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Wednesday, January 7, 2004



Emergency shows
need for Midway

A Continental flight made an
emergency stop on the atoll


The emergency landing of a Boeing 777 carrying 294 people on the Midway Atoll airstrip yesterday again raises questions about the need to keep the landing strip permanently open for future aircraft emergencies.

The landing field on Midway's Sand Island was operating on emergency federal funding yesterday when Continental Flight 6, flying more than 11 hours nonstop to Houston from Japan's Narita Airport, began losing oil pressure, according to Continental spokeswoman Julie King.

At 3:10 a.m., the plane landed "without incident" on the runway, King said. There were no injuries, she said. The passengers were taken off the plane to wait for the airline to fly in a maintenance crew, a new starter and 300 box lunches from Honolulu.

The jet from Honolulu could not land at Midway until nightfall because seabirds that nest on the atoll could fly into the engines and cause an accident. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains the atoll as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, prefers night landings, when the seabirds are less likely to fly, said Barbara Maxfield, a spokeswoman for the agency.

The plane was scheduled to leave for Houston at 9 p.m. yesterday.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case said the emergency landing yesterday "demonstrates graphically why it is so important to maintain a mid-Pacific emergency landing strip on Midway."

Midway's airfield has been used for refueling commercial, military and private aircraft. Commercial airlines using twin-engine planes for nonstop trans-Pacific flights need the airstrip to comply with Federal Aviation and Administration regulations stating that there be an alternative emergency landing site within three hours.

The FAA spokesman in Los Angeles was unable to comment last night on the need for the Midway landing site.

Petty Officer Brookann Anderson said the Midway airport is key to U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations "because it's a great place for our C-130s to land."

She said: "We cover 12.2 million square miles, and that's a lot of water. Planes can only fly so far before they need refueling. Midway is also great for picking up people from commercial vessels who need to be medivaced."

Case said the airport is "important for Hawaii tourism, for the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, for homeland security, and it's important to enforcing international fishing laws in the Northwest Pacific."

Case said that for the last year, he and others have worked for "month-by-month extensions" of federal funding to keep the airport open.

"But that is only a stopgap measure," Case said.

Last week, Fish and Wildlife announced temporary funding to keep the airport open through January. It costs about $8 million a year to operate the airport, according to one congressional document.

On Jan. 20, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on an Omnibus Appropriations Bill that contains $6 million to operate the Midway airstrip through Sept. 30. The House has already passed the bill.

The U.S. Congress is debating whether the Fish and Wildlife Service should be replaced as the federal agency responsible for the atoll's management.

Last September, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., introduced a bill to replace the agency, which he criticized, in part, for not preserving the site for its military history or maintaining the airport.

Case noted Fish and Wildlife does not have the money to maintain the whole atoll. Given its strategic mid-Pacific location, he said the atoll is important to the operations of the Coast Guard, the FAA and the military.

While all four groups have an interest, Case said it has been a challenge to get them "to agree on a co-sharing arrangement."

The Lugar bill said: "The airfield on Midway Atoll is an important asset for military and civilian aircraft as an emergency airfield for refueling and emergencies in the northern Pacific. It is important that the airfield be maintained in a functional state."

Midway, once a major military installation that supported more than 5,000 people, was the focus of a World War II battle that many historians believe was a turning point.

In September 1993, the Midway Naval Air Facility was operationally closed. It was environmentally cleaned and in 1996 turned over to the Department of the Interior.

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