Online 03-08-2000 - Last update 12-03-2011

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A Coast Guard C-123 landing at Tern Island - early 1960s.

Visitors since March 20, 2000.

Hawaiian Aviation History - by Dave Fahrenwald


     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.



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 1966.

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.

The Thomas McNicholas Photos

This is a group of photos graciously provided by Geraldine McNicholas from when her father was on FFS in 1946.

Captain Bob Justman and co-pilot with the Piper Aztec "Sarah K".
Over the past 21 years, Captain Bob has flown over 450 missions to French Frigate Shoals for the U S Fish and Wildlife Service.

Guest Book is located on FFS Today.

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