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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.

6 Comments

  1. I flew for George Wray in the late 70s . I’ve never met a more dishonest, untrustworthy individual. Most people don’t know that the reason that he was in Samoa in the first place was that he was disbarred in the US. You couldn’t imagine the disdain that the FAA developed towards him after a couple overt lies. The sycophants that he had working for him as Director of Operations and Director of Maintenance were equally unsavory and disreputable. Jeff Dean in particular.
    True slime ball.

  2. Good morning, bonjour Stanford! Is George Wray still alive? I remember his defunct airline HK (code attributed nowadays to Hong Kong Airlines) , enabling Alaskans to warm up on either Oahu or Tutuila. Nowadays Tafuna Int’l is solely serviced by HA, logo to open in April, a direct link HNL to BOS, to become the longest domestic nonstop air service in USA. Contemporary commercial aviation usually targets profit rather than facilitating passengers’ transportation. As French would say ; c’est dans l’air du temps! Feel welcome to add me on your messenger, perhaps we may discuss airline matters among other subjects! Kind regards, Michel

      1. It is my understanding that George Wray passed away a time ago. I know his son is still an active lawyer either in Hawaii or in Florida. That is the latest I know of him.

  3. Mahalo for the nice comment and the additional insight to George. I liked him a lot. He had guts and he had courage … not the same thing, but both admirable qualities in him.

  4. Jim: There are many other “tall tail’s” of Mr. Wray that I heard when I was growing up. My Pop, Stan Fichtman, was a big fan of his and even worked for George in the mid ’80 trying to bring the airline back from the dead, if you will, after that Soviet/Norwegian incident. Airlines like SPIA were, literally, a once in a lifetime experience for anyone who had a chance to be a part of it. Some of my fondest memories come when I walked over to one of the 707’s that were on the Diamond Head Tarmac there at HNL, him trying to be sure the airplane was good enough to go without getting the airline into any more trouble. Trouble was exactly what you described – money was super tight and always delivered at the last minute before departure. I met George once, he was in his wheelchair and he shook my hand using what we now call a “fist bump”. Despite what people say about him, he gave my father good memories and a good time working…experiences he would still talk about to this day. Nice story about George and SPIA. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

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