In World War II, a short, brutal battle was fought between Japanese and American forces for this coral atoll. Before that, the Japanese used the island as an outpost, forcing Korean prisoners and Marshallese natives to do manual labor building up the island’s fortifications. Today the islands exist as a listening station, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, and home to a large number of native Marshallese. The story of how me, a group of my friends, and 100 other passengers on United 154 ended up on the atoll is nowhere as historically significant or important as the stories of those who fought and died here, but it is a brief look into a part of the world that very few people ever get the chance to see.
The purpose of the trip was to fly the United “Island Hopper”. The route takes passengers from Honolulu to Guam via stops on the islands of Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk and takes approximately 14 hours to complete. Keep that duration handy, we’ll be referencing it later. The actual final destination for the trip was Hong Kong and we had a dinner with an old friend planned as well as a plan for some sightseeing on Sunday. The red lines on the map below are what we were supposed to fly. The green lines are where the trip diverged and what I actually ended up flying.
Leaving Honolulu was uneventful. After the excitement of having nine boarding passes printed I grabbed some snacks, knowing that there was only a breakfast served on the way to Majuro. Our flight departed for the 4.5 hour journey to our first stop a little late due to problems with baggage equipment at the Honolulu Airport. Finally underway, passengers started getting comfortable, or trying to do so. A light breakfast of french toast or eggs was served and before we knew it, we were on the ground at Majuro.
Walking off the plane the humidity hit me like a wet mop. The temperature difference immediately caused my camera lens to fog up. I really wanted some pictures from each island so I took a few photos with my phone and made my way into the small terminal. It was a tight fit in the terminal and the humidity made it even less comfortable. We recorded a quick update for the Dots, Lines, and Destinations podcast and convinced Seth to take off the Burger King crown he had put on in Honolulu. A short time later the gate agent was calling for boarding and before I knew it, we were taxiing to the end of the runway. The pilot announced that he would be making a low pass over the atoll for those of us on the left side of the plane. As we departed Majuro faces were pinned to the windows; it was not a typical departure pattern. We flew low and slow. The pilots recognized that this trip is a special one and wanted to give passengers the opportunity to see the atolls closer than normal. I was in an aisle seat but craned my neck to get a gorgeous view of Majuro and the surrounding atoll.
It was scheduled to be a quick trip from Majuro to Kwajalein, right around 45 minutes. I had been chatting with the gentleman in the middle seat since we left Honolulu and learned that he worked on Kwajalein. Our discussion continued on this segment and he revealed that he worked on an island separate from the main one and it required another flight once we arrived at our next stop. He also told me that on arrival all bags are collected, opened, and screened by the security team for the island. His tone was that it was a bit of a hassle but one that everyone knew was necessary.
As we started our descent into Kwajalein the captain came over the PA and announced that due to a problem with “the flaps” we would need to make a faster than normal approach into the island and that it would be treated as an emergency situation. The crew reviewed the emergency evacuation procedures and the bracing position with the entire aircraft and then made sure everyone in the exit rows were comfortable with opening the emergency doors and guiding people out of the plane. While the briefing was calm, you could sense the urgency in the crew’s instructions. My role was to block the aisle so that the person opening the exit were not rushed by people trying to exit the plane. After the exit was opened, I was to leave the airplane and help other passengers escape.
The aircraft approached Kwajalein and I felt the landing gear lower. We were definitely coming in much faster than normal and as soon as the wheels touched the ground, the brakes were heavily applied. The airplane stopped short of the end of the runway and a sigh of relief filled the cabin. We quickly taxied to the tarmac and announcements were made about the procedures at Kwajalein. No pictures. No leaving the aircraft. We will take a look at the problem and be back with you soon.
As you know, I’m a regular flyer and I am comfortable with turbulence and pilots announcing that they are dealing with issues but this problem and the landing made me tense. Maybe it was because I knew what the problem meant or maybe because I knew how long the runway is at Kwajalein, but I had a slight tinge of nervousness from the time the captain made the announcement until we had come to a full stop.
After a number of attempts by the on-board mechanic (did I mention the Island Hopper carries a mechanic?) to fix the problem, it was found that a new part would need to be flown in. The actual issue was a proximity sensor on the leading edge slats that gives information on how far the slats are extended. Without that information only a visual confirmation of the slat position was possible and that is not adequate as far as the FAA is concerned.
Since it was evident our time on Kwajalein would be longer than originally expected, the crew arranged for us to be moved inside the terminal building. We were asked to take everything off of the plane and to go straight to the terminal. A few of us wandered off the path from the plane to the terminal and were quickly told to get back on it.
