Another great story from John Lamming
*** Updated 18 Apr 2019 ***
Tarawa, is an atoll 1800 miles to the south west of Honolulu and in the days of the British Empire, was the administrative centre of the Gilbert and Ellice islands. The Gilberts are a chain of coral atolls stretching from just north of the equator to 500 miles to the south-east. Beyond the most southerly of these islands are the Ellice Islands, and together these groups were known in 1943 as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.
Tarawa atoll is made up of 25 small islands, and the coral reef passageway between them is dry at low tide, so that it is possible to walk from one to another. The most important of the 25 islands of Tarawa is Betio. Before the war, British officials maintained their headquarters at Betio. Burns Philp, the British south seas trading company, had a warehouse there and maintained a commercial radio station. The total area of Betio is less than one square mile.
In early 1942, the Japanese invaded Tarawa and built an airstrip on Betio. They had already occupied the Marshall Islands 400 miles to the north. Their purpose was to cut the Allied shipping and air routes from the USA to Australia and New Zealand. Bombers from Tarawa could range towards Fiji and the Samoa, while the Tarawa lagoon was deep enough to enable Japanese warships to anchor and resupply.
This threat to the supply routes was very dangerous to the Allied war effort in the Central Pacific, because American forces using Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia needed major supply bases for the forthcoming counter attack after the surprise Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The decision was made to recapture Tarawa and its vital airstrip, and in November 1943, United States marines landed on the beaches of Betio.
The 4,000 Japanese defenders fought to the last man after three days of vicious fighting. The US marines also sustained heavy casualties, particularly during the first few hours when they were exposed to heavy fire on the invasion beaches. Betio was flattened by shelling from battleships, and when the last pockets of Japanese resistance were wiped out, bulldozers were used to bury the dead. To this day, the debris of war is still occasionally unearthed during housing construction.
Eventually the Gilbert Islands obtained their Independence, and were re-named the Republic of Kiribati. Betio had been cleaned up after the war, with explosives experts from Britain, Australia and America dealing with the tons of unexploded mortar bombs, naval, and artillery shells that had been bulldozed into the remains of the island. The runway was reclaimed for housing, and with a high birthrate Betio is now an overpopulated slum area. Before moving on to the Western Pacific region, the Americans built a longer coral strip at Bonriki which was 25 miles from Betio and this runway is now the airport gateway to Tarawa. A recently built causeway connects Betio to the adjoining districts of the Tarawa atoll.
The government airline is Air Kiribati which operates Trilanders and a Casa 212 throughout the chain of atolls. Also serving Tarawa are SAAB 340's from the Marshall islands to the north, Air Pacific from Fiji in the south, and Air Nauru with a Boeing 737 from the west. Bonriki airport is situated across a narrow isthmus, and on each side of the coral runway are tall coconut palm trees. Under their shade are numerous houses built of wood from the palm trees, and thatched with pandanus and palm leaves. Security at the airport is minimal with the local population and numerous animals using the strip as a short cut to villages on the other side of the runway.
The airport fire tender is used to warn villagers from the runway when arrivals and departures are imminent. This has little effect, as the locals merely wait for the tender to pass with its siren wailing before resuming their walk to the other side of the strip. Often the tender is only half full of water, the excuse being that it travels faster when empty. There is some truth in this!
So it was in Nauru 385 miles to the southwest of Tarawa, where I was waiting for the arrival of the twice weekly return Nauru - Tarawa - Nauru, Boeing 737 service. I was to crew the next sector to Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands. The aircraft was already late on schedule, which in the Pacific islands is considered normal. Check in service for passengers is slow, due to easy going staff, and lack of computerized ticketing.
Eventually the 737 appeared overhead, and after receiving assurance from the local control tower operator that the runway was "clear", the aircraft landed. While backtracking, the pilot checked all clear for cars and motorcyles before turning slowly into the taxiway that crossed the main airport perimeter road into the tarmac.
