LARRY SWINNEY remembers:
I was an Aviation Ordnanceman Stationed at NAS Agana, Guam as Small Arms Petty Officer for the Naval Air Station. I was also on a 3 section rotation for flight crew on HU-16 “Albatross” seaplanes.
My job on the aircraft was to supply the pyrotechnics (smoke, flairs, etc) that may be needed for the flight and to deploy them, which meant just pulling the pin and throwing them out the open door.
More importantly I also supplied and deployed the JATO rocket boosters, notoriously unreliable and sensitive to damage from mechanical shock, like dropping or bumping and the igniters did not always fire exactly when they were supposed to.
The hot, humid climate could also cause the rocket propellant to “weep” a sticky volatile material. As a matter of self preservation, I was always very careful in selecting and inspecting the JATO components.
I was on several missions to a number of Islands including Kapingamarangi, Nukuoro but here is what I remember about the Kapingamarangi trip.
The first aircraft that took you to Kapingamarangi was the one I would normally be on, but since there were three of us in rotation, it was not my turn to fly.
I can not remember the reason, but the second plane had to come from Midway to Guam where they picked up the JATO and mounting racks and the Ordanceman (me) that they needed to handle the JATO. There was some difficulty with the racks as I recall and we were somewhat delayed leaving Guam. Since you mentioned it, I do remember it was on the takeoff run that the first plane hit the coral. When we got to Kapinga the pilot was concerned about our landing, but we did not have any problem and we found the first plane beached, with the gear down in a nice shady spot.
I think your party was involved in research on the Crown of Thorns starfish and the concern that it was killing all the coral. Why it was important to go to Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro, I never understood, but the US government thought it was important enough to provide transportation.
We anchored the plane and transportation to the island was by outrigger dugout. We overnighted at Kapinga and slept in a native long house. I remember talking with a group of young people who spoke pretty good English until it was pretty late.
The next morning I got into a little trouble with our pilot because one of the natives insisted I follow him to a spot where he climbed a tree, pulled down a coconut and opened it for my breakfast. I was a few minutes late getting back to the plane.
The pilot also thought it took too long to arm and load the JATO, but those things can explode if they have any cracks in the propellant and I was not going to skip any inspection steps.
Takeoff was exciting. This is how I remember it. We were heavy and there was no help from the wind. The pilot asked several of us to get as far back in the plane as possible, then on his signal come forward to help get the plane on “the step”, then when up to speed he would fire the JATO.
I was in the back and when I got all the way forward, standing next to the pilot, I could see he was hitting the mic button on the left side of the control yoke and thought he had it confused with the JATO button on the right side. I reached to point to the JATO button but he must have hit it because the JATO went off and we got airborne without much room to spare.
I had several other JATO takeoffs.
It seems we always flew too heavy. One other interesting one was on leaving Pohnepei with a plane load of VIP’s in the Micronesian government. We were heavy, as usual, but the JATO worked fine and the takeoff was no problem.
The normal procedure after takeoff, and when we had some altitude, was for me to get on the intercom with the pilot and on signal he would “skid” the plane to the right whereupon I would release the port side JATO bottles, then we would do a similar maneuver to the release the starboard side.
The port side released ok, but when we did the starboard side, one bottle did not release no matter what I did with the release handle. You can not land like that because the bottle would probably come off and hit the plane.
So I had to open the door and lean outside to see if I could manually get the thing to release.
This was all discussed with the pilot and he knew what I was doing. It took a few minutes for me to put on the safety harness and open the door. Then I was able to release the spent bottle with a large screwdriver.
Footnote: JATO rocket boosters produce 1000 pounds of thrust (each) and burn for 15 seconds.