The runway on Nauru is 5200 feet long, the Pacific Ocean at both ends leaving no room for greaser landings. The airport terminal is barely 100 yards from the runway, and it seems that half the population of Nauru came to watch the arrival of the daily flights. I soon found out why this was such an attraction.
Through the window of the crew bus, I saw the Boeing 737 curve around the back of the island on close base leg and then suddenly there it was on short final with full flap and smoke streaming from both tailpipes. At 130 knots, it smacked down right on the 1000-foot marker with a flash of blue smoke from skidding tyres, while at the same time the top surfaces of the wings came alive with ground and flight spoilers. Simultaneously, the reversers opened wide with a shattering roar of increasing power. Now that was a man’s aeroplane.
A few months later, I had a command on the 737 and by the time I moved on ten years later, I had flown over 7000 hours on type. There were many exciting times flying the 737 – too many to mention here – except perhaps one that often repeated itself.
Nauru was a tiny phosphate-rich island with lots of money. There was no shortage of new cars, powerful motor bikes and beer, and inevitably each weekend would see the death of young men wiping themselves out in vehicle accidents caused by speed and alcohol. A favourite sport would be to race a departing 737, either in a car or on a motor bike. The main road around the island paralleled the runway by 50 yards and this gave a mile of straight but narrow road before it curved away from the surrounding ocean reef.
These obese young bloods (Editor’s note: According to the World Health Organization, Nauru is the world’s fattest country, with an average BMI of 34 to 35) had 1500cc Honda Goldwings and other equally massive motor bikes. They would cruise around the island playing loud rock and roll music from loud-speakers mounted on the bikes or on Land Rovers.
Occasionally, when the police were looking the other way, one would see a Nauruan sitting astride his Goldwing abeam the threshold of runway 12, revving the engine while waiting for the departing 737 to take off. Crash helmets were unheard of, and a T-shirt, shorts and sandals the only protection from a 100mph crash.
Backtracking the departure runway you knew that the race was about to begin. Turning to line up, you would see a Nauruan on his big bike casually waiting by the side of the runway. Passengers would wave from their windows and as the brakes were released, the Nauruan on his Goldwing would open up to full throttle to race us down the runway. At full thrust of 2.18 EPR, the ground trembled and spectators covered their ears to protect themselves from the incredible crackling roar which was the wonderful characteristic of the JT8D engines. A combined 31,000 pounds of thrust makes an awful lot of noise on a small island. With houses a few paces from the runway, noise abatement was for wimps.
It was quite a sight to see the Goldwing at full chat, with its rider head down, and burning rubber a few yards off our wing tip. At the 80 knot call, the Goldwing would be ahead of us by a nose but the game was well and truly over by rotate speed of 130 knots. It was good fun and few got hurt, although I often wondered how many of these riders nearly ended up in the Pacific Ocean as they negotiated the 45 degree bend in the road just a few yards from the end of the runway.
Following my retirement from airline flying at age 60, I have returned to visit Nauru on several occasions. The grunty Boeing 737-200 has been replaced by the quieter and bigger 737-400, but the motor bikes are still the big Goldwings and Yamahas – and now a little rusty from the salt spray of the Pacific rollers.
The headstones of their riders gradually fill the cemetery grounds.