For some strange reason (perhaps my medical training), I have a particular fascination with horrific diseases. Over time, this interest has led me to faraway places such as Bergen, Norway where Dr. Hansen discovered the bacteria that causes leprosy, a disease that now bears his name. Leprosy itself is a ghastly condition that causes the most visible parts of its victim’s body, typically parts of the face and hands, to slowly die while the sufferer is still alive and must watch their slow deterioration.
This scourge of humanity has been around for thousands of years and can be found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, and is even mentioned multiple times in the Bible. There is also a famous site in the Hawaiian Islands where lepers were once banished. And so, while on vacation in Molokai this winter, I decided my wife Kari and I just had to fly down to the small airport on Kalaupapa to see the leper colony that was formed there in the mid-1800s.
Now, my wife is not at all interested in horrific diseases and is also very conservative when it comes to riding in small single-engine aircraft. From her point of view, the major problem with visiting Kalaupapa was we had to fly there in a small airplane flown by an unknown pilot. Of course, to me that just added to the experience so I assured her that the aircraft operator was no doubt FAR Part 135 certified and probably flew new equipment with a crew of two highly experienced and careful pilots.
Hoping my promises to be true, we show up at the small Molokai Airport (MKK) with some trepidation to check out our flight arrangements. On the ramp, I see three Cessna 208 Caravans. One was what we call a “POJ” at our airport. The paint was faded, the upholstery replaced many times (and still torn), the instrument panel full of old round gauges, and I could not help but notice someone had left the master switch on – with the crew nowhere in sight. About a hundred feet away from this fine flying specimen, there were two brand new looking Caravans with shiny company logos and Garmin G1000 avionics installed in the panels. The crew for each shiny aircraft consisted of two uniformed, clean-cut young people dressed up in black pants, white-starched uniform shirts with shoulder bars, and prominent gold wings pinned just above their shirt pockets. Their energetic preflight made them look like students at Embry Riddle taking a final exam, making sure not to miss a single thing that could be wrong with their aircraft. My wife found this very reassuring, and we entered the small terminal to check in with their ramp agent.
In making our inquiry, however, we were told our reservation was with the “other company” and their people had gone somewhere but would probably be back shortly. After a while, a scruffy-looking ramp guy showed up, checked us in and assigned us seats in the junky airplane right behind the pilot.
We then sat there long enough with the master on and gyros whirling for me to start thinking that if we don’t get this thing started pretty soon, the battery will be depleted and the PT6 is going to have a hot start if it starts at all. But just as I was wondering if I should do something about this, a portly old fellow shows up dressed in an old white uniform shirt with a frayed collar and stained cargo shorts. There was a tattoo on his right calve of sufficient size and design that’d make the Hells Angels motorcycle gang proud. He was chewing on a toothpick, apparently just having eaten something at the girlfriend’s place. Fortunately, he did have a TSA crew ID card from the Maui airport hanging around his neck. He climbed into the airplane, poked his head in the cabin and said, “Everybody going to Kalaupapa?” After we all nod in the affirmative he said, “Good, let’s see if this airplane will start, and we’ll get out of here.”
He flips switches, yells “clear” and gets the turbine section of the PT6 starting to whine as he gives us the FAR Part 135 required seat belt briefing. I have flown PT6 engines often, and from my back seat, I start watching the RPM gauge, which is expressed in percentage terms. In order to avoid a hot start in a PT6, you first need to make sure there is at least 24 volts available from the battery, then before pushing up the fuel lever, let the starter turn the hot section until a good 12 percent is showing on the RPM gauge. (I actually like it turning faster than that because it provides a lot more cooling air across the turbine blades when the fire lights up). But our shorts-wearing, tattooed pilot doesn’t seem to share my engine philosophy, because I see the red fuel control knob go forward the second the RPM gauge passes 10 percent. In spite of this, however, the engine lights off without too much of an over temp, at which time our brave pilot immediately releases the brakes. As the airplane starts rolling, my wife gives me a concerned look, and I try to look back in a confident and reassuring manner just as my right hand wanders about looking for an imaginary control wheel in front of me.
As we taxi into a quartering tailwind from the aircraft’s left side, my old flight instructor habits start to kick in and I check to make sure that our brave pilot is holding the controls in the correct position. Sure enough, it appears he knows what he is doing because the elevator is down, flaps at the initial setting, and the ailerons positioned with the left one down, and the wheel forward, fully to the left and firmly held. Nevertheless, I try to help him out by holding the imaginary wheel in front of me, left wing all the way down. There is not much to check on a PT6 before takeoff, and the pilot gets it all done with his free hand as we are rolling along the taxiway.
