Bora Bora Lagoon and Mountain
Bora Bora, Tahiti – Photo by Red O’Laughlin

1976 was full of ups and downs. My brother and my maternal grandmother passed away. My parents were living in Japan and I had to make the phone call to let them know. Never easy! However, it was a year that one of my top bucket list items was fulfilled.

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Adventures in Paradise was one of my favorite television shows. I was a teenager and Gardner McKay played Captain Adam Troy. I fell in love with the tropics and sailing while watching scenes from the schooner, Tiki, in Papeete, Tahiti and around French Polynesia.

I was a Naval Reservist assigned to VP-91 in Moffett Field, California. I was asked to be part of the initial flight crew to take some ocean scientists to Tahiti. The scientists required more exacting navigation than our planes (P3 – Orion) were capable of at that time. The Navy had a Litton Aero Products LTN-72 inertial navigation system installed in one of our aircraft.

We did a short four to five-hour navigation equipment familiarization flight to learn the capabilities of the system. We returned to the exact position after landing and found the error to be just a few yards. This was far better than anything I had seen in my flying days up to that point.

Everything was set to depart the next day. We arrived at Moffett Field, preflighted the equipment, and prepared to fly to Hawaii for the first leg of our journey. However, the LTN-72 would not cooperate. We started it several times and it would never align properly. Someone called Litton and within an hour, we were flying to Los Angeles to pick up another LTN-72 nav system.

It took the techs less than an hour to remove the old system and install the new one. A point worth noting with regards to the installation of the LTN-72 on P3B aircraft. It was installed between the TACCO and NAV stations on the rails. The power cables were run behind the TAC Station and over the top of the walk space and into an electronics main load center. I was asked by the installer at Moffett Field for a good place to install a circuit breaker. I suggested a spot and it was done. On all future installations in P3s, this same circuit breaker location was used. Interesting how some things happen.

We took off from Los Angeles and flew to Hickam AFB, Honolulu, Hawaii to spend one night and pick up the scientists and their equipment. We loaded dozens of sonobuoys – BT buoys (AN/SSQ-36-Bathytherograph Sonobuoy). The BT buoy provides a thermal gradient measurement from the surface of the water to a specific water depth.

The scientists were going to measure the equatorial waters and currents from ten degrees north of the equator to ten degrees south of the equator. Every fifty miles we dropped a sonobuoy and the water temperatures were recorded. For us, this was a bit of a boring flight. For the scientists, you could almost hear the oohs and ahhs as the data came in.

The mission required that we spend four days in Tahiti before returning to Hawaii and then back to California. The scientists wanted four days to analyze their data and determine any possible changes for the return leg – dropping buoys fifty miles apart. We loaded extra BT buoys to ensure we had plenty in case there were any last-minute changes.

The flight crew had four days off in Tahiti – my bucket list item! I spent the first day in Papeete and did the tourist things. I remembered a friend of mine who had flown the South Pacific as a crew member on a commercial airliner. He told me that if I was ever fortunate to get to Papeete, catch the very first flight to Bora Bora. I did that.

The next morning, I paid for a flight from Papeete to Bora Bora. It was a short flight – less than 150 miles. We landed on the atoll surrounding the lagoon of Bora Bora. A boat picked us up and took us to Vaitape, the largest city on Bora Bora. I called around and found a place to stay for a couple of nights. A second bucket list item checked off. Snorkeling, swimming, sailing, and many other tropical things filled my time.

I returned to Papeete in time to help the crew load the aircraft with sonobuoys. After that, I got on another airplane and flew to Moorea – literally a few miles from Papeete. It was interesting that a goat and chickens were on the airplane. I spent a wonderful night in Moorea and made it back in plenty of time to be ready for the return flight to Hawaii.

We didn’t have a contract for any type of rations to eat on the return flight. I don’t know who arranged to have Air France provide meals – maybe it was the scientists? Regardless, a superb meal and wine (which we didn’t drink until we landed and the engines shut down.)

I asked the head scientists what they learned on that flight. He told me that they learned something equivalent to between ten and twenty percent of all the information that had been available about Pacific equatorial tropical waters and currents than had been known prior to the flight. He said that the costs more than justified the time and money spent. He was extremely pleased with the flight and our assistance.

The return was like the flight down to Tahiti. We dodged a few thunderstorms just north and south of the equator, but nothing else that was memorable. The scientists got off and took their equipment with them. We off-loaded the buoys for the next flight to Tahiti – in a month or so. The night was nearly as tropical in Hawaii as it was in Tahiti, but with more civilization.

The next morning, we returned to Moffett Field. The nav error (as best we could determine in Hawaii and Tahiti were less than 100 yards. At Moffett Field, we found the nav error (from Hawaii to California) to be less than 20 yards.

I enjoyed this flight so much that I took my wife to Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. I have since been to dozens of countries (61 all total), and I firmly believe that my first trip to Tahiti stands out as one of the best I’ve ever had in my life.

Live Longer & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin –

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