THE GALAPAGOS VOLCANO
In the spring of 1943, a 5,000-foot high mountain peak on the south end of Island Isabela erupted into a raging volcano. Towering clouds of ash were tossed into the atmosphere. The huge cumulus cloud of ash that developed was visible 50 miles away on Baltra Island (The Rock) in the Galapagos. Terrified Air Corps technicians, who were operating a radar station five miles from the volcano, hurriedly sent a distress radio message to Baltra requesting emergency evacuation.
After a rescue boat was launched, Colonel Henry Mooney, the Baltra Commander, decided to fly a 45th Bomb Squadron B-24 type aircraft to Isabela to observe the evacuation of the radar team. He also wanted to see nature's spectacular display of island building. I flew as a second Pilot with the Colonel because he was not qualified as a First Pilot. Our Flight Engineer was Technical Sergeant Louie Grace. Little did the Colonel and I know at the time that we would soon be thanking God for sending this engineer with us.
Shortly after taking off, we flew past the rescue boat, and estimated that it would arrive at Isabela in about two hours. Twenty minutes later, we rounded the southwest corner of Isabela while flying under a dense overcast ceiling of about 5,000 feet above sea level. When we turned north toward the radar station, an awesome sight came into view -- then we realized why the distress message was sent. A river of lava formed a bright red stripe several hundred feet wide that was cascading down the slope, and into the Pacific Ocean. Great columns of steam spiraled upward where the molten rock disappeared into the water two miles from the radar sight. A gaping crater on the west face of the volcano was spewing a continuous barrage of house-size boulders that careened down the stream of lava and splashed into the ocean.
The Colonel banked our plane around the columns of steam, then descended toward the radar site. The tents and buildings were intact, and the men, wearing Mae West life jackets, were gathered on the boat landing and were waving wildly at our plane. They were safe for the moment, but the frightening events taking place nearby left no doubt that they must be evacuated soon.
Colonel Mooney decided to take a closer look at the volcano while we waited for the boat to arrive. After buzzing the men, and trying to encourage them with a friendly wave from the cockpit, we climbed to 4,000 feet and leveled off underneath the cloud deck. As we turned toward the volcano, the cockpit filled with acrid fumes that smelled like rotten eggs. By the time we reached the water's edge, the stench was almost unbearable.
We were flying at 180 MPH with engine power set at normal cruise RPM and manifold pressure. Fortunately, the fuel mixture controls were set to Auto-Rich because that setting would be critical to survival during the events soon to take place. Colonel Mooney was at the controls as we flew past the crater. Suddenly, the plane entered an area of severe turbulence. The nose of the plane dropped and the airspeed fell to a frightening speed of less than 125 MPH. We dropped like a stone straight toward the volcano because we had entered hot air that was too thin to sustain normal flight.
I grabbed the control column to help the Colonel turn the plane away from the sloping mountainside. Before I could call for increased power, Engineer Grace sensed what was happening and applied full throttles and turned on the turbosuperchargers. The increased power and the cooler air near the water allowed us to stop the deadly descent, and we leveled off at 1,400 feet. The Colonel's curiosity, and our ignorance of the danger of flying in hot air near a volcano, almost killed us.
Once the aircraft was under control, and Engineer Grace had adjusted the power settings for cruising, color returned to the Colonel's face and our nerves settled down. When the Colonel felt like talking, he pointed out that air temperatures near the volcano were at least double normal air temperature. He turned to Engineer Grace who was standing between the pilot's seats, and said, "Sgt. Grace, you saved our lives by increasing the engine's power. We would not have returned to normal flight if we had not had the extra power that you applied. Thank you." Louie Grace, who was a cool character in flight, replied, "Colonel, please stay out over the ocean while we wait for the rescue boat. I can't stand another close one like that." The Colonel smiled and assured Louie that we would circle far away from the volcano.
When the boat arrived at the landing, the radar team scrambled aboard and sailed for Baltra Island. A few days later, new volcanic lava flows spewed down the slopes and destroyed the radar site, the tents, and the boat landing.
After our group completed training in B-29 type aircraft at Pratt Field, Kansas, I flew combat missions with T/Sgt. Louie Grace until the end of World War II. We often discussed our near disaster at the volcano on Island Isabela in 1943. It was not a pleasant incident to recall.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *