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Riding a moped down the Enola Gay's runway, and six other deserted airports to discover...
posted by Richard Green on 20/01/2017
 

Aerial shots of Tinian Island; wartime runways on the left, and overgrown today on the right

It was once the largest air base in the world, but these days the tiny Western Pacific island of Tinian has one just one well-maintained runway, but many partly overgrown ones. The sleepy Micronesian island is home to just 3,000 people, but it's criss-crossed by runways in the same way Manhattan Island is crossed by streets.

Though most of the old tarmac strips have been reclaimed by the jungle, the 18 kilometres of taxiways and nine runways are still very visible, and whizzing along them on a scooter I can't recommend highly enough for a bonkers day out.

Atomic bomb pit no.1, by moped; aerial shot of runway and admin building. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I felt particularly Lilliputian on the moped and a little brushed by lunacy too, as I was holidaying on a nearby island of beaches and resort hotels, and only flew to Tinian on a whim to search for the spot where history's most famous bomber had its most infamous bomb winched into its belly.


I'd ridden along three runways before spotting a square clump of vegetation and a wooden sign with yellow writing saying - 'Atomic Bomb Pit No 1'. It was at this spot that on the 5th of August 1945 a B-29 Superfortress called 'Enola Gay' - named after the pilot's mother - was loaded with a bomb called 'Little Boy', and took off bound for Hiroshima.

The two atomic bomb pits, and exploring the runways with mopeds. Photos My Bathroom Wall

The next day another aircraft carried another heinous bomb and dropped it onto the city of Nagasaki, six days later the Japanese surrendered and the war officially ended on the 2nd of September 1945.

Controversially, the US armed forces have cleared a couple of the disused runway in recent years and have conducted military exercises there.

The 'Enola Gay', a B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima

Getting there: Tinian is a member of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas - a 101 km² island lying 215 kilometres north of Guam and just nine kilometres southwest of neighbouring Saipan. The only flights serving the grandiosely names Tinian International Airport are scheduled light aircraft to and from Saipan operated by Star Marianas Air See Tinian International Airport

One more thing: I always thought that the plane that dropped the bomb was called after the pilot's girlfriend, but in fact he gave it his mother's name. Enola Gay Tibbets was born on the 29th of September 1890 in Carroll County, Iowa, and died on the 23rd of July 1966. Her son eventually became General Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. and died on the 1st of November 2007 - his ashes were scattered over the English Channel, which he had flown over on many bombing raids during the war.

***
 
There are many abandoned airfields in the world some of them left to rot, others given new leases of life. As unlikely as it may seem, they make for surprising side-trips. Here are six of the best.
 
Templehof, Berlin:
Opened in 1923, Templehof was the first airport to be served by an underground railway, and is where the forerunner of Lufthansa - known as Deutsche Luft Hansa - was founded in 1926. The terminal was redesigned in the 1930's to be more suitable as the gateway airport to the Nazi project of 'Germania'.

Built in the shape of an eagle in flight, the airport had many innovative features, but owing to the outbreak of World War II it was never fully completed. After the war, the airport was the linchpin in the 1948-9 Berlin Airlift, when allied aircraft broke Stalin's blockade of the city with a Herculean effort - using almost 700 aircraft to ferry in almost 400,000tons of supplies.

It's located just 7.5 kilometres from the city centre and became a handy alternative to the newer airports that were situation much further out of town. I flew in a couple of times with Lufthansa, who operated flights from the similarly bijou and central London City Airport. Templehof closed n 2008 and is now Berlin's largest and most anarchistic open space - its two preserved runways taken over by joggers, skaters, kite-flyers and birders who come to glimpse the rare goshawks. See Templehof Airport
 

The Berlin Airlift, baggage hall, public park, and Junkers Ju-52 at Templehof Airport
 
Ellinikon Airport, Athens, Greece:

Opened in 1938 just four miles south of the Parthenon, Ellinikon was the country's main airport until it shut up shop in 2001 to make way for the 2004 Olympic Games. Part of the runways and terminal survive, and three Olympic Airways jets sit forlornly by a fence, but all traces will vanish with an 11-billion dollar development about to start on the site. It will include a tower, aquarium, parks and apartment blocks, and according to the developer's delightfully unaware CEO - will put Greece on the global tourist destination map'.

Disused buildings at the old Ellinikon Airport, with Olympic Airways aircraft on the apron

Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong:
Kai Tak was the nemesis of nervous flyers from 1925 until the last passenger buttocks unclenched when it closed in 1998. Final approach at Kai Tak involved a last minute 47 degree right turn to avoid a mountainside, a skim over tower blocks and straightening up around 140 feet from the start of the runway. So famous were these dramatic swoops - especially during crosswinds - that you'll still find DVD compilations in Hong Kong street markets. The airport buildings are long gone and in 2013 the new Kai Tak Cruise Terminal opened on part of the old runway.

