I departed Pago Pago at the crack of dawn. My destination was Hilo, Hawaii, 2235 nautical miles away across the Intertropical Convergence Zone, an area of very unstable air and convective activity around the equator. I was carrying a massive amount of fuel and expected very low climb performance on take-off. "May" lifted off at 75 knots. I leveled her at ten feet over the runway to build speed, and climbed slowly over the cobalt blue water along the coastline, and passed by the scenic Pago Pago harbor. Eventually, I climbed high enough to clear the terrain over the island and headed north towards Hawaii.
En-route to Hilo, the head winds were stronger than expected. My calculations showed that I would arrive in Hilo short of fuel, so I decided to divert to Christmas Island.
Now my challenge was to contact Christmas Island to open the airport after hours. All means of communication were used: my handlers from G.A.S.E. (Eddie and Ahmed), San Francisco radio (transoceanic communications), e-mails to all known airport staff at Christmas Island, and commercial aircraft overhead on the guard frequency. For many hours, all attempts to contact Christmas Island failed. It looked like I would approach the island three hours after dark, with no open airport, no lights, and in marginal VFR conditions. Not an ideal situation. I was thinking - stay calm and work the problem. My plan "B" was to orbit the island at 1500 ft to wake up the airport staff to turn on the lights for landing (RNAV approach aided by geo-referenced charts and synthetic vision). Currently, there is no pilot controlled lighting at Christmas Island. The procedure for night operations is to start up the airport generator ten minutes before aircraft arrival to provide power for the marginally visible runway lighting. I would have happily accepted smudge pots or flashlights guiding me in for a landing at decidedly dark Christmas Island.
As I approached the equator, my HF radio link was weak and I could not hear SF radio on any frequency. A Hawaiian Airlines flight, somewhere in my proximity and overhead at 30,000 ft, was able to relay position reports on my behalf to ATC.
300 nm south-west of Christmas Island
The last transmission from a Hawaiian airline crew to N944JK on the guard frequency was:
Hawaiian airlines: "San Francisco radio is unable to reach Christmas Island to turn on the landing lights. (pause)... How many souls on board?"
Hawaiian airlines: "Good luck to you Sir."
I appreciate their effort to relay messages. I started to work out plan "B" details as I flew on in the darkness.
100 nm south-west of Christmas Island:
To my great relief, G.A.S.E. was able to reach Christmas Island by phone. In the dark at 9000 ft, I finally heard the welcome radio call, "N944JK, ... Christmas Island" over the static of my VHF radio. I approached the island from the west and descended down through the rain, following instrument procedures to land at dimly lit Cassidy International. After landing, I gratefully thanked the airport manager and ground staff for turning on the lights and opening the airport.
My original route was to fly directly from Pago Pago to Hilo. My fuel diversion to Christmas Island is shown in the map on the upper right.
Christmas Island from space.
Photo credit: The Living Moon
The existing Cassidy International terminal building. A new terminal building is under construction as of July 2018.
Photo Credit: ZOXEXIVO.com
Christmas Island, Kiribati: The world's largest atoll is very remote, situated at the mid point between Australia and the United States and just 2 degrees north latitude.
In the 1950's the British dropped multiple nuclear bombs above the island which produced high amounts of radioactive fallout. . Many additional nuclear tests were carried out in the surrounding waters. Grapple tests.
Britain's first nuclear test explosion at Christmas Island took place on 15th May 1957
Photo Credit: http://www.janeresture.com/christmas_bombs/
An interesting video about the nuclear tests detonated above the island.
Christmas Island in 2018. Low radiation levels?
An interesting article about life on Christmas Island - www.salon.com/2008/08/31/christmas_island/
The spartan Captain Cook hotel, my base for the next few days, was a bit rundown. The hotel, however, did have it's advantages: it was close to Cassidy international, it had a stocked bar, friendly staff, and it had a relatively nice beach. Visitors could either select between a cinder block hotel room or grass roofed "bure" closer to the beach. Water service was shut off between 11pm and 6 am, so forget a late night shower. My cinder block room featured a rusting, incredibly loud air conditioner, which sounded like a bulldozer tearing itself apart. In order to get some sleep, I wore my Bose noise cancellation headset to bed to drown out the racket.
Inside the main dining area, photographs of fly fisherman proudly holding up giant Trevally adorn the walls of the communal dining area. Christmas island is famous for it's world-class bonefish and trevally fishing. Both sport fish are off limits for eating to preserve the stock. Catch and release only - fly fishing is taken very seriously here!
I spent the next two days driving around the island and withdrawing cash (in increments) from the only functioning ATM on the island. The landing/parking fees and fuel all needed to be paid in Australian dollars. The only fuel supplier (Kiribati OIL) cached 1000 liters of AVGAS, recently shipped from Australia. I was truly fortunate to obtain fuel as I heard of one RTW pilot stuck on the island for months awaiting fuel.
Typical landing and parking fees at Cassidy International. Flying around the world in a small plane is not cheap!
Communications with the outside world
Cell/Internet communications on the island is still in it's infancy, with spotty, slow links. Sending video was out of the question, but text and small photos could be shared back home. The Garmin Inreach seemed to have trouble sending and receiving texts with Christmas Island positioned only a few degrees above the equator.
I definitely will return someday to Christmas Island to fish for torpedo-fast bonefish and wily giant trevally (GT). The video below captures the excitement of fly fishing for 100 lb GT.