Some months previously I had been following the same route after landing, when I noticed the company passenger bus speeding down the road towards the terminal. Normally traffic was held clear of the crossing by a police officer. He wasn't there that morning, so I taxied the 737 towards the terminal with some caution. The bus driver had no intention of stopping, and I braked heavily to avoid crossing the road in front of the rapidly approaching bus. The driver swerved, and missing the front of the Boeing by feet, gave me a upwards lift of his eyebrows, which is a standard sign of greeting from Pacific island people in this area.
After the passengers disembarked, with one giving me dirty looks, and muttering about heavy footed pilots, I tackled the bus driver about his failure to stop for my aircraft. He looked astonished and said that as I was on his left, he had merely taken the right of way on the main road.
The crew of the inbound Boeing had a unique reason for their late arrival into Nauru. At Tarawa's Bonriki airport, the aircraft had been met as usual by airport officials from Customs, Immigration, and Health. These officials were normally dressed in casual clothes and rarely wore identity cards. Staff from Air Kiribati were also present, again with no ID cards.
After the turbines of the Boeing 737 had wound down, a flight attendant opened the forward passenger door. At this point, it was normal procedure for the Health Department official to board the aircraft to spray the cabin. The captain and first officer meanwhile remain in their seats, while setting up the navigational systems for the departure.
As the stairs hit the ground, a man who had been standing near the waiting group of officials, suddenly leapt for the stairs, shouting obscenities. He reached the cabin entrance, and backhanded the shocked female flight attendant across the face. He then wrenched open the door to the cockpit, and lashing out with his fists, clobbered the first officer and captain who had turned around to investigate the commotion. Both pilots were still in their seat harnesses and initially could do little to defend themselves. Fortunately the first officer managed to unlatch his own seat belt, and turn around in the narrow space. A violent struggle took place, and with the help of a couple of willing passengers the man was eventually dragged from the cockpit and bodily thrown down the forward stairs.
The flight attendant had meanwhile recovered from her shock, and called to the officials below to get the police.
The islander picked himself up from the tarmac and grabbing a handful of gravel from the ground, hurled it at the fuselage of the Boeing. His tantrum abated, he allowed himself to be gently led from the scene of battle by the now smiling gendarmes.
The astonished passengers were then treated to the priceless scene of the captain, while nursing a split lip, picking up the public address system microphone to make the following announcement; "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. We apologize for what has happened, but I assure you that this is not the normal standard of our in -flight entertainment. You may now disembark".
The captain then went to the passenger terminal and demanded to see the Police Commissioner. Eventually this uniformed worthy arrived on the scene, to be confronted by the captain who by now had a fair size bruise on his face. After apologies were offered, it was explained to the captain that the man who had gone bonkers was well known as a benign nutter who was under treatment at the Bonriki hospital.
The airport staff also considered him harmless, and because he was on the tarmac with other officials, they felt that there was no harm in letting him wander around. This still did not explain the reason behind his sudden attack on the crew of the Boeing. After he was questioned by the police, the reason soon became clear.
As described earlier, the runway at Bonriki airport is bordered closely on both sides by shacks made from pandanus and coconut palm trees. The walls and roofs are thatched with leaves, and are built to withstand any normal strong winds. Aircraft which back track to the western end of the runway, turn through 180 degrees to line up. Even at idle power there is a powerful jet blast from the low slung engines of a Boeing 737. At the take off end of the runway, when thrust is increased to line up, the jet blast can cause damage to any nearby object or person within a hundred metres.
The man lived with his family close to the departure end of the airstrip. Perhaps because of prevailing wind conditions at the time, it seemed that on several occasions, blast from the departing Boeing had literally blown the thatched roof clean off his home. To his already deranged mind the obvious source of the problem was the pilots who flew the aeroplane. Sort them out with a faceful of knuckles, and the problem is fixed. So he did just that!
Soon afterwards, the airline instructed its crews to line up using a left hand turn instead of a right turn. This directed the jet blast away from the closest houses. However, for some time after this incident, pilots were seen to carefully scrutinize anyone coming up the stairs towards the cockpit.