Flying toward a hurricane just part of his duty

Published 10:20 am Friday, April 26, 2013

by Archie Howell

The phone didn’t ring when it was supposed to. It’s not unusual; the phone system on Bermuda is on the same schedule as the public busses—island time. It’s perfectly normal for the phone to not ring when it’s supposed to. It can be very frustrating for people who expect communication on demand from the telephone system.

It’s especially frustrating for my squadron, when it’s trying to contact all hands for a recall to duty stations. We have a recall system that’s based on one person calling three or four, those persons calling a list of others until all hands have been notified of whatever is happening, be it a drill or actual situation. The chain of telephone calls is rarely complete the first or second try. Consequently, I got the call a bit late. The chain has been broken a few times.

Somewhere in the large ocean area east of the Bahamas, a hurricane has been identified and the projected path takes the storm toward Bermuda. There will be a hurricane evacuation (hurrevac) of all aircraft and crews. It’s planned for all to depart over the next two days. I know that if the storm is forecast for the upper east coast of the mainland, our destination will be Jacksonville or Key West, Fla. The storm could pass to the east of Bermuda, to the west, or directly over the island. The forecast just has to promise enough wind to damage aircraft. Uncle Sam tries to protect its defenses; we are part of that effort.

This time the evacuation will take us to Key West, an island in the Florida keys, about a thousand miles distant—some eight hours flight time, well within the normal range of our aircraft. We pack suitcases, work equipment, spare parts, and patience. Our departures are planned an hour apart. That will give crews at the distant base time to drag each aircraft onto the ramp and reset the equipment needed for the next. It makes for a smoother operation to not have several aircraft milling around in close proximity in the harbor.

Key West has a seaplane base built as a part of its naval complex. Sealanes were dredged in the sheltered water beside Fleming Key. All fueling, hangar, maintenance, and flight operations are conducted from this relatively small area. It’s a little crowded, but everything works. The other side of the island houses a submarine base with support facilities and a fleet training center. Most berthing for officers and crew is at this facility. Transportation is easily accessible and is not a problem on a daily basis.

This time away from home base is not wasted. The opportunity for training has to share time and equipment constraints at our home base; here a training schedule can be carried out daily. We use the time wisely. I fly several training missions to practice takeoffs and landings under many conditions. I practice emergencies and learn tactics along with my crew. The harbor and sky around Key West is a beehive of activity. I receive much of my plane commander training and check flights during these hurricane evacuations.

One day my instructor pilot decides it’s time I learned about downwind takeoffs. We launch into the bay, do the obligatory checks, and taxi to the far end of the seadrome. My instructor says words to the effect of “Let’s see what you can do.” I advance the throttles, feel the familiar surge, but airspeed doesn’t seem to be building at the familiar rate. Having a tailwind makes a huge difference. The hangars at the far end of the sealane get real big real fast; I begin to have some doubts. My instructor just grins. It seems an eternity before airspeed allows me to rotate slightly forward and put the seaplane “on the step.” That attitude reduces drag on the hull and speed increases a little faster. The hangars loom, no longer in the distance. We reach flying speed and the “pucker point” about the same time and the aircraft reluctantly leaves the water. The hangars pass beneath the aircraft, a little too close for my comfort. My instructor continues to grin.

Some of our patrol obligations take us into the Florida Straits, toward Cuba. Big Pine Key, Marathon, Cay Sal, the north coast of Cuba, including Havana, and Dry Tortugas become familiar territory. Our mission is still primarily to detect and track ocean traffic and we get lots of opportunity to photograph shipping, especially in the Florida Straits.

I will revisit this area in a couple of years with a different mission, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at