The inside of the terminal was crowded and not really setup for a plane load of people. But, there was wifi. Not the fastest and certainly not the most stable, but it was there. I sent off a quick number of e-mails and iMessages letting people know where I was and then did the obligatory Foursquare check-in. I mean, how many times does one get to check-in to a U.S. missile base? Every now and then a pilot would give us an update on the progress in fixing the plane. With every visit my belief that we would be stuck in Kwajalein for the night grew stronger. Around 3pm local time the announcement was made that there was no way to fix the airplane and that a rescue flight was being organized in Guam. There was no exact timeline for when this flight would reach us or if the United corporate office would opt to put us up on the island for the night rather than send the plane in the dark. All of this was met with blank stares. I said a little prayer that the rescue flight would be the option they went with and I am pretty sure there were others saying the exact same prayer.
Then the decision was made to move us to the ferry building because it was more secure. Some passengers inquired as to whether this new location had internet access and were quickly told “no”. This caused a small uproar because people were using the wifi to try and figure out flights and make contact with family members. But the pleas to stay in the terminal were met with “please board the bus”. We packed into the bus (which only held 32 people) over four trips and realized exactly where we were on the short drive to the ferry building. The island was beautiful. We passed a number of beaches and different living facilities. We passed a pool where kids were being given swimming lessons and saw a number of bicycles on the roads. Come to find out, bikes are the primary form of transportation on the main island.
The ferry terminal was a little more open than the airport’s building but had a lot less seating. In addition to the indoor area we were allowed to go back and forth to what I call “the yard”; A fenced in area, much like its namesake at prisons. Between talking with friends and other passengers, walking around outside, and eating, there was not much else to do but wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually a large number of pizzas and water were delivered and we all had the opportunity for multiples of each.
I had noticed that the crew from our flight had not come along with us but a pilot (Ryan) and two of the flight attendants did show up when the pizzas arrived and told us that they were getting their rest at the Kwajalein hotel, a facility that is off limits to those who do not have business on the island, aka, those of us on the flight. I had actually asked the lady sitting in the window seat on my row about what she thought would happen if we had to spend the night on Kwajalein. Her response was that they would probably ferry us over to another island called Ebeye where there is a small hotel. She then went into detail about Ebeye and gave me a piece of advice if we were sent there to spend the night, “pick up some small stones and carry them in your pockets, it will help to distract the stray dogs”. My mind filled with images of what this other island looked like. And a little bit of research shows that Ebeye is an example of what happens when money and power mix in way too strong of proportions. During the handing out of pizza and water an announcement was made that United had decided to send the rescue flight and that it was expected to land sometime near 1 or 2am.
Around midnight local Kwajalein time we were told that we would be bused back to the airport. It is amazing how quickly people jumped up to try and get back on the bus first, even though we knew we would have to wait for multiple trips before we were boarded on the rescue plane. A short bus ride back in the dark and we were standing in a “check-in” line where we gave our names and boarding passes and checked off a list. We then went through a security screening. No PreCheck here. In fact, I had to surrender the water that had actually been handed out to us by the same people conducting the security check. As I threw my bottle in the trash one of the security officers looked at me and just shook his head, “I know, I know”. The best part was, after taking a seat and using the wifi to send out another quick update to loved ones, the same security officers brought a new case of the exact same water. The water did taste a little funny and the more I think about it, the more I think they were just getting rid of expiring rations.
Another hour in the terminal and a quick check of FlightAware showed that our chariot off this island was close. I strolled outside to watch the rescue flight land. There was a light, intermittent rain but in the distance I saw the landing lights of the 737-800 and shortly thereafter I watched it make a perfect landing. A quick refuel and boarding announcements were made, yep, they even boarded by group numbers. We were finally on our way to Kosrae.
By this point in the trip I was teetering on delirium. I had not slept much since we started the Island Hopper flights and had only slept a few hours the night before in Honolulu. You can hear this listening to the episode we recorded while at different stops along the way. Near the end I am close to slurring my speech and not making a lot of sense. I even sent text messages to my wife that were incomprehensible, to the point that she asked me about them later.
On the flight to Kosrae I started to doze off in little cat naps since I could not get comfortable. During one of those cat naps I was startled awake when the pilot came on with an announcement. “Not to alarm anyone but we are beginning our descent into Kosrae. The runway here is shorter than most so the landing will be much more rough than you’re used to, just wanted you all to know.”
I am actually glad he gave the warning, it gave me time to watch the approach. We made a sweeping left turn and out of the window I saw runway lights. It was strange because the horizon sank into the ocean, there was no reference point for what was up or down. Seeing those runway lights made what I was (or wasn’t) seeing outside make a bit more sense. As we lined up for the final approach it felt as though we were landing into the abyss. The lack of light made it hard to distinguish the water from the sky and it wasn’t until we were just above the runway that I could tell how high we were.