A Cathay Pacific 747-400 cleaves the dense Kowloon housing on approach to Kai Tak Airport

Croydon Airport, London:
This south London aerodrome waved off Bert Hinkler on his pioneering solo flight to Darwin in 1928, and regular Imperial Airways/Qantas services to Brisbane from 1934, via Brindisi, Basra, Batavia, and many more. Today the surviving building - the first purpose built airport terminal in the world and the first control tower in the world, opened in 1928, is an office block. However a De Havilland Heron on stilts outside the entrance heralds something of the building's history.

The busy A23 crosses a grassy area here, across what was the main runway. The terminal building is run as a charity, is open to visitors on the first Sunday of the month, when knowledgeable volunteers are on hand to explain entertaining facts about the place and to show you the collection of memorabilia in the old control tower.

Incidentally, the De Havilland was the type of plane that made the last flight out when Croydon closed in 1959. See the Croydon Airport Society.

Croydon Aerodrome saw the world's first purpose built control tower and terminal

Nicosia International Airport, Cyprus:
Since the Turkish invasion of north Cyprus in 1974, the capital's airport has been marooned in a UN protected no-man's land, with a crumbling Cyprus Airways Trident aircraft lending to the scene of decay. To see the airport these days you'll have to sweet-talk someone wearing a blue helmet. I did just this a few years back, and ended up being taken in a UN white jeep to see the rusting baggage trolleys and rows of black seats in the deserted departure gates, now thick in dust and bird droppings.

A Cyprus Airways BAC Trident still on the Tarmac at the now UN monitored Nicosia Airport

W.H. Bramble Airport, Montserrat:
Quiet since the 17th century, the Soufriere Hills Volcano nevertheless blew its top on the 25th of July 1997, spewing five million cubic metres of lava that destroyed the island's capital and airport. Until a new airport opened in 2005, access to Montserrat was by boat or helicopter. Speaking of which, Caribbean Helicopters runs sightseeing fights from Antigua that include flying past the control tower and down the runway - a third of its length buried in volcanic ash. Caribbean Helicopters

The runway and control tower of W H Bramble airport partly submerged by volcanic ash


TRAVEL QUIRK
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Oceania at the Royal Academy: the first major exhibition of Oceanic art in ther UK
posted by Richard Green on 10/10/2018
 

Gruesomely carved mid-20th centruy canoe from West Papua. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Oceania covers roughly a third of the earth's surface, yet exclude the land masses of Australia, New Zealand and Papua, and its galaxy of pin-prick islands combine to make a territory a little larger than Iceland, with a poppulation of just two million.

Despite this challenging geography, the RA's exhibition shows that the region's artistic legacy is remarkably coherent. As Captain Cook discovered on his seminal voyage in the Endeavour, the islands were already interconnected by the phenominal seafaring and navigational skills of the locals.

Originating in the islands of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, the artefacts on display are beautiful and poignant - made primarily of wood, bark and fabric, and embelished further with human hair, feathers, shark teeth.

Not the Tiki Room, but a Tiki room for sure. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's imposible to speak of Pacific history without reference to Captain Jame Cook (1728-1779), who's journey in the Endevour was largely responsible for mapping the islands, and putting them into the conciousness of his contemporaries. On display are several artifacts collected by Cook.

Of all the world's cultures, I find it's those of the Pacific Islands that can't be guessed at without actually visiting and experiencing them. And so anyone wandering the exhibition who has been to the region, or has a dream to, may be a little disappointed.

But as well as the brochure paradise pushing, the islands have contributed extreme skill at navigating and sailing - the wooden objects are where Tiki came from, and the Samoan word and practice of Tatu is where tattooing came from. 

The 200-year-old Hawaiian god Ku (or island snatcher): Photo My Bathroom Wall

The exhibition contains all the elements of the elemental cultures that you'd expect; rude nudes, angry gods and outrigger canoes. Some of the startling imagery was8 plundered by modernists, including operhaps Picasso and his Les Demoiselles and the like, but a more flippant evolution of the style emerged as Tiki. The 2.7m tall breadfruit Tree carving of Hawaii's god Ku can be seen in faxcimilie today in Tiki bars from Moscow, Muscat and Manchester.

This show makes a great change of pace at a large panoramic film by New Zealand artist, Lisa Reihana called 'in Pursuit of Venus [infected]'. It depicts the interaction of indigenous peoples with the arriving explorers and traders - from relatively harmless trading, to cataclysm of sexually transmitted diseases. The population of the Hawaiian Islands stood at around 250,000 in 1778, but thanks to Cook's and susequent crews fell to just 37,500 by 1900.

The show is a fascinating glimpse into the early cultures of Oceania, with xxx.

Lisa Reihana's constantly moving panoramic film. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The Oceania exhibition continues at the Royal Academy until 10th December; entry is £18 (concessions £15). If it piques your interest to visit the Pacific Islands, see My Bathroom Wall, and for a look at contemporary Tiki culture see My Bathroom Wall.


 
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