After 11 hours nonstop from New York to Honolulu, I had no plans to hit the beach for surfing.
I was hooking up with an outfit called Pacific Warbirds that takes tourists on thrill rides aboard a vintage SNJ-5 airplane. I would fly over Pearl Harbor on the single-prop aircraft at the same altitude as the Japanese pilots did 71 years ago when they attacked the U.S.
And I had to make it fast. President Barack Obama was about to visit for the holidays, so air-space security restrictions forced me to get my flight done the morning after I arrived, or not at all.
I was born in Japan while my father was stationed in Yokohama during the postwar occupation. But the Warbird adventure particularly interested me because my Uncle Donald Clash, a second-class fire apprentice seaman in the U.S. Navy, was killed aboard the USS Arizona Dec. 7, 1941, during Japan’s sneak attack.
Still earthbound, I ran into rush-hour traffic on my way from the Hawaiian Hilton Village Hotel in Honolulu to Kalaeloa Airport at Barbers Point Naval Air Station. When I arrived a half-hour after the time stipulated, Bruce Mayes, Warbird pilot and ex-military, was not pleased. He had sent me mock orders to “report for duty ” at 9 a.m. sharp.
I was simulating a soldier, and tardiness is inexcusable. My mission: To take reconnaissance photos of the island’s most ravaged areas three days after the big attack.
I was escorted to a small briefing room made up to look like Dec. 10, 1941: stale cigarette butts in an ashtray, 1940s swing music playing on an old radio - “Top Secret” stamped on everything in sight. Even an old teletype machine clicked mechanically in the background.
Sure it’s a bit hokey, but role-playing makes the experience more enjoyable -- and authentic -- says Mayes, a veteran of more than 35 years of flying. Besides the SNJ-5, he has flown B-737s for Aloha Airlines and helicopters for the Army and Coast Guard.
Mayes went over the Japanese attack plan in detail, showing on maps how meticulously the two bombing waves were carried out. While it had seemed like an eternity to the soldiers below, the entire attack took only about 90 minutes,
Next, I was led to a darkened room to watch rare World War II films. Suddenly onscreen was the Arizona, bombed-out and burning. My thoughts immediately turned to my uncle.
By the time we got to the plane, my head was filled with history. The SNJ-5 is the U.S. Navy’s designation for the single-engine North American Aviation T-6 Texan. Ironically in the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” these aircraft, adorned with Japanese markings, simulated attacking Japanese Zeros. In reality, they were venerable U.S. warhorses. Ours, painted yellow and red, resembled planes on the deck of the USS Saratoga.
After instruction in the use of my parachute (“if you have to jump, aim for the back of the wing to avoid being clipped by the tail”), we closed the canopy and took off. I rode directly behind Mayes, with my own stick and rudder -- in theory so students can fly the plane, too, as the two-seater is primarily a trainer aircraft.
But since I was a tourist, Mayes warned me to stay clear of the rudder pedals. Through my radio headset, he relayed a vivid crash tale where, in the fiery wreckage, investigators found a passenger’s shoe caught in those pedals, which had caused the pilot to lose control.
The wild island below receded, taking on the look of a well-manicured arboretum. Mayes immediately pointed out attack landmarks such as Hickam Field. After about 20 minutes, we reached the North Shore and I could see swells breaking off of Waimea and Sunset beaches. From 2,500 feet, the whitewater seemed puny but, in reality, the waves were more than 20 feet high.
After circling south along the east coast, we took a sharp right and headed through the mountain pass made famous in “Tora Tora! Tora!” Then, finally, we zeroed in on Pearl Harbor.
The ships and structures below looked like toys. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help turning back the clock and imagining what Japanese pilots saw that fateful day from where I was -- then what my helpless uncle must have endured below on the Arizona as it burned. The whole thing gave me palpable chills, and I was still shaking when we landed.
Over coffee, Mayes talked about his company, founded in 2009, and who his typical client is. Not surprisingly, most are older and history-conscious. Some, like me, even had a relative involved in the attack. He also told me that my visceral reaction of having been “spoken to” over Pearl Harbor was not uncommon.
As we parted, he mentioned that routinely he competes on the air racing circuit. His nickname: “The Flyin’ Hawaiian.” He joked that I should join him in Reno, Nevada, at this year’s air show to see how fast his plane can really go.
The humor cut any remaining tension I felt and I winked back, telling him I just might, as long as he gave me another ride in his magnificent flying machine.
Essentials: Go to http://vintage-aviation.com to book. Several options are available; the Pearl Harbor Experience costs $1,200. Hawaiian Airlines offers the only direct, nonstop flight from New York JFK to Honolulu. Allow at least 50 minutes for a cab from downtown Honolulu.
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s,” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine, Daniel Akst on books.