January 2009

December 2008 issue

“10 Amazing Island Stories 11/08
In this feature, we profiled Islanders who had done, or experienced, amazing things. One profile in particular attracted this letter, from a reader who was part of one of the hair-raising stories we published.

Interesting that I picked up that great 121st Anniversary edition of HONOLULU Magazine, opened it to the page that featured your “10 Amazing Island Stories” about volcanologist Jack Lockwood’s “melting plane over the volcano” incident … as I was there—a witness to and participant in that event 33 years ago! And there is more to that story to tell.

It was midnight on a quiet, crystal-clear, 1975 night at Puako, Big Island, when I opened the door to my children’s bedroom to check on them. They were sleeping soundly. As I pulled the door closed I looked toward their window and I noticed a bright red glowing light in the narrow opening between the frosted-window jalousies. I opened that window and saw a sight that I’ll never forget; a dark cone-shaped silhouette of 14,000-foot Mauna Loa volcano 30 miles away, spewing fire from its peak and above the peak-on-fire there was a huge glowing cloud, the bottom of which was bright pulsating red. I quickly realized that I was witnessing the first summit eruption of Mauna Loa volcano in more than 25 years!

There was no sound from the eruption or from anything except for a light breeze blowing through the window jalousies. I ran outside and yelled at the top of my lungs “Eruption! Mauna Loa is erupting!” My neighbors came out and when they saw it they, too, began to yell. My children were glued to the window. I asked them to get my camera while I called my helicopter pilot pal, Bill Lacy. I woke up his wife, who said he was camping at Green Sands with his children, no way to reach him. I then called my other pilot pal, Eric Soylund. We met at his Kona Aiport hangar at 4 a.m., took the passenger door off his Cesna 172, fueled it, took off and headed for Mauna Loa just before daybreak.

Then I saw it.  Another plane! And the wing was on fire! The next thing I heard was "MAYDAY, MAYDAY!"

As we gained altitude, it got freezing cold. I was in a tank top and cutoff jeans. The wind blowing in through the open door chilled me to the bone as we reached altitude.

I realized that the summit eruption had subsided a bit as we flew over the peak of Mauna Loa, but there was plenty of fire as a huge lava flow headed northeast, towards the Saddle Road and in the direction of Hilo. Eric flew above the flow and suddenly I wasn’t cold anymore. I had my right foot on the wing-over-strut with my Nikon strapped to my hand as we flew right over that flow—and blasts of heat hit me as we zoomed upwards in the updraft. We made several passes over it. The flow made a hissing/roaring/clunking sound heard easily over the wind and drone of our engine.

Then I saw it. Another plane! And the wing was on fire! I yelled “plane on fire!” Eric pulled our plane up, banked it away from the flow and yelled to me “where is the fire?” as he looked under our wing. I yelled, “Down there!” and pointed.

The next thing I heard was “MAYDAY, MAYDAY!” Eric spotted the other plane which was a Citabria, as I recall, as we made contact with the pilot and the Hilo control tower. We agreed to tail the burning plane to Hilo. I vividly remember landing and taxiing behind the other plane which had strips of burnt fabric hanging down from the wing. The pilot and passenger got out as we were approached by people on the ground and someone yelled, “Got any duct tape?” which got a quick retort of “Sorry, we don’t think that plane is going anywhere for now!”

We were thanked for escorting them home. I reloaded my camera, we refueled, flew over the volcano again to grab a few more shots on our way back to Kona. And that is the rest of the story.



Ahana Koko Lele

The opening photo to our Best Bars feature, Dec. 2008, page 54, was shot by Monte Costa.


Letters to the Editor may be submitted online here, e-mailed to: letters@honolulumagazine.com, faxed to: 537-6455 or sent to: HONOLULU Magazine, 1000 Bishop Street, Suite 405, Honolulu, HI, 96813. Letters may be edited for space.