You know you are flying commercial in rural Alaska in the winter when all the local passengers are wearing snow suits.
You know you are flying commercial in rural Alaska when one of the passengers sits next to the pilot and gets to wear a headset.
You know you are flying commercial in rural Alaska when the pilot holds an infant while Mommy buckles up.
While commercial flights in Alaska are not the only place these things could happen, in Alaska they are all very common. It is a critical point to note up front, that eighty-two percent of the communities in Alaska are only assessable by air, water or possibly snow machine or dog sled if the freeze is deep enough. On November 17, 2016, Alaskan Region Deputy Regional Administrator Rich Van Allman