Title Midway and French Frigate Shoals

Approximately half way across the Pacific Ocean from the West Coast of the United States to Asia lies Midway Island. Before current long range airplanes, Midway was an important fuel stop for military and commercial aircraft, and still serves as an emergency divert field. Its importance as a stepping stone across the Pacific made it the target for the famed Battle of Midway not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even now it is sometimes used as a fuel stop for shorter range aircraft.

Midway Island is a coral atoll. An atoll is an underwater Volcano, which rises closer and closer to the surface as lava belches underwater and cools. When the Volcano reaches the point to where there is enough light enough to support coral, an underwater reef forms. Over time, that reef reaches the ocean surface, and continued tectonic lifting may push the reef above the surface, making one or more islands. Most coral reefs have the circular shape of the top of a Volcano, although usually much of the cone is eroded away.

The French Frigate Shoals

French Frigate Shoals

The French Frigate Shoals come as a surprise after flying over 400 miles of empty ocean from Honolulu.


In 1986, while our squadron of KA-3B aircraft was operating out of Honolulu during a RIMPAC exercise, we took advantage of our open water environment to conduct some navigator training. One series of flights involved flying from Honolulu to Midway Island via the French Frigate Shoals. Since the Shoals have no electronic navigation aids, they would provide a good visual check for our navigators, who would be conducting the flight using only the sextant to get sun position lines, and dead reckoning. The total distance to Midway would be about 1310 nautical miles, a good check on old fashioned navigational accuracy without the use of electronic navaids.

It is not widely known that the French Frigate Shoals, 487 miles west of Honolulu, constitute the western end of the Hawaiian Archipelago. This 26 mile long atoll lies mostly underwater. La Perouse Island is the only bit of lava to project above the surface, and a few coral islands, covered in sand, project slightly and serve as a bird sanctuary.


La Perouse Island projects above the surface.

La Perouse Island is the only big, lava rock exposed at French Frigate Shoals.


Underwater shoals are dangerous.

Most of the reef lies below the surface. With ocean swells passing over the reef, the inattentive sailor is at great peril.


French Frigate Islands.

Here the coral reef just touches the surface.


A sand island on the reef.

East Island is one of the sand islands of the French Frigate Shoals. A make-shift hut is just visible at the edge of the vegetation.The only airstrip on the French Frigate Shoals is visible as the straight beach on the near side of the island.


A hut on a sand island

Several small huts on East Island are used to house wildlife biologists.

Update: October 2018- Hurricane Walaka completely washed away East Island so that little of it remains above sea level.


Inflight refueling

While the navigators navigate, the pilots practice a little in-flight refueling.

title: Midway Isalnd

Pearl and Hermes Atol

About 60 miles east of Midway, the Pearl & Hermes is an almost perfect example of a Pacific Atoll.


Midway Atol

The Midway Atoll has two prominent islands, both of which had runways during WWII. Now only the western island supports an airfield.


Landing at Midway

Just coming over the threshold on landing approach at Midway Island.


Taxiing to ramp at Midway.

As we taxi in, the Gooney Bird chicks show no fear.


The Albatross is a large, long winged sea bird, which is beautiful and efficient in flight. When I graduated from high school in Taiwan and took a freighter back to the U.S. for college, two of these large birds glided beside us for more than a thousand miles. Midway is one of the few nesting sites of the Albatross. Since these birds nest in remote locations where there are no land predators, they have no fear of man nor anything else. In Midway, the birds often nest their eggs on the taxiways and even the runway, requiring the staff to gently remove them and coax them to a more natural location.

While the Albatross is a beautiful soaring bird in flight, even adult Albatrosses are clumsy on the ground, particularly in landing and taking off. They will glide beautifully to almost a stop, but then when their feet touch the ground, they invariably tumble and bounce to a stop. They quickly jump up and look around self consciously, almost daring another bird to make a comment. Hence, their nickname, the Gooney Bird. Their chicks are quite ugly to the untrained eye, but that will change within a season.


Albatross in flight

In 1964, I photographed this Albatross with a six foot wingspan which accompanied our ship for more than 1,000 miles.


Albatrosses rest on the water.

The pair of Albatrosses following our ship would rest on the water and disappear, but always caught up.


Adults fly as the A-3 taxis in.

As the A-3 taxis in, adults soar in circles.


An adult Albatross.

An adult Albatross rests by the taxiway.


A gooney and Don face off.

A gooney chick pays me scant interest.


Midway photo op.

The crew takes a photo op.


For years, Midway Island was a Naval Air Station. In the 90's it became a wildlife refuge and for a time a private company ran Eco tours on the island, flying clients there in a Lear Jet for bird watching, fishing and scuba diving. The old barracks were refurbished and an up-scale restaurant was built. However, clients able to afford the cost were too few to support the operation. The island is now run by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, but cost cuts prevent even volunteers from serving on the island. The airport, PMDY, Henderson Field, is still open to the public and is an important divert field for two engine long range commercial jets who need the option of diverting there in order to meet FAA two engine ETOPS constraints. I flew over the atoll many times on flights between Tokyo and Honolulu. I first landed on Midway aboard a Pan Am DC-6 when I was in 4th grade, returning to the U.S. from Taiwan. My next and last landing there was in the flight depicted in this story, in 1986. On my several Transpacs in the A-3, we always landed at Wake Island, which got us farther across the Pacific.

I have known Navy men who were stationed on Midway with their families for a couple of years. They describe it as a very tight, social community, with a good school for the children, and an abundance of things to do on the water. The fishing and diving are wonderful. Two years was enough, but they would not trade the experience.

I hope that this provides a glimpse into my memories of Midway Island.

Don Webster


Don with A-3

Ready to fly out, Don stands below the KA-3 of VAK-308

The End