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Emergency Landing at Molokai

A C-45 pilot makes a great save

After enduring a number of years in forced, unwanted retirement from flying, I am looking back at my history and adventures as a pilot for both military and commercial aircraft, which, as of this writing, have encompassed more than 50 years. One adventure I remember occurred in peacetime (although I had my share of combat time as well).

After enduring a number of years in forced, unwanted retirement from flying, I am looking back at my history and adventures as a pilot for both military and commercial aircraft, which, as of this writing, have encompassed more than 50 years.

One adventure I remember occurred in peacetime (although I had my share of combat time as well). It began November 20, 1946. I was pilot in command of a C-54E (a military version of the Douglas DC-4).

I was assigned to the 1504th Air Transport Squadron based at Fairfield-Suisun (now Travis) Air Force Base in California. This particular mission was to depart at night for an early morning arrival at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii, before continuing to the Far East. The preflight by the crew's pilot (me), co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, radio operator, and two male cabin attendants involved bringing our shots up to date; surveying the payload, which consisted of 14 passengers, mail, and some limited cargo; detailing our route of flight; and reviewing the forecast weather.

The weather outlook was somewhat less than desirable, although not prohibitive. The fuel plan called for a flight of 11 hours and 20 minutes plus a reserve of two hours. No specific alternate was listed, only two hours of fuel to head for another island or just loiter for an improvement in the weather at Hickam.

The departure from Fairfield-Suisun was without incident. As the flight was planned, our clearance was to head for and depart the Farallon Island beacon and then climb on course to our assigned altitude, usually somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 feet, at which time the altimeters were set to standard pressure over the ocean at 29.92 inHg.

It was not very long before we encountered the energy of the forecast weather. As we continued, the turbulence became increasingly pronounced, to the discomfort of those on board. If I recall correctly, one gentleman threatened to leave the aircraft. Maybe he was adding a little levity to our situation. We attempted changes in altitude, but nothing altered the quality of our ride. Approaching what was to be our equal time point (ETP) with a forecast promise of improving weather, we pressed on.

About this time, our radio operator tried to establish communication with Ocean Station November, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel that was positioned midway between the California coast and the Hawaiian Islands. Exchange of information was reduced to using the telegraph key. Voice was unreadable. The best our radio operator could come up with was that the Coast Guard ship was underway north of our intended track because of the pounding they were taking from the storm. They could not provide weather information, winds aloft, or a position fix. Our navigator could not establish a satisfactory loran fix, let alone a celestial position. We were in so much heavy precipitation that the crew compartment was a mess with water.

The C-54 is not a pressurized aircraft. Our only navigation resource was dead reckoning. Based on that, we thought that we were moving toward considerably improving weather. As the weather in fact did begin to show signs of improvement, navigating on our own was once again feasible. With satisfactory results, our navigator determined that we were approximately 80 miles south of track and had not progressed as close to the Hawaiian Islands as our dead reckoning had assumed. Remaining fuel was now a prime consideration. The navigator, flight engineer, and I determined that even with our two-hour reserve of fuel, if we returned to our intended course we would not make it to Hickam.

Make for Molokai

Back in October 1945, while on a crew layover at Hickam, I was recruited as a co-pilot in a C-47 on a supply mission to the island of Molokai. As I remembered, the short flight headed for a single runway in about the middle of the island. I had been told it was built for the use of some fighter aircraft and crews early on in the Pacific conflict. At the time of my C-47 flight, it was used only for mail and supplies to a small cadre housekeeping the facility, soon to be deactivated. The runway was generally oriented east and west between higher terrain at both the east and west limits of the island. This runway was geographically remote from the infamous leper colony located almost at sea level on the north shore of the island.

As a result of my prior experience, we decided to remain on our current course south of the normally intended track and make for Molokai. With this plan and our established position, we advised Hickam, or Honolulu control, of our position and intentions and declared a Mayday. As for our own actions, the navigator, flight engineer, co-pilot, and I began a form of fuel management not found in our operations manual. We started an almost imperceptible descent and reduced our power settings and indicated airspeed. We adjusted the mixture controls manually. We then applied an existing formula to manage brake mean effective pressure to the extent that our maximum pressure would allow for peak performance and not abuse the engines.

We also briefed the passengers and crew, explaining the consequences of our situation and how we were preparing for it. Considering the violence of a water landing, we experimented with some form of restraints as protection from the thrashing of the control column, which I was certain would oscillate wildly as the elevators came in contact with the water.

About three hours prior to our touchdown on Molokai, we established voice contact with a Boeing SB-17 Flying Fortress equipped with a lifeboat. Not long after, we made visual contact and flew on with the SB-17 off our right wing. Most of the radio conversation was about what actions to take on a ditching of a large aircraft and, in the event we got that far, whether we should attempt a water landing or try to land on or just off the beach. We were also getting information about existing weather and surface winds at Molokai, as I was not aware that any weather reporting was available at the airstrip. As we were approaching the island, we were now in daylight and had excellent weather conditions, offering some chance of a successful termination of this flight. Abeam the south side of the island we were still about 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. However, we began to experience some fuel starvation.

Runway in sight

At this time we selected all fuel tanks On, all crossfeeds On, and all boost pumps On. When it was certain I had the runway in plain view, and our altitude made an approach feasible, we began maneuvering for position and controlled loss of altitude to make the runway. It was at this point in a right-hand turn that the number-one engine failed. Subsequent turns caused the remaining engines to fail from fuel starvation. Now aligned with the runway, although high, and the engines windmilling, my thought to feather was overridden in favor of some remaining fuel, for some sporadic burst of power. The other consideration was that the windmilling engines would provide hydraulic pressure for extending the landing gear and flaps, and for using brakes and nosewheel steering.

The subsequent landing was firm and charged with adrenaline. Heavy braking resulted in blowing out all four tires on the main gear, making steering troublesome. We did, however, stay on the runway pavement. Although our departure fuel quantity was scheduled for 13 hours and 20 minutes, we had been airborne for 14 hours and 45 minutes. We were finally on the ground at Molokai, secure, with no injuries and minimal abuse of the aircraft.

While we were over and approaching the runway, the SB-17 had been circling overhead waiting for our next transmission, which was something on the order of, "We made it!"—with the exception of damage to the tires. The SB-17 crew was in touch with Hickam and relayed to us that a C-47 was being dispatched with fuel, tires, wheel assembly tools, and a crew. Now it was time for us to wait and consider our extremely good fortune.

We discussed the events that brought us to our current position. After the C-47 arrived, it was unloaded. A comment by one of the arriving maintenance men was that there was not enough fuel in the wheel well fuel sump to fill a Zippo lighter. My crew and passengers boarded the C-47 and set off for Hickam.

Upon arrival at Hickam operations, we turned in the navigator's log, the weather reports, and the radio operator's log. I don't recall any extended debriefing, inquiry, or even a reprimand, let alone a "glad to see you made it." We were taken to our transient crew quarters, where we ate and received our required crew rest, and then the very next day we continued on our assigned mission to the Far East, as if the previous day was a nonevent.

Even now it seems as if the landing at Molokai never happened. Oddly enough, in spite of the photographs, a copy of the Honolulu Advertiser (headline and short copy), and a copy of my individual flight record, there is not a scintilla of reference to a landing at Molokai—only my arrival at Hickam.

At the end of our scheduled mission to the Far East and return to Fairfield-Suisun, our debriefing at the weather office lasted less than a minute. The office maintained a performance graph along a section of the wall. It was a horizontal display of how forecast weather compared to the reported observations. Our reports on the segment from Fairfield to Hickam were not only not on the graph; they were off the sheet of paper.

A check pilot, Capt. F.G. Moseley, was aboard to observe my performance, a routine operation function performed periodically. However, I don't recall any input on his part related to our unusual situation and its outcome. His overall evaluation remarks were, "Had to make emergency landing at Molokai. Pilot did good job."

Seymour ("Ike") W. Isaacs is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force now living in Park City, Utah.

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