It was because he stayed at Maku‘u when he was a small kid that my Pop’s cousin Frank Kamahele became a jet pilot and also the manager of the Hilo and Kona airports.
About a mile down the coast from Tutu’s house in Maku‘u, toward Hawaiian Beaches, was an island called Moku ‘Opihi. During World War II, Hell Fire and other planes flew from Hilo and used that island for target practice.
The pilots knew there was a small kid at the house who jumped up and down waving at the planes. Some would fly low and turn sideways, then smile and wave at the small kid. Others would wiggle their wings and buzz the house.
The small kid knew that he would become a pilot one day. He did not know how; just that he would.
Later, when that kid Frank Kamahele was at Pahoa High School, a new teacher came from Texas and became the basketball coach. Frank loved basketball, and the new coach helped him to go to the University of Hawai‘i on a scholarship to play basketball. It so happened that the University of Hawai‘i had an Air Force ROTC program, which Frank joined.
Upon graduating, Frank applied to go to flight school. They told him to go home and wait for an opening, and one came a few months later. Next thing he knew, he was in Arizona at flight school.
‘Luckiest person in the world’
Frank told me recently that he feels like the luckiest person in the world. He came from a very poor family, and no one in the family had gone to college. If it hadn’t been for the planes flying overhead and a kind, dedicated teacher from Texas, he might have had a career as a “cut cane man.” He was pretty good at that and earned $200 a month for contract cane cutting. At that time, it was a lot of money.
Frank was a cool-headed person. He told me about the worse thing that happened to him during his flying career. It happened at Honolulu International Airport once when he was taking off: when he was around 150 feet in the air, an engine fell off. He was piloting a KC135 refueling tanker –- a flying bomb the size of a Boeing 707.
He said the Control Tower called and asked: “Do you realize you lost engine number four?”
“Roger,” Frank replied.
“I repeat – do you realize that you lost engine number four?”
“Roger.” That was the extent of his conversation with the Tower. In the meantime, Frank shut off the engine, the fuel, etc. He did not want a fire to start.
It happened that he was on his routine annual check ride, so an Air Force inspector was along for the ride and sitting in the jump seat. Except for the engine falling off, everything was going well. The plane flew on three engines, no problem.
Back on the horse
Once they stabilized at altitude, Frank requested permission to land and get another plane to finish his mission. He knew things were going smoothly and that he needed to get his crew back up in the air again to keep up everyone’s confidence. When they landed uneventfully, he asked the flight inspector if he wanted to go back up with them.
The inspector told him: “I’m sure you all will do just fine.” He could not wait to get off that plane and on the ground.
After his career in the Air Force, Frank returned to the Big Island and flew a 6-passenger tourist tour plane. He told me he could not keep on doing that because it was too boring and uneventful.
So he went to O‘ahu to work at the airport as an administrator, and the Hilo/Kona airports manager job came up. He flew back to Hilo and applied for the job, which he kept for 17 years.
This is an example of how you just never know what has an influence on a young kid and might change his or her entire life for the better. It convinces me that the $1 million annual TMT contribution toward the Big Island’s K-12 education will be so valuable to our children.