Stranded in Tahiti!

Back around 1970, a fellow named George Wray had settled in American Samoa and founded South Pacific Island Airways. Initially, SPIA was one small single-engine plane that flew people back and forth between American Samoa and the neighboring island nation of Western Samoa (now called simply Samoa).

Then George took the plunge and went into the serious airline business. He leased a Boeing 707 and suddenly SPIA was in competition with Hawaiian Airlines for traffic between Samoa and Hawaii.

George moved to Honolulu – by then it was the early 80s – and before long he had added another jet and then a third, and SPIA began regular scheduled flights from Honolulu to Guam and Tahiti.

I had started a small advertising agency and we’d acquired several Tahiti hotels as clients, so it was only natural that we would start doing some work for SPIA, too. That’s when I really got to know George.

It’s tough to make a go of it in the airline business, and SPIA was essentially a one-man operation living on the edge. Some of George’s suppliers had put him on a cash basis and on more than one occasion, SPIA flights sat on the tarmac full of passengers — George always referred to them as “social units aloft” — while he ran around town to raise the money to pay for the jet fuel.

That’s about when I led a small group of travel writers on a “fam – or familiarization — trip” to two of the Tahiti hotels we represented. George was participating in the promotion, so we were flown down to Papeete compliments of SPIA.

Meanwhile, George had won a contract with the United Nations for SPIA to fly peacekeeping troops back and forth to the Middle East. A few weeks earlier, one of those charter flights was taking a contingent of Fijian soldiers from Suva to Lebanon. At a refueling stop in Seattle, the co-pilot reported that a special navigational device – required by the FAA for all planes taking the route over the pole – was not working. The captain, an irascible veteran 707 pilot, took the polar route anyway and delivered the 150 Fijians on time to their proper destination. Somehow the authorities learned of the incident and there was a formal inquiry. According to George, the SPIA captain was asked at the hearing how he thought he could get to his destination without the proper navigational equipment. The captain bristled and said, “I figured I’d just keep going straight until we came to Norway and then hang a right.”

That was all the FAA needed to hear and SPIA was grounded instantly, which stranded my little group of writers in Papeete. George flew all of us home — Qantas to Los Angeles and United back to Honolulu — but the other 100-plus “social units” were left to fend for themselves.
No one was really surprised that SPIA disappeared soon after that. George Wray went back to Samoa, but before he left town, he stopped by the agency. He said he came to say good-by. And he paid his bill.