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May 01, 2001

MIR Satellite Fall

Tonga. Tongatapu. Fua'amoto Airport.The airport lounge is unairconditioned. There are very few islanders, but a group of about 30 people, each with a personal video camera is roving in and out. Americans. Their various ethnic diversities colloushed by sweatpants and tennis shoes. Lots of backpacks. They are definitely a film crew. I spot two very expensive looking professional video cameras. A cameraman is doing a status check. He looks ex-army and wholesome. The grips all have that clean cut but sloppy look. B-Team camera women in surfer girl shorts darts around with the other video camera sticking it in everyone's face as close as she can, thwarted occasionally by the rows of waiting room seats which she can't see because her face is tucked into the eyepiece of the Sony. She is short and shoves the camera in the slits between shoulders as Mr.White Hair holding the map confers with Mr. Fiji Pilot. Others huddle around in support, hope and anticipation. Seat assignments are given. A man wearing an Iridium T-shirt is on a satellite phone with Russia. The group meeting breaks. The Americans begin hustling around with last minute preparations of packing blank video tapes, collecting charged batteries and cell phones, taking group photos and asking, "Is this going or staying?". The group was dividing between the two twin prop planes on the tarmac, a Pacific Link and a Fiji Air. Several pat each other on the back, hug, say "good luck" or "watch your back". It is 4:30pm Friday March 23rd, 2001 in the South Pacific and I still have to ask what the project is. The cameraman takes a minute from his very stressed equipment check and states the obvious for me, "We are going to film MIR." He is very protective of it. When we tell him our flight leaves soon too he retorts, "You won't see it." He guesses MIR will come down in about 4 hours 1000 miles away from Tonga and that humans can only see 400 miles, on a good day. Lots of websites about MIR have predicted other scenarios and it is impossible to know which, if any could be believed. The Pacific Link with Producer, Director, Crew, two Cosmonauts and a few passengers who paid up to $20,000US, takes off as the camera woman stands on the runway in the wind and hot rain filming. Her name, she tells me afterwards, is Margaritetta, and that the footage they are getting is for the independent L.A. News Agency. "You will see it everywhere", she boasts, "if we get it." I ask if they have an exclusive. "I think so," she says because she hasn't seen anyone else come out. A Canadian production company had in fact been here in Tonga for the same reason, and had already taken to the sky about an hour before them. I tell her my flight is suppose to leave around 5pm and she says, "You might get up there in time." As it happens, my flight on Polynesian Air has been delayed for 3 1/2 hours BECAUSE of MIR and for our own safely we will all be on the ground under completely overcast skies, blind to MIR's falls even if it did happen directly above us. Fortunately, Sione Rammanla, a businessman from India living in Tonga and dreaming of going to New York, was on the same delayed flight and since he owns the bar located in the airport lounge we got free Royal Beer while we waited. Interestingly the Acting British High Commissioner flanked by the Commander and several TDS soldiers file into the lounge. I have fond memories of meeting and discussing bagpipes with ABHC Chris. Indeed, he greeted me equally enthusiastically, though that may be attributed to good British manners. He is here to receive two British military Nimrods and personnel. They look art deco, or maybe Russian, as they land. They are curvy in the round-edges way with big pointy things overhanging the pilot's cabin, which are used for refueling in air and long pointy things sticking out past the tail fins which I am told are magnetic anomaly detectors. There is a radar bulb on the dorsal fin. They are a nearly windowless dull flat beige, the color of desert sand. These planes, I am told, can fly around for ever. They are grounded because of MIR. Crews disembark and converge in camouflage groups on the tarmac. Someone goes out and offers them a beer. They are on duty so only take one and pass it around. A handsome young member of the air wing, Disco Stu, informs us that the planes have flown from Scotland and are in the South Pacific participating in a submarine hunt competition with other countries. A few other travelers in the lounge were fact hunting too. One of them was Sue Knowles of NZTV who I found out can help me get a copy of the 60 Minutes show on Tongan Corruption. Bonus, her husband consults for Samona TV acquisitions and can advise me when I go to sell my documentary on the Magic Circus of Samoa. Which brings me back to the MIR footage and the high hopes of the LA News Agency. MIR fell over Fiji. Mr. Cameraman, just like us, didn't get to see MIR either. A twist of fate, however, was that his pre-teenage son, who he brought with him and left at the hotel in Fiji got the whole thing on his mini DV. Rather ironic for Fiji too, as tourism is way down due to their political instability. My friend Paul Waldman tells me, "in russian, mir means peace- it also means world". I think Russia preserved some world peace by having MIR land where they thought it would.10:06 PM



"Reality is that, which if not dealt with properly, will kill you" -Dan Foley

heide foley
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