Until World War II, French Frigate Shoals represented only a place for a semi-sheltered anchorage surrounded
by dozens of square miles of hazardous reefs. Shortly after the Battle of Midway,
the U. S. Navy converted tiny Tern Island into a coral runway using a framework of
seawalls and filled with bottom dredgings from the adjacent lagoon. The outer boundary
of the dredged area is still visible off the western corner of Tern Island as a right angle
cut into the coral bottom. Additional dredgings were obtained from the boat channel cut
through the coral reef at the southwestern tip of Tern Island.
NAAF French Frigate Shoals was commissioned in October 1943. Internet searches find
few documents mentioning the role of the facility during the remainder of the
war. It can be seen that on several occasions, aircraft flying from Hawaii to Midway
landed at French Frigate Shoals due to mechanical problems. The main effect
was to deny the Japanese the use of the shoals as a rendezvous point for seaplanes and
submarines. Although documentation has not yet been located on the internet, this author
believes that a certain number of patrols originated from French Frigate to protect Hawaii
from further sneak attacks such as the infamous one on Pearl Harbor.
The establishment of a 3300 ft runway 400 miles from the next closest airfield
changed the course of the future for the Shoals. Since then the runway has served
in logistics support for the Coast Guard Loran Station, a rendezvous point for aircraft
transferring passengers, a remote aircraft base for the University of Hawaii during
overwater magnetometer research, a drop zone for parachute delivery, a pickup point for
specially equipped C-130s, logistics support during the early days of space flight
and the Johnston Island atomic tests and currently provides logistics support for the
U S Fish & Wildlife Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge - Tern Island. This web page will be
centered around the days when the Pacific Missile Range had a site on Tern Island
during the early 60s and is based heavily on material supplied by Mr. Bill Wood
who was on Tern Island during that time. This effort will describe and display
various aircraft using the airstrip during this period of its history.
JULY 8, 1944 VMSB 333 MARINE SBD DIVE BOMBER SQUADRON LEFT EWA FIELD HAWAII AND FLEW TO FR. FR. SHOALS. LANDED AND REFUELED AND ON JULY 9TH 1944 FLEW ON TO MIDWAY. WHERE TOKYO ROSE ANNOUNCED OUR ARRIVAL TO MIDWAY. WE FLEW SUBMARINE COVERAGE FOR THE SUBS COMING AND GOING TO MIDWAY
Guestbook entry by C. B. Gibson
Surfside Beach, S.C.
From 1944 to 1946 I was attached to "Utility Flight Unit" @ NAS Honolulu. We had 6 R4D's and 3 R5O's. Every Friday we dispatched an airplane to FFS carrying mail, passengers and cargo (beer) etc. that was necessary to sustain life at FFS. At that time I was a First Class Mech and plane captain of one of the R4D's. I don't recall how many flights I made to FFS but it was a bunch. On one flight (non-scheduled) we arrived at FFS very late and landed with the assistance of jeep headlights, took off even later in the dark. Was supposed to be an emergency but someone got their wires crossed. Can tell a few "sea stories" about FFS. From 1962/65 I was stationed at Barbers Point, now a mustang A/C Maint Off. We were still flying a weekly flight from Barbers Point to FFS.
Guest book entry by LT Chuck Borris, USN Retired
Soviet Space Program
During the time PMR was on Tern Island, they had the opportunity to monitor and track Russian Vostok launches in March and April 1961.
The April launch carried Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Much new information has become available about these launches since the fall of the Soviet Union. Click on these
links for a look behind the scenes from previously unavailable sources.
Photos and Narratives
Click on the image for a large view. Use your browser's Return button to come back to this page.
This official Navy photo shows RADM Ernest King and CAPT Kenneth Whiting on French Frigate Shoals in 1937. This photo and
text were received from Jim Smith. Here is an excerpt from his e-mail:
Ernest J. King was my grandfather. At the time this picture was taken in 1937, he was a Rear Admiral and served as Commander, Aircraft, Base Force, with about 100 land- and sea-based patrol aircaft scattered from San Diego to Panama to Hawaii.
The trip to French Frigate Shoals was part of an accelerated effort to set up scout patrol bases in the Pacific to counter Japanese expansion.
