I first arrived to the Blessed Isle in February of 1973. After three months of training on the mainland, mostly in the city of Chuncheon, in mountainous Gangwon province, the Peace Corps (KPCV) had found me enthusiastic and fit enough for assignment to remote Jeju Island. My ride that day was a vintage KAL Fokker Friendship F-27. Long out of production — but guaranteed reliable. A choice of North Korean hijackers, I learned later. Insurance, in any event, could be purchased at a kiosk in the airport. The Korean gentleman in the seat next to me beamed “It has Rose Rice engines!” And they roared mightily, I might add.
My first glimpse of Mt. Halla was just short of two hours out of Gimpo. The little Fokker seated 32 passengers. I had an under-wing window seat (mainly because I had won my first of many Korean cross-tarmac domestic passenger race-to-plane events, as related below). Losers (numbering 16) had aisle seats and no opportunity to enjoy a lot of marvelous Korean village agricultural terrain along the flight path. This plane flew non-stop twice a day. Tickets were expensive. Demand was high. Sunshine or storm, I learned, its seats were always sold out in advance of its flights. Once seating had been sorted out, takeoff was swift and uneventful. The day was not only crystal clear, but cold, and windy to a fault.
An hour or so into the flight the high-decibel drone of the turboprops hanging adjacent the fuselage had mellowed to a relaxing hum. Their at first worrisome vibrations within the passenger cabin had morphed into an unexpected asset – a free massage.
Too soon the mainland and then most of the south coastal archipelago gradually retreated from my sight line, I focused my attention on the big island looming larger with every passing second. The Fokker then began its descent. Whitecaps danced atop what appeared even from 10,000 feet altitude to be monster waves.
These Straits of Jeju had from historic times posed a challenging crossing for sea craft of all sizes. In 1973 the Busan and Mokpo ferries were an inexpensive alternative to crossing the Straits via air, but likely as not proved hell for all landlubbers. Dramamine, for those who had access to it, was no match for the rolling seas during a ferry passage to Jeju. That is why low-paid Peace Corps Volunteers working on the mainland rarely enjoyed their visits by ferry to Jeju. By the time they recovered from their seasickness, which took several days, it was time for them to return to the mainland. That said, flying the Fokkers — the expensive option — could itself prove to be a stomach-churning and harrowing experience.
Approaching the island at a rapid rate of descent now, the pilot conducted a fly-over of the landing strip at fairly low altitude prior to his final descent. On that particular day there was no snow accumulation at or near sea level. This made me very happy because it justified my good sense to choose for my Peace Corps Korea volunteer site the year-round-warmest place possible. I had always dreamed of living on a Pacific Island, and here I was right where I wanted to be! Granted, it was no Tahiti, but … was Jeju Island not widely known as “The Hawaii of Korea”? The complex answer to that question requires an entire essay of its own, and so I will save it for another occasion.
At least one fly-over prior to landing was explained to me later as a standard procedure at Jeju City airport and precaution against aircraft/stray animal collisions on the runway. The ritual was said to be a relic practice left over from primitive flight plans drawn up two or three decades previous, when free-ranging pasture animals ubiquitous on the island had priority over occasional airplane landings.
Out the window, Mt. Halla was snow-capped and majestic to behold so close at hand, and unforgettable from my airborne perspective. I composed a letter home that very night wherein I described to my parents my first impression of Mt. Halla as “heart-stopping, drop-dead awesome.” As it happened, a decade after I wrote that letter a military transport plane slammed into the flanks of the awesome volcano during foul weather, killing all aboard.
I have the greatest respect for the brave pilots whose hazardous missions bring them again and again at close quarters to challenge the capricious winds of this soaring yet unforgiving peak.
