ONE NIGHT LANDING
In early 1943, an airfield lighting system was shipped from Panama to the new bomber base on Baltra Island (The Rock) in the Galapagos Archipelago. Baltra is two miles long and one mile wide, and covered with giant boulders and lava deposits. Its aircraft runway was 5,000 feet long and 100 feet wide. Since there was not a parking ramp available, aircraft were parked along the edge of the active runway leaving a narrow strip of pavement for planes to use for take off and landing. The wing tip of a passing B-24 or B-17 type aircraft cleared the parked planes by less than 50 feet. To make matters worse, a cross wind as strong as 20 MPH blew night and day. Every take off and landing at Baltra Airfield was a risky one.
After the lighting system was installed and operating properly, the Commander of 6th Air Force decided that aircrews of the local 45th Bomb Squadron should practice night take offs and landings in their recently assigned B-24 type aircraft. The 45th Bomb Squadron Commander, Major Oscar Schaaf, realized the danger of flying night transition on the Baltra runway, and recommended that the training be accomplished at either Guatemala City or Rio Hato in Panama. The runways there were longer and wider. His recommendation was not approved.
When the squadron was directed to begin night operations, the experienced crew of Captain Maurice Hooper was scheduled to fly the first night transition mission. Squadron maintenance personnel moved all parked aircraft back as far as possible to provide the maximum width of available runway for Captain Hooper. At scheduled take off time, squadron aircrews assembled in the dark at the operations shack next to the runway. Major Schaaf was in the control tower on the roof of the shack. Captain Hooper taxied to the downwind end of the runway, lined up with the center line, turned on his plane's landing lights, and started down the runway. Wind gusts were about 20 MPH.
The plane accelerated to lift off speed. Then we were horrified to see the wheels leave the runway, the left wing drop, the plane yaw to the left, and strike a parked plane. Captain Hooper immediately leveled the wings and began a very shallow climb. In a few moments, he called to report that his left wing struck a parked plane, and that a visual inspection with a flashlight revealed a big gash in the wing about 20 feet inboard from the wing tip. Engine power was normal, but there was a moderate vibration in the flight controls. The crew checked for more damage as the plane continued its shallow climb. Major Schaaf instructed Captain Hooper to circle near the island at 5,000 feet altitude.
An excited maintenance man, who had witnessed the collision, appeared at the shack from out of the night and described the damage inflicted on the parked aircraft. Major Schaaf elected to withhold that information since he did not know the extent of damage to Hooper's plane. A few minutes later, Hooper called to report that he was circling near the island at 5,000 feet. His plane was still vibrating, but responded to the flight controls satisfactorily. Major Schaaf directed him to set up traffic pattern power settings, and to extend the landing gear. Captain Hooper complied, then reported that the plane responded normally, but the vibration continued. Then the wing flaps were carefully extended in small increments. The plane handled O.K., and the vibration remained unchanged.
Hooper was told to leave the gear and flaps down, and to burn off fuel to reduce the plane's gross weight while the possibility of a landing was being considered. The spectators who had gathered around the operations shack watched the plane's lights circle overhead, and anxiously waited for the next development.
When the plane's fuel level fell to 500 gallons, Major Schaaf directed Hooper to set up final approach engine and flap configuration, and to remain at 5,000 feet. Captain Hooper complied, and reported that the plane handled normally after the ailerons were trimmed to keep the wings level. Vibration remained unchanged. Then the probable result of the crew bailing out was discussed. Captain Hooper said he thought Baltra was too small for his crew to land on considering the strong wind. He did not want to parachute over a larger island because they were uninhabited and were covered with boulders.
So Major Schaaf cleared Captain Hooper to land his plane on Baltra's runway. He advised Hooper to hold a higher than normal airspeed while on the final approach and during landing. When Hooper was several hundred feet high on his first approach, he elected to go around due to surface wind turbulence and vibration in the plane's flight controls. He circled the field and entered the final approach for the second time. As the plane began to flare out for touchdown, the left wing suddenly dipped and the nose dropped quickly. We watched in disbelief as the plane crashed among rocks short of the runway and burst into flames. The spectators raced after the ambulance and fire truck that were speeding to the burning plane. Captain Maurice Hooper and three of his crew members were killed. Miraculously, the Radio Operator lived, and recovered from his injuries.
That was the first and last time a B-24 type aircraft flew at night at Baltra. Also, it was the first time 45th Bomb Squadron personnel died in a ground accident at their home airfield. Unfortunately, it was not the last. Later in World War II, the unit would sustain casualties on the ground, and in the air, while flying B-29 Superfortresses in the China-Burma-India combat theater and on Tinian in the Mariana Islands.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *