Sometime in the summer of 1959 I flew on one of our assigned missions as a member of a U.S. Navy Patrol Plane aircrew. Our mission was to locate and tag shipping traffic in or around the East China Sea. To tag was to identify the ship, note its deck cargo, take its picture, identify the rigging such as masts, kingposts, funnels (smokestacks), and note the architecture of the deck structure. Our home base was at the U.S. Air Force base, Naha, Okinawa. Just before dawn, that morning, we took off from Naha, and were to return that evening. Some of our flights terminated in places such as Japan, Luzon, Taiwan, or other locations. On this one, we were to return to Naha.
We flew north, that day, up to southern Japan, then over to the Yellow Sea, and back down the China coast to Okinawa. The trip took ten hours. I don’t recall anything special about the patrol itself. Our problem started when we arrived back at Naha. At that time, we were at the point of starting to use our fuel reserve. That was a term used to indicate that we had about two and one half hours of flying time left before we ran out completely. There was absolutely no reason to worry, until we were told by Naha Control Tower that the field had just been closed because of dense fog and inclement weather. Naha told us to go up to Kadena Air Force base, which was about twenty miles north of Naha. We called Kadena on our radio and asked for landing instructions. Kadena said we’d better hurry because their field was becoming socked in also. It took only about five minutes to get to Kadena, then they informed us that their field had just closed, We called Naha again to see if there was any change. Naha told us that the weather had let up a little. They said they were moving the GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) unit to the other end of the field, and that they could probably bring us in when it was moved. Naha had us circle for a few minutes while they moved the GCA unit.
In the meantime, we informed both Kadena and Naha that we were just beginning to use our fuel reserve. The nearest other place to land, in the entire Pacific Ocean and East China Sea was in southern Japan. That trip would take us two and one half hours. So, it was a tossup whether or not we could make it there. If we did not land soon, the pilot said we would probably have to ditch at sea. Naha then told us they had successfully moved the GCA unit, and that they were at borderline landing conditions. They started bringing us in. Before we even got close, Naha informed us they had, again, gone below the GCA minimums for landing. We could not land there. We were just about ready to attempt to make the trip to Japan, although we probably would not have made it, when Kadena called us and said we could land there. We headed north again, and Kadena Ground Control started bringing us in for landing. We were in heavy fog, and could not see anything. Listening to the UHF radio, I could hear the GCA person bringing us in. If you have ever heard one talking, you will think he was vaccinated with a phonograph needle. During the final few minutes, you are talked down with constant, almost uninterrupted dialogue. It sounds something like, “You are now on the glide path, keep your nose up. You are drifting left, turn right two degrees. Your heading is proper, you are fifty feet high, bring it down. You are now on proper heading and glide slope. Keep it there. You are now three miles from the end of the runway, doing well. Your nose just went high, bring it down. You are two miles from touchdown. You’re drifting right. Bring it back. You . . . etc. etc.” The directions and corrections keep coming and coming.
Finally, at some point, the controller tells you that you are over the end of the runway, and that you should be able to see it. Well when he told us that, we couldn’t see anything. For what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, we still failed to see anything. I was thinking we would be colliding with something very soon. Soon the pilot said to the copilot, “I don’t see the damn runway, do you? The copilot said, “I don’t see it either” The controller said that we had to see it by then. Suddenly the pilot said, “I see it!” We were all relieved, whew! But the copilot said, “That’s not the runway, that’s a taxiway.” Pilot said, “Let’s land on it anyhow. If we crash, we might survive.” I think everyone in the crew was happy with that decision. In a few seconds I could feel the touchdown. We still couldn’t see too well, but could determine that it was very narrow and bumpy. We had a roller coaster ride while the propellers were thrown into reverse pitch to slow us down. We still couldn’t see very far ahead, but finally we slowed enough to perform a normal taxi down to the parking area. Everyone in the crew thanked the pilots for the wonderful job of bringing us in. There is an old saying in military aviation. It goes, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” We walked away. That was one of the best landings I ever experienced.