Beneath the aircraft I could see what I thought to be a heavy military presence at the perimeters of the city airport and at both ends of the main — and at that time the only — runway. I was startled when that informative stranger sitting next to me reached over and slammed down the window shade before I could get a shot off with my inexpensive Kodak camera. Somehow, lost in all the grandeur and what I perceived as the peril of my kaleidoscope experience, I had missed a very important message: All window shades in the passenger cabin during domestic flights must be tightly secured during aircraft ascents and descents for reasons of national security! Only a fool or a spy would ignore this regulation in 1973. My bad.
Later I learned from other Peace Corps Volunteers on the island that over the previous decades several domestic passenger aircraft had experienced hijacking attempts by North Korean agents. As recently as 1971 a hijacked Fokker bound for Gimpo crash landed onto a beach near Sokcho. The grenade-wielding perpetrator and the aircraft’s co-pilot were reported to have perished in an explosion near or on impact.
My national security faux pas was pretty low on my list of concerns as our pilot attempted to make his final approach to a safe landing. The passenger cabin was groaning, lurching, pitching and yawing as the pilot wrestled at his controls against the force of heavy lateral gusts of wind that became more violent as our airplane wheels approached the surface of the airstrip. I feared a wing tip might be plowing up the asphalt before even one tire gained some purchase. Among the passengers aboard the women sighed and moaned “Aigo! Aigo!” (“Oh my! Oh my!”) In stark contrast the men exhibited remarkably stoic composure.
“What is it about Korean men?” I am often asked by non-Koreans. One characteristic I have discovered and respect is that they always seem persevering against adversity, and strike dramatically patriarchal poses in their Moments of Truth. This old painting serves nicely to emphasize (exaggerate?) my impression:
I am certain that my pilot, and all the pilots flying the Fokker Friendship route to and from Jeju Island during the early 1970s, were of this same ilk.
That memorable landing — successful, and quite the normal state of affairs for landing conditions on Jeju it turns out, made me vividly aware that the high cost of securing wintertime warmth off the tip of the Korean peninsula for any length of time is marshalling the wherewithal that it takes to learn to embrace rather than fear the risks of negotiating a daily regimen of Jeju’s notorious Winds, Women and Rocks. By succeeding I came to discover Calm amidst the Winds, Generosity amongst the Women, and Refuge within the Rocks.
To sum up: Korean Air Lines was flying small propeller planes on commercial flights to Jeju from the old Gimpo International Airport back in 1973. Some of the implications of this early modernization of commercial aviation in South Korea contributed to unexpected culture shocks for the average naïve-yet-adventurous American Peace Corps Volunteers — like me.
Airport etiquette appeared especially madcap to me during my first flight experience. There were no seat assignments for example! The departure lounge at Gimpo at that time had ceiling-high panoramic plate-glass windows facing the runways. At least half of the passengers corralled there were decked out in their finest traditional hanboks.
Stress was much higher among the waiting passengers than I expected. So I surmised on scant evidence that most of the passengers had never flown in an airplane before. Wrong! For good reason all these passengers headed for the Honeymoon Island milled restlessly about with their eyes riveted on a tiny, empty aircraft out on the tarmac at, say, 100 yards distance beyond the locked doors of the departure lounge. This was the Fokker. I assumed correctly that it was waiting there for us to board. So what was up? I looked about the tarmac for the arrival of our transit bus from the holding pen to the aircraft.
Suddenly the door was unlocked from the inside. The crowd poured out on a dead run in the direction of the Fokker. Lucky I was near the door and no fool, for I immediately grasped the seat-selection situation for Korean domestic flights: It was to be “First come, first served” or else “Tough luck!”
I broke into a sprint. Newlyweds, ajumeoni (middle aged women), and even one or two grandmothers, adorned in — yet hamstrung by — their colorful costumes, pushed and shoved — and a few of them even slipped and fell into the snowmelt and the muck on the tarmac. Ninety yards. Eighty yards. Seventy yards … .
Long story short: That is how I won my window seat on the little Fokker on a cold day in February, 1973.
Next up, my recollections of quiet, magical times at lovely Hwasun Village beach; including rare photos and amusing anecdotes.