Plane strands dozen on atoll
A group of 12 Nature Conservancy supporters, mostly from Louisiana, was stranded on Palmyra Atoll awaiting word that a plane would retrieve them today.
The turboprop plane that transported them blew an engine Saturday as it was about to take off from Hawaii to pick them up, and there is only a small window of opportunity to bring them back today on a substitute plane, says a Nature Conservancy spokesman.
The packed coral runway on Palmyra makes it impossible for jets to land, and the only other private aircraft on Hawaii equipped to fly long range over water and capable of landing on that runway has been awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval since Saturday.
"We have to get approval pretty quickly to make it all work," said Grady Timmons, spokesman for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, last night. "If the FAA doesn't give us clearance or it takes longer than tomorrow, I think we have to find another means."
Several members need to get off the atoll, located 1,160 miles south of Honolulu, to meet urgent business obligations, Timmons said. One man, who is the president and chairman of the board of a company, is desperately trying to make a board meeting in New York.
A few are staff members, but the majority are directors and trustees of the Nature Conservancy from Louisiana.
The group must get to Christmas Island, two hours by plane from Palmyra, to catch a charter flight.
But Pacific Air Charters Director of Operations Pat McNamee said he has been frustrated trying to get FAA approval to put on an additional fuel tank to make the six-hour trip to Christmas Island, where the plane will refuel with aviation gasoline, then take the two-hour trip to Palmyra to shuttle the passengers to Christmas Island. McNamee said he must also try to get authorization to operate between Kiribati and Palmyra, which is U.S.-owned.
Pacific Air Charters has the only private plane capable of making the flight and landing on the coral runway: a Cessna 421-C Golden Eagle.
The Grumman Gulfstream 1, the only aircraft certified to land on Palmyra on a regular basis, experienced engine failure Saturday while on the ground in Hawaii, and it will take at least a week for a replacement engine to arrive.
The Nature Conservancy charters the plane and takes several groups of donors each year to visit the atoll where they can see the research work being conducted by a consortium of nine major universities at a research center there. Visitors stay in comfortable tents or cabins.
The atoll, a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge, is home to more than a million nesting seabirds and is a natural laboratory.
"The Nature Conservancy purchased Palmyra Atoll in 2000 because it is one of the most spectacular marine wilderness areas left on Earth," Timmons said.