The Gooney Birds of Midway Island

I was an aircrewman in seaplane squadron VP 48 (Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight). As the time approached for our deployment to Iwakuni, Japan, story-telling in regard to the flight across the Pacific increased. Our seaplanes had reciprocal engines and due to their range, the trip meant that we would be island-hopping across the ocean. We would first fly from San Diego to San Francisco. Then, we would go to Hawaii, Kwajalein, Midway, Guam, and Iwakuni. From San Francisco on, they were all 10 to 12 hour flights.


Martin Marlin P5M-2

Some of the most interesting stories we heard, and certainly the funniest, were about the Gooney birds of Midway Island. A Gooney bird is an albatross with a 7 foot wing span that looks beautiful and graceful in the air but is so clumsy it looks like a clown when taking off or landing.

We got to San Francisco okay, spent the night, and then on to Hawaii for the next night. The 3rd day we got to Kwajalein with no problem. We got up the next morning on Kwaj and it had been raining and the sky was ugly. After breakfast, we went down to the pier and took a boat out to our plane which was tied to a buoy in the harbor. After filling up with gas and lunch supplies (and coffee, of course) we hung the JATO bottles (jet assisted take-off). With a full load of gas and rough seas we would need some help getting in the air. There was a coral reef that formed the outer edge of the harbor so that pretty much defined the limit of our take-off run. The sea was a little choppy but the pilots thought we could get off alright. The pilot increased the power and we started our run down the sea lane. The choppy seas were beating the devil out of us but we got up to speed and they fired the first pair of JATO bottles. This was supposed to put us up on the “step” where we were planing just as you do in a motor boat when your speed is sufficient to cause you to ride on the crest of the waves. Normally, that first pair of JATO bottles gets you up on the step and then, when you have enough speed, you fire the second pair of bottles to lift off.

The pilot fired the 2nd pair of bottles in an effort to get up on the step but it didn’t help. We didn’t have enough speed to fly but we were sure closing on that coral reef at a pretty good rate. Our pilot stayed with it as long as he could but had to give up and pull the power off and abort. We taxied back toward the pier and tied up to a buoy and waited for the boat to bring us four more JATO bottles. The pilot, co-pilot, and navigator had all been watching the wind and the currents as we made our first attempt at taking off and after discussing it, decided that with a slight change in heading we could get enough lift to get off all right. We hung the new JATO bottles taxied back out into the sea lane and this time, got into the air and headed for Midway.

In the middle of the day, we passed the half-way point, the “point of no return”, and Kwajalein Air Control had handed us off to Midway Air Control. We were at 10,000 feet and probably doing 140 knots, and as far as you could see in any direction there was nothing but the beautiful blue Pacific. All of a sudden, the starboard engine belched out some smoke and started making some weird noises. The pilots shut down the engine and feathered the prop as the navigator checked his numbers and calculated our position. As the rest of the crew went to their emergency positions, I fired up the radar and took a couple of sweeps with the antenna. I could see for about 120 miles and there wasn’t a ship in sight. Meanwhile, the pilot had sent a Mayday call and was now talking to Midway Air Control. The pilot gave our current position, heading, airspeed, altitude, and all that stuff. Midway acknowledged and said that they were launching a Grumman UF-1 Search and Rescue plane that will meet us and accompany us to Midway. The Grumman is a smaller seaplane than our Martin P5M but if we went down they could drop us additional life rafts or supplies. For them to make an open-sea landing was not a practical idea.


Grumman UF-1 Albatross

The pilot gave the word to jettison some of the on-board equipment that we could do without and the crew heaved it out the port hatch. The next thing to go would have been our clothing and personal gear but fortunately it didn’t come to that.

It seemed like it took forever for the Grumman to meet up with us. Our navigator figured out what time I should be able to spot him on radar and sure enough…there he was. When he was close enough to eyeball, we were thrilled! The flight on in to Midway was without incident and we made a smooth single-engine landing.

Midway Island had been a waypoint for seaplanes for many years. There was a large concrete ramp extending into the water for launching and recovering the flying boats. They had and maintained several sets of wheels also. The P5M didn’t have landing gear or wheels. The wheels were designed with floats and at the time of recovery were towed by a boat out to the airplanes and attached by a simple pin and clamp device. Then, a cable was attached to the tail at the keel position and the plane was towed up the ramp backwards by a heavy tractor-like piece of equipment known as a Buddha.

We went through the recovery process and after being towed up the ramp our plane was parked on the apron nearby. We were finally in Gooney Bird Land and surrounded by hundreds or thousands of the creatures.

Gooney Bird Landing

Albatross/Gooney Bird About To Make A Crash Landing

(notice the look of terror on its face)

We were on Midway Island almost a month. Most of that time was spent waiting for the new engine and some associated parts that turned out to be faulty. Most of those days waiting for parts were spent either swimming or sitting in the shade of our plane’s wing and watching the gooney birds. They were so graceful once airborne but looked so ridiculous when taking off or landing. Naturally, they walked or ran like a duck, all spraddle-legged and freaky looking. They had to run several yards before getting enough speed and lift to get into the air. After watching them, we decided that the most successful take-offs were those where the bird making the take-off run, ran across a bump or hill or berm that caused enough of an up-draft to give them the lift needed to get airborne.

Landings were really a challenge. Every square foot of ground had a bird sitting on it so there was no clear “runway”. And, the birds always came in too fast. You just knew that any attempt to run on those ugly little feet wasn’t going to work. But, they would come swooping down, lower those feet, and start stepping on the heads of every bird in their path. This went on for several feet until they finally stumbled and crashed.

There were a few birds that could make a decent landing and we didn’t know if they were smarter or just lucky. The birds acted much like an airplane making a landing on a short runway. As they made their approach, they would pull their hose up and into a full stall and then take the power off slowly and settle to the ground. Beating the wings slowly allowed them to control the descent. I’m supplying a link to a video that shows one bird making a good landing as I have just described.

Words can’t do justice to the actions of the gooney birds. Watch the video that I’m providing the link for. There’s a lot of funny stuff on the Internet. Do a search on “Gooney Birds of Midway Island, Gooney Bird take-offs, Gooney Bird landings, etc.” and the results will give you some good laughs.

Dave Thomas
October 24, 2014


3 thoughts on “The Gooney Birds of Midway Island

  1. I remember the “gooney birds” in Germany, flying low over the road that went around the runway. It used to scare us to death, thinking it would scrape the top off our car. Whacky fun. 🙂


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