather data if the automated system went down. I was certified. One of my three firefighters, Ben, was certified. But the other two firefighters had taken and failed the test not once but two or three times each.
Granted, it’s a dreadfully boring subject and a tough test, but my disdain for airline dispatchers now shifted to the two slackers who’s lack of industry meant 24/7 weather observations now were up to just Ben and me.
I had taken meteorology in college as ground school for my flight training, and hated it back then for being tedious and utterly forgettable. I’d squeaked by with a C. The only thing I had enjoyed about the subject was my instructor, who had worked for TWA (which he called Teeny Weany Airlines) back when Howard Hughes had owned it. He often regaled the class with war stories of Hughes absconding with a commercial passenger jet scheduled for a full day of service so he, Hughes, could spirit a dozen or so floozies off somewhere, and the resulting chaos this caused the airline’s employees.
Back on Midway, I wasn’t thinking much of Howard Hughes or one of my favorite instructors. I was thinking about how Ben and I would manage to submit hourly weather observations, around the clock, for the three weeks it would be before the supply plane, and a new motherboard, could get to us. The only way the National Weather Service can create a forecast is to know exactly what the weather had been doing for at least several hours. That means weather observations, either by a human or a complex set of devices and a computer, have to observe and report that weather every hour, at a minimum. A Special Observation has to be taken when certain drastic changes in the weather occur. Ben and I were in for the longest 22 days of our lives.
I took the 5:00 PM to 5:00 AM shift and gave Ben the other 12 hours. Ben was a firefighter, after all, and he needed to be rested and ready to act far more than I did.
There is a reason why sleep deprivation is a form of torture. I tried to sleep during the day so I could be alert at night, but that’s never come easy to me. I’d worked more than my share of graveyard shifts during my twenties, and had never adjusted well. Now, I set my alarm every hour through the night and did my best to sleep in between.
Being awoken every hour to spend five to seven minutes observing cloud cover and height, visibility, wind speed and direction, precipitation, temperature, and dew point is bad enough. But to submit an official weather observation, you then have to translate it into code, which is like another language.
Weather observation and reporting are a complete pain in the ass under the best of circumstances, and these were decidedly not the best.
The first week wasn’t so bad. The second week was hell. I accidentally slept through more than one of my hourly observations and sent complete fiction into NWS. I didn’t care if the clouds were at 1,000 feet or 2,000 feet. Visibility always looked pretty damn good to me. One of the FWS staff saw how exhausted I was and half joking, half seriously offered to bull doze under the runway so the airport would be no more, and my torture would end. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever offered to do for me.
I did have one particular night that was thoroughly enjoyable, though, and I wouldn’t have given it up even for the entire crisis to have not happened. I’d for some reason gotten a good day’s sleep and was alert and rested for my shift. With energy and nothing better to do, I wandered aimlessly the gigantic terminal building that I’d not yet completely explored.
The second floor had a long and wide central hallway that went the full length of the building. On either side of the hallway were offices of all types, a rabbit’s warren of long forgotten spaces once used by hundreds of service personnel. The commandant’s office had a huge desk, a formal reception area, and several secretarial or aids offices attached. There were accounting and finance, and other support offices. There was a Christian chapel with a fridge full of unconsecrated hosts and a Hindu shrine resplendent in color and still smelling of incense. There was a radio station with a sound proof booth and racks and racks of equipment. There were barracks and other living quarters. And there were rooms for which I had no earthly idea what their function had been. There were vaults on either end of the central hallway, with gigantic doors like you see in banks, and these were the only rooms not accessible, their doors locked years ago and the combinations long forgotten. I spent hours exploring and discovered rooms I’d never seen before, some that had not seen use in decades. Some with only a few mattress-less bunks, almost all showing signs of a leaking roof, neglect, and the birds who had come to be the only residents. In not one room could all the windows be shut. I tried.
It was quiet and I was alone and peaceful in the knowledge that no matter how hulking and forbidding and scary this old building might have looked, I was completely safe and nothing there was frightening or could hurt me. I wondered at those young men and women who had spent months working here during the wars, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam and the Cold War. I was, most likely, the only person awake on the island and the only person in about 100,000 square feet that had once teemed with hundreds of people every day. People who had a mission. People who may or may not have been assigned to Midway by choice. People who missed home and loved ones and probably got a little island fever at times.
The third week of 12-hour graveyard shifts, and I wanted to die. I kept myself going knowing the plane and replacement part were on their way.
And then the glorious day arrived. The navaid tech, Rich, met the plane, speeded the new motherboard off to the weather station shack, and I fell blissfully asleep knowing that for the first time in three weeks I did not have to get up.
The knock on my door woke me up. There stood Rich, looking like his dog had been hit by a truck. The weather station wasn’t working, and he didn’t know why.
It was what I imagine falling feet first down a well must feel like. The floor dropped out and the hands of my mind grabbed and scraped and clawed against slippery smooth walls as I plunged. My head was buzzing and my eyes were stinging as he explained it could be one of three reasons. Either we’d been sent the wrong motherboard, or it was the right motherboard but defective out of the box, or he’d done something wrong and fried it. In any event, the next supply plane and a new part were weeks away. I was ready to fire up the bulldozer myself.
In the end, it was a false alarm. I don’t remember what Rich’s explanation was for why he thought at first he couldn’t fix the weather station. It’s likely I was too far down the rabbit hole at that point to listen or care. All I know is a few hours later he came bounding back to my room to tell me he’d fixed it. I got very drunk that night and slept like a baby.