Tiny, dedicated crew on remote atoll supports Pacific air traffic

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  • JBER Public Affairs

Two Korean Air Force C-130J Hercules airlifters landed on Wake Island Tuesday in the middle of the afternoon, bound from Hawaii to Guam to Korea, each island stop 86 degrees Fahrenheit, mostly sunny and entirely humid. The wind pushed from the northwest on Wake’s blue lagoon-flanked Runway 10 as a Korean general and a cabin full of Korean Air Force Academy cadets stepped onto the tarmac and piled into the terminal gift shop, and the Hercules’ tanks were pumped full of jet fuel.

In moments, the island’s Korean population surged from zero to 110; the Koreans outnumbered the Americans by two-to-one and the sum of the Wake Island air inventory soared to two. Within an hour, they had left, the asphalt was vacant once more and a seagull, passing in its 20-minute traverse from one tip to the other of the tiny coral atoll, might again overlook the importance of Wake.

Yet the island’s strategic prominence measures far larger than its 2.8-square mile stature.

The airfield at Wake Island handles a modest 500 to 600 aircraft annually, but it does so with a staff of about six. The same three people marshal, service and refuel every plane. Liken those numbers to those of airports that see such traffic in a few days, and the tiny coral outpost’s contributions seem paltry.

But the runways of Chicago-O’Hare, for comparison, and the 72,000-plus flights they handle are suited for a different sort of work. Draw a 600-mile radius around Chicago and it will include every airport from Kansas City to Washington D.C.

Draw a 600-mile radius around Wake, and it’ll fall a hundred miles short of the next useful airstrip in the empty Pacific Ocean.

Oftentimes the most valuable service Wake provides is to the jets that hope to never see it, said Chris Bouley, airfield operations manager for Chugach Federal Services, Inc. at Wake Island Airfield. CFSI is a branch of Chugach Alaska, one of the state’s 13 Native corporations, and holds an $185 million contract for support to three Air Force installations including Wake and two remote Alaska sites.

Wake is the only 10,000-foot runway for a 4,000-mile stretch of Pacific Ocean, Bouley said. The next closest airfield at Kwajalein Atoll, also a U.S.-military run outpost almost 700 miles to the south, has a runway about 40 percent as long – a length that would fit on Wake’s parking ramp.

More than 50 years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration built the facility now used as the atoll’s terminal and air tower. The airspace around Wake Island is labeled "Class E" by the FAA center in Oakland, meaning it’s technically uncontrolled, with no formal aircraft control requirement. Landing at the airfield is by "prior permission only," per FAA documents, but for aircraft that can’t make the voyage without help, Wake offers a both a safe landing and several million gallons of JP-5 jet fuel.

Unsurprisingly, Wake features on countless Pacific flight plans for commercial and military aircraft alike as a divert airfield, or a runway of last resort, if an emergency like a dead engine forces the plane to land mid-flight.

About four times a week, pilots from United Flight 200 and other Hawaii-to-Guam routes call to air traffic control after catching a glimpse of the island from 20 miles away and a few miles up, said David Seymour, one of Wake’s two air traffic control specialists.

"They call to exchange war stories about flying through Wake when they were in the service," said Seymour, himself a former scout and air traffic controller for the Army.

"They’re in the middle of an eight-hour leg across the middle of the Pacific," he added, "and sometimes they just want to know someone’s down below … just in case."

Though an Air Force airfield, Wake handles nearly twice as many Navy and Marine Corps planes most years, the island’s air traffic control records show.

The most common flights through Wake are bundles of refueling tankers leapfrogging with fighter jets and cargo planes from the mainland United States to allied bases in Japan and Korea, Seymour said.

Wake supports more than two dozen cross-Pacific bound aerial groups annually. The Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornets predominate, with supporting Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender refueling tankers, followed by Marine Corps C-130s and an assortment of other military and civilian aircraft.

The area around the Wake Island terminal is itself a token of the airfield’s roll call of itinerants. The old control tower stands vacant across the runway, left after storms and the consolidation of staff after the Air Force passed most of the work of maintaining the base to contractors in the 2000s.

The buildings around the airfield are covered in stickers and memorabilia from stopover aircraft, each a legacy of squadron or a handful of aviators passing through Wake.

The pre-war days of flying boats pulling into the Pan American Airways hotel are long past; only the foundations of the vanished old lodge, inscribed "1936," still stand. But for generations of aircraft roaming the ocean, from afterburning fighter-bombers to lonely commercial copilots making the long haul across the Pacific, the island remains a useful stepping-stone, even in an era of supersonic jet aviation.