Arriving at the end of the runway, we stop on the number with a 25- to 30-knot crosswind coming from the right side causing the airplane rocking slightly. It continues to jostle in the wind as the engine is brought up to full power and kept that way for a longer time than I deem necessary. I think maybe he is just making sure it won’t quit. Finally, the brakes are released and the Caravan surges forward. I note the wheel being held in the correct position for the gusty crosswind from our right, with the left aileron down, right up, and elevator held nose down until we reach about 90 knots at which time the wheel quickly comes aft and the airplane jumps into the turbulent air. Looking back, I can see we are drifting off the departure centerline to the left, but it doesn’t matter as that is the direction we are headed anyway, and there are no other aircraft in the pattern.
We level off about 1,500 feet above sea level and cross over the steep cliffs on the north side of the island. We get about a mile offshore and bounce along at about 100 knots – almost level with some of the island’s cliffs to our right. The ocean below us is at least a Beaufort 8 as there are white caps and breaking waves as far out into the Pacific that I can see. The distance from MKK to the small runway at Kalaupapa is only about 15 miles, and we soon start descending with the bumps getting worse. My wife sitting to my right, and securely fastened in with a very tight seat belt, gives me another one of those “Are we OK?” looks with her eyes, to which I smile and nod in my most reassuring manner.
After a few minutes, I can see the runway sticking out on the peninsula that makes up Kalaupapa and off to its right an old lighthouse. At the distant end of the runway, there are breaking waves well above the 14-foot ASL threshold, with the wind driving those waves doing a good 35 knots from about 320, making it a direct crosswind landing. On final, I can see our brave pilot is holding what appears to be a good 30-degree wind correction angle, and I give some thought to whether landing here is a good idea at all. My right foot starts to look for a rudder pedal.
The pilot crosses the approach threshold with the wind correction angle still in play, speed about 100 knots with some power, then just before touchdown, lowers the left wing and kicks in enough right rudder to plunk us down with a screech of scraping rubber – almost dead on the white line. My wife lets out a sigh of relief as he immediately gets on the prop reverse and exits well before the breaking waves down at the end. I note he correctly positions the controls for a quartering from the left tailwind, and taxis to the small terminal where he parks the airplane into the wind, pulls the fuel shut off lever, and hops out while the prop is still turning to place some chocks under the tires. He then goes around to the airplane’s rear door, opens it and invites us all out, cautioning the ladies to watch their step. Despite his worrisome appearances, he did a pretty good job.
The old leper colony is both an interesting and saddening place to visit. As it turns out, only a small percentage of the Western human population (5 percent) is susceptible to the disease, but among societies never before exposed the number is dramatically higher. For this reason, when the disease became evident in the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1800s, it spread quickly, leading the government at the time to banish anyone who even appeared to have the disease to Kalaupapa. But the history of this human tragedy and how its victims managed is what makes the visit worthwhile.
After a sobering tour of the site conducted by a Hawaii Department of Health official, we returned to the airport to find the waves even higher – high enough to now push large volcanic rocks up onto the runway in huge sprays of salt water. Our same tattooed, goateed pilot is again nowhere to be found, but a local said he was “visiting a girlfriend” and would be back shortly. Half an hour later, we were again sitting behind the pilot as he pushed fuel to the PT6 at 10 percent RPM, quickly taxied out to the runway, took off and became airborne well before hitting the rocks now on the runway. He then makes a left 180-degree turn, which was more or less a direct heading to MKK. The nose is kept high and the IAS at about 90 knots as the old Caravan rocks in the turbulence, struggling to get to 1,500 feet in order to cross over the cliff to our left. We land 10 minutes later, with me applying full down left aileron and a lot of right rudder to compensate for the 35-knot crosswind from the left. My right hand grabs the prop reversing lever immediately after landing, and my toes strain for the brakes. It was only after taxiing back to the terminal that I was willing to surrender the nonexistent imaginary controls in front of me.
Kalaupapa was certainly an interesting place to visit but left me unsure about the “sitting in the back” business in small airplanes. The imaginary controls do not work very well, and it is much more threatening than actually having my hands on the real ones.