We’d been planning it for months, paperwork filed with official channels asking for permission, route and mission decided on, all was good to go! The time had come to put the flight in the air. It was a beautiful clear morning 15 March as we meet the team at the gate of the airport. The day before we’d all meet in Rob’s hangar and went over the flight we’d been planning for months. The maps were pulled out and spread on the table, historic photographs of the day laid about, the route was selected and timed with my shot list making sure we can accomplish all that we had planned. Our flight path wasn’t one we came up with but one that followed the morning of December 7th, 1941.
The sun hadn’t graced the skies yet but there was a glow over Diamond Head outlining its very distinctive shape on the horizon. Air to air photography takes longer to get in motion then wildlife or landscape since you just can’t just jump into an aircraft and go. The first thing we had to do was get the screw out of the window I was going to shoot out of. The Cessna 172 is a very common photo platform for air to air work (though not my favorite). The windows though normally only open a short ways, too small an aperture to get the lens out to shoot. Because of the air speed you fly, you can safely and easily with the screw removed, let the window open fully (the airflow actually holds the window up for you) making shooting possible.
After that, there was the preflighting of the 172. I’m always comforted when I see the pilot have the POH in hand and running down the list as we get ready to go. Stab the wing tanks, plug in headsets, seat belts fastened and with a yell out the window ,“Clear!,” the prop turns and the engine kicks over. Then there is the warm up and initial systems check. Then there is talking to the tower so you can taxi. Then there is taxing over to the run up area and doing the last engine run up for oil pressure. An hour has past before at 07:15 its wheels up and in the air heading for our rendezvous.
Our subject plane, a gorgeous SNJ in the paint scheme for the USS Saratoga, is hangared at historic Barbers Point. As part of our briefing the day before we had arranged where we would meet once in the air. While you can plan everything well in advance and go through the preflight with flying colors there seems to be one thing that tends to come up way too often for me. And that’s radio problems most often from loose or dirty connections. And as you might guess, while working perfectly the day before, the first depress of the button and scratchy, static voice rang through the headset. We flew north towards our hook up point southeast of Wheeler Field. It was an amazing feeling flying the path of that historic morning!
Right on que, we find Bruce and his SNJ visually but radio communications are anything but clear. As long as we fly the brief, there should be no problems. We are a little early for our scheduled time over Wheeler Field. Wheeler Field is still active so clearance was obtained to do a couple of fly overs to photograph the SNJ with the Field in the background. We flew a little north and came down the shoot the same as the Japanese did that morning in 1941. In the background were the same rice fields and agriculture that was present on that day.
The radio came to life, a flight of Black Hawks were on their way into Wheeler. They were calling the tower. We heard no response and then the radio cracked to life clearing them. Rob waited a second and called the tower. The sweetest came across the radio answering back. “Ah good, I know her,” Rob said to us and he answered back. The two of them talked pleasantries and then got down to clearing our filed flight plan. With everything cleared, we had the next ten minutes to buzz the field and get the shots. That’s when the challenge begun.
Radio communications with the SNJ were challenging, the connection was sketchy at best. While we flew the brief, being able to talk on the radio to fine tune the photograph is essential. We flew the strafing runs the Japanese flew that fateful morning down Wheeler Field. Bruce is a Pearl Harbor historian and had told us much of the facts leading up to that morning. The P-40s had been lined up in a perfect row to prevent saboteurs from attacking the aircraft (an attack by sea wasn’t believed possible by some of the brass). Needless to say this made it real easy for the Japanese to cause a great amount of destruction with little effort.
One thing that is very hard to do in a briefing is explain angles. The angle of the photographer, the subject and the background so they all line up in the viewfinder is hard to prevision. That’s why the radio was so important. Despite the brief, getting the SNJ in the perfect position just wasn’t happening. After a couple of passes the radio crackled, “Photo flight, air space is now closed. Thanks from coming!” And with that, we headed south.
Bruce took us south on the same path the Japanese took to Pearl. The landscape below us now is nothing like what it was on that day. Oahu urban sprawl has grown up to Wheeler Field. We fly south checking the time. Bruce had managed to get flight clearance over Ford Island and the Pearl Harbor Memorial. A photo mission over these historic areas hadn’t been granted for quite some time because of some military installations in the area that the military didn’t want photographed. At the appointed time, Bruce starts calling the tower to get our clearance to start our run. “Sorry, we don’t have that paperwork, clearance denied.” The PAO hadn’t got the paperwork to the tower! Unlike Wheeler Field, we couldn’t just circle while we tried to clear up the problem. So off we went.
For the next ten to fifteen minutes Bruce tried to run down the PAO. Finally the PAO made the call to the tower and we were cleared for just two passes. That’s not what was originally arranged but the clock had been eaten up trying to reach the PAO. With months in the planning, it all came down to these two passes. The radio issues hadn’t cleared up and the same problems we had at Wheeler Field rose again. The goal was to get photos of the Memorial, Ford Island and other historic locations in the background of the SNJ. Lining up those items with just two passes and poor radio communications just wasn’t happening. After two passes without a word from the tower, we flew out of that pattern.
After leaving Ford Island, the flight split with us heading back to Honolulu and the SNJ back to Barbers Point. After landing and buttoning up the 172, we hoped into the van and drove over to Barbers Point where Bruce was waiting for us. We spent the rest of the day with Bruce having the most amazing, historic ground tour of December 7, 1941. With Bruce’s military clearance, we were able to tour Wheeler Field and see the OC where the card game was going during the attack in which Taylor & Welch left, got into their P-40s (parked at remote strip) and got in the air to bring down some attackers. We saw the secret, underground plane assembly plant and runway. It’s a tour that if you’re into history is absolutely amazing!
We even went back to Pearl, visiting both sides of the channel. Late in the afternoon found us at the hangars on Ford Island. There and at the sea plane port just down the ramp, we could see the remnants of the bombs and bullets of that morning. We were at that infamous place where all the B&W photos of the PBYs and Ducks burning was taken, the pot marks still in the cement. We then went up to where the Arizona and other battleships were moored, next to the officers’ quarters and got out and stood where the explosion did so much destruction. Very powerful!
At the end of the day, we ended up back at Barbers Point. Barbers Point construction was well underway on Dec 7th but not active. While a bomb did fall nearby, many think it was not intentional. In the last waning light of the day, we wheeled out the SNJ on the deactivated base for our last couple of portraits for the day. Our flight occurred from 07:15-08:11, not too much different than that morning. Despite not going 100% as planned, it was an incredible flight and amazing day. It helped to fill in lots of questions about that day, how it came to be and our response. And while the photographs are not as I envisioned, they will always be very special since the military since closed the circuit we flew to photo missions. Experiencing our aviation history from the air, it is an experience that leaves an lifelong mark!