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Pearl Harbor skies

Parachute on and strapped in low and tight. The World War Two vintage T-6 is set to take to the skies and so am I. Everything about the aircraft around me breathes an air of safe passage and security, from the girder-like framework that envelopes me to the sizeable North American rudder pedals ahead.

As the throttle is smoothly opened the radial engine lets out a throaty roar and the two propeller blades blur into a single disc. Soon the tail rises and before me lies the black strip of runway and the historic setting of Pearl Harbour. The wheels now leave the ground, the toe brakes are touched and the landing gear folds up cosily into the wings. We are underway.

A wartime hangar passes beneath as we roll left and set course to the north with the famous harbour out to my right. I am flying past places that had been carved into my brain through teachings, textbooks and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster. Places that had burned on the “day of infamy”; December 7th 1941. The day when the Japanese had struck at the heart of the United States Navy and set in motion the Pacific War.

Wheeler Field where the P-40 Warhawks had been ablaze and lesser known coral runways now reclaimed by the vegetation. Runways where a valiant few had launched to battle the might of the Japanese as they made their two waves of attacks on the island of Oahu. The site of the radar station that had first detected the inbound armada of the skies and the beach where a midget submarine had been dragged on shore.

One by one the historic waypoints slide beneath the canary yellow wings of the T-6, set to a backdrop of pristine waters, lush green valleys and jutting igneous ridge lines born of a volcanic past. Such a setting seems to be so at odds with the devastation that took place that December morning over 70 years ago.

Still, as I sit beneath the greenhouse-style canopy with the barest of instrumentation in front of me there is a sense of that time. As I wheel to the left and right I am struck by the reality that these were the same parcels of space through which the Japanese fighters and bombers had passed enroute to their targets.

We slip between two jagged peaks to emerge with Waikiki to the distance on our left and Pearl Harbour straight ahead. Ford Island with its orange and white striped control tower looms large as does the massive battleship Missouri at anchor and watching over the sunken USS Arizona. The Arizona with its more than 1,000 souls still at rest beneath the waves.

I am struck by a mix of solemnity for those lost lives and awareness of how chaotic the skies must have been on that day. For the sky over Pearl Harbour is a relatively small patch of air, yet it must have been brimming with the swirling mass of attacking aircraft. In my mind’s eye I can see the USS Nevada making its failed dash for the open seas and almost smell the rising funnels of black smoke. The noise must have been deafening on land, sea and in the air.

But in the present the skies are clear and blue and the only sound is the rhythmic, reliable hum of the T-6’s engine. There is hardly a ripple in the air and the magic of flight is at its very best. The here-and-now is in conflict with the history, however the outline of the USS Arizona can still be seen as I pass overhead and prevents any chance of being solely lost in the moment. Nor should I, as this is a site of solemn significance.

The wheels touch down once more and the blurred disc again becomes two stationary propeller blades. I slide the canopy back, with my harness and headset still in place. Leaning my head back all I can see is the blue sky, bordered by the framework of the 1940s cockpit. That same piece of sky, but in such a very different time.

Fly safe.

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