King later became CNO and Admiral of the Fleet during WWII. He and Admiral Leahy were the first two US Naval officers to attain 5-star rank.
end of quote
The timing of this photo is significant. These officers were looking for places to set up patrol bases. It is certain that Tern Island had not yet been
converted to a NAAF and the photo could have been taken on either East Island or the original Tern Island. What is also significant, regarding
the theme of this web page, is that these men probably made the decision of build a runway on Tern and this photo could have been taken on
that day. This would have been the first day of French Frigate Shoals Aviation History.
During the early days of the U.S. Space Program, satellites would be launched to gather data then brought back into the
atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. After re-entry, a parachute would deploy and the satellite would drift slowly down while
tracking stations at several key locations, including French Frigate Shoals, would triangulate the satellite's position by homing
in on its locater beacon. A specially equipped C-130 would then be vectored to the satellite's position. In this photo, a C-130 has
deployed it's mid-air satellite retrieval gear to pick up an item off the runway at Tern Island. The technique of snagging a satellite
in mid-air by catching its parachute lines was extremely successful.
Click for more.
Here is the long awaited story of how the skidmarks got on the runway.
From Bill Wood - quote - Here is yet another photo that has an interesting story. This was taken at the same time
as the other two color shots from the PMR helo. However, you can see a set of skid marks that are about even with the
large gabled building on the right. Those were made by a Navy R4D that almost ran out of runway after landing hot. I was on
board so it is a very vivid memory.
The pilot who usually brought out the R4D was one of the last CPO pilots in the Navy. He was assigned to NAS Barbers Point and
flew out on nearly every PMR flight to Tern. Unfortunately, he usually had at least one senior Navy officer who wanted to tag
along to get flying hours and to fish during the layover on the island.
One time, the tag-along was the second in command at Barbers Point (a Captain - no less) and he wanted to be in "command" on
that flight. The Chief was relegated to the right-hand seat for a stiff crosswind landing on Tern. The Chief tryed to
coach the "pilot" on how to make the landing but was told to pipe down and let the "expert" land the plane. He came in very
fast and soon discovered that the plane was not going to stop in time. Not wanting his plane to take a dip in the ocean,
the CPO took over the controls and ground looped it on the other side of the runway from the tracking station. We ended up
facing the other way with one wing over the seawall and the right landing gear two feet inside.
After that, the Chief made sure he was in charge of each landing. As far as I heard, the Navy Captain did not complain
about being relieved of command by a lowly CPO.
end of quote
A Navy UF landing on Tern Island. The Navy UF was used occasionally for PMR
flights when the R4D was out of service
Once we were assigned a Navy S2F for a trip. That was the passenger
version of the small carrier anti-sub plane. Fantastic power when taking
off. It got airborne in about 500 feet. It could
only carry about 6 people however and hardly any cargo. They had it full
of beer on the way out and five of us on the return flight to Barbers
Point. In this photo, the S2F has just started his takeoff run. He was airborne by
the time he was even with the mess deck. (Bill Wood)
Occasionally we would get the USAF to use one of their many C-47's for a
PMR flight. However the C-47 did not have sufficient range to make a
complete round trip from Hickam out to FFS and return. We would have to
stop at Barking Sands auxiliary landing field on the southwest coast of
Kauai to top off the tanks. The Navy R4D had a range of about 1200 miles
so the trip was no sweat. If
you look close you will see Ferd checking it out. This was taken sometime
in 1962 because you can see the "new" Mosley tri-band on top of the KH6ABH
ham shack which used to be the NAAF control tower during WW2. (Bill Wood)
The Air Force took over most of the Pacific Missile Range operations in
the Hawaiian area in 1965. This included the original "Discoverer"
seaborne assets that the Navy ran. This photo shows
the C-130 pickup rig close up. It sticks out the rear cargo door and is
large enough to span the parachute canopy on the recovery capsules. They
fly the aircraft so as to snag the parachute with the grappling hooks in
the rigging. Then something similar to a giant star drag reel lets the
cable string out until the capsule is pulled through the air and then
reeled in. This photo was taken during a data pickup from the USNS Longview in
Identifiable persons in this photo are Elbert "Pony" Maples, Chuck Reedy - PMR station
director for Tern Island, and Hank Schutzbier - radio operator.
This is the USAF
Western Test Range Satellite Recovery Ship USNS Longview as it appeared in
June of 1966. Bill Wood was aboard one of the two helos taking
photographs with a Linhof 4 by 5 Tecknika and two Nikon F's loaded with
Ektacolor S and Kodachrome II. This is a scan from the 4 by 5 Ektacolor
exposures. Click for more.