birds of a feather

Yesterday was a drag. Beyond my Sunday ritual, in which coffee is enjoyed with eight panels of Doonesbury, instead of the usual four, of course to the prerequisite Donald and Walter soundtrack, the day was generally a bust. It also marked the mid-point of my three months out here on Midway, a cause for celebration to be sure and perhaps also reflection.

Up until today my end date here still was uncertain due to available space on the chartered G2; it takes coordinating my relieving PA on an available inbound and a vacant seat on the same aircraft outbound as we tend to spin the flights in about 45 minutes. When I came on island in December, I had enough time to count controlled meds with the outbound PA and get handed the keys before driving her back to the waiting plane, the pilot already warming the turbines. I look forward to being on the other end of that transaction, the date had been pushed around allover the month of March and now it looks like we are back to the original date of March 15th, making it a twelve week rotation exactly.

Midway is an unusual place, perhaps unique in some respects, but just your typical remote posting in others. There is of course the history, which for the most part isn’t really alive anymore, what visible features remain are quickly being reclaimed by time and the elements; and there is the wildlife, which is fascinating not only biologically but also in it’s interplay with humans, human policy and politics. It’s strange how this place, which will eventual descend beneath the waves as it moves slowly northward, is in this time so important and worth fighting for. As it does move into colder waters, by an approximate rate of some five to ten centimeters per year, the coral deposition will eventually be unable to keep up with erosion and the island will be no more and if in those intercedent few million years the birds have outlived us, perhaps in part because of our stewardship, they’ll just have to find some other place to go.

Well at this time there are people and at least a few government agencies at odds as to the usage and future of Midway, it seems that this tiny spit of sand is a refuge for more then birds and seals. As I put my sixth week behind me, thinking of what I am missing and what I am in want of (I could really use some real beer and real cheese), I can’t imagine the circumstances or internal circuitry that would compel someone to spend ten years out here.

A brief accounting of my fellow castaways might shed some light. There are of course the Thai for whom this is a desirable position, I’m told. At least they must make a higher wage than the Sri Lankans whom they replaced, I’ve heard their predecessors were paid one dollar an hour. Then there are those whom have been shipwrecked by life and for whatever reason: personal, professional or legal prefer life out here in self-imposed exile to whatever they fled on the mainland. Honestly, I can’t see this place leading to career advancement any more than being the captain of a sinking ship. The volunteers are short timers like myself and for the most part are bird obsessed, but in either case here for the experience and then they’ll move on. There are, surprisingly, a few who return almost as reliably as the albatross not due to instinct but because of some personal attachment or perception of beauty not unlike a child might have for a sandcastle or a mudpie. Their maternal devotion is laudable, I guess Ms Lennox is right, everybody is looking for something.

In an interesting twist of fate and politics (and I so try to keep politics out of it) the W. did, in 2006, incorporate this place into the largest National Marine Monument under U.S. jurisdiction, while at the same time declaring the absolute necessity of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now maybe, I’m biased because this is rocknicepac and not Beach Blanket Bingo, or because perhaps I place greater stock in caribou than seabirds, but damn it I was brought up to Never Cry Wolf not Finding Nemo.

Midway is the most expensive wildlife refuge managed by the Department of the Interior and perhaps the least visited outside of Alaska. It’s expensive not because of the protection or restoration measures in place, but rather because it is also an FAA ETOPS runway. ETOPS stands for extended operations, the ETOPS rule allows civillian twin-engine aircraft to fly long-distance routes previously reserved for four-engine airframes. It provides a safety margin during, for instance, trans-Pacific flights should an aircraft lose an engine. Obviously there aren’t many suitable locations for an ETOPS airstrip in the middle of the North Pacific, short of building one that floats. The FAA as well as companies like Boeing, who manufacture large twin-engine civillian airliners capable of intercontinental flight, have a vested interest in keeping Henderson Field, or PMDY, open.

But that seems to be directly at odds with the mission of Fish and Wildlife since an unscheduled emergency landing here would endanger hundreds of birds. Needless to say bird strikes bring down aircraft, thus endangering the lives of people.

For this very reason all scheduled air traffic on Midway, November through June, is conducted at night. There are too many birds on the runway and in the air, multiple bird strikes are guaranteed. The last comercial emergency landing was a Delta 747-400 on June 16, 2011, which fortunately landed safely after striking at least two birds causing flap damage, there were 378 people on board.

It seems then there is both a symbiosis and a gamble taking place, both on the part of Fish and Wildlife and the FAA. The FWS gets FAA money to help maintain the air facilities, the FAA and the aerospace industry get their ETOPS airstrip and everybody hopes nobody needs to make an emergency landing during bird season.