The pilot was right, it was a hard landing with a lot of braking. We turned around at the end of the runway and taxied back to the terminal. Passengers who’s destination was Kosrae seemed relieved to have finally arrived as they left the airplane. We sat. And sat. And did some more sitting before they announced that they would be doing the security search of the ABC (port) side of the airplane. Those of us seated on that side of the airplane were asked to collect our bags and move to the DEF (starboard) side of the plane as security personnel searched the seats and looked for unclaimed luggage. After they were done we put our luggage back up and sat back down. It felt like a really long time but really it was only an hour and 20 minutes or so. Eventually the pilot made an announcement. The flight would be skipping Pohnpei and Chuuk. Due to the FAA having a waiver in place for the Island Hopper and our particular flight not being covered by that waiver since it was a rescue flight, our next stop would be Guam. The pilot was rather blunt, everyone was welcome to continue on to Guam but they would be stuck in Guam for a full day until the evening Island Hopper left. Then the security team at Kosrae announced that because we were going to Guam a full security check of the plane would need to be performed. They repeated what they did earlier, everyone from the ABC seats grabbed their luggage and moved to the DEF seats. Then, they repeated the steps on the DEF side. For a bunch of people who were really sleep deprived, it was really confusing.
To top it all off, the pilot made one last announcement, if the passengers that were on their way to Pohnpei or Chuuk got off on Kosrae, the plane that broke in Kwajalein would be stopping to pick them up and finish the Island Hopper since it had the original clearance. It would arrive in Kosrae around 4am and everyone who wanted to go to the last two islands before Guam would probably want to disembark here.
There was a bit of a ruckus as passengers tried to decide what to do. People started grabbing their luggage and making a b-line for the door. Some passengers felt very uneasy about getting off the plane and possibly being stuck on Kosrae should something occur (again) to the original plane we were on. After about twenty minutes it seemed that everyone who wanted to travel to the last two islands before Guam had left the airplane. Before Kosrae I actually had a small bit of hope that we would make it to Guam in time for me to catch the flight to Honolulu and then onward to Houston. I had given up on Hong Kong, I would have to wait an extra day to get there now and by that point it would be time to fly home. But now my possible connection to Honolulu was quickly becoming impossible. After two hours on Kosrae we were finally in the air again and headed for Guam.
I fell asleep almost immediately after takeoff. My body had finally had enough and just wanted to shut down for a little while. Next thing I knew the flight attendants were prepping the cabin for arrival and I was lucky to get a nice view of the sunrise over the island of Guam. A smooth landing and quick taxi to the gate and we were finally in Guam, 27 hours after leaving Honolulu.
I walked very quickly to customs where the agent asked where I came from. Honolulu? Well, kind of. I got off in Majuro and Kwajalein and we landed in Kosrae. Blank stare. “Ok, have a good stay.” Looking at my watch I knew I was going to miss the flight back to Honolulu.
I ran upstairs to the check-in area and gave a quick explanation to the agent of what had happened. At first she seemed to understand what I and my three friends wanted. A flight back home and to declare the trip a “trip-in-vain” since we never made it to Hong Kong. After having our passports and boarding passes for close to two hours and flights being removed from our itineraries, we got on the phone and were successful in getting an agent to get us rebooked. Kind of. She was able to rebook me but dropped flights for two of my friends. We were all getting frustrated but after four hours at that ticket counter we had a mostly usable rebooking. One of our friends was on standby to get to Tokyo, yet he had a confirmed seat from Tokyo back to the United States.
We used the Priority Pass lounge at Guam for a quick shower and by then it was almost time to board the flight to Tokyo. We had a good crew on the flight north and it was actually one of the better meals I have had on United in a long time. There were artichoke hearts and hearts of palm in the salad. On such flights in the U.S. I am lucky to get a tomato in the salad. We were on time into Tokyo and made our way through the transit security checkpoint.
My flight to Houston was leaving shortly after our arrival into Tokyo so I gave my meal vouchers to my friends and I hear they enjoyed a nice meal of sushi.
The flight from Tokyo to Houston was uneventful. I was able to get a solid 9-10 hours of sleep and my body and mind were thankful. On arrival into Houston the Global Entry line was empty and I was home 30 minutes after landing and more than 72 hours after this whole thing started.
The crew on the original Island Hopper was fantastic and they did everything they could to try and make the situation as bearable as possible. The contract staff on Kwajalein did an excellent job as well, making sure that we were well fed and hydrated. They did the best they could with the conditions they were presented.
United on a whole did a rather poor job of handling all of the missed connections. In fact, the ground staff at Guam were unaware that our flight was so delayed. The agents at Guam were a mix of really helpful and trying and completely useless. It shouldn’t take four hours to rebook four people, ever. There was a flight to Tokyo that had cancelled and the agents were able to help every single one of those passengers in the time it took to process the four of us. That is ridiculous.
The agent issues aside, the trip was an experience. Sure it was a really tedious and grueling delay on Kwajalein but I am glad that my friends were there to experience it together. I can’t imagine going through the same delays and uncertainty without friends there to make the time pass. We even recorded a podcast during the Island Hopper, and there is a bit of a premonition about the possibility of a mechanical problem. The audio quality suffers a little as we were recording in a number of different locations, but it is fun to listen to the progression and hear just how delirious we are by the end of it.
If you are wanting to read about a successful Island Hopper journey, this trip report is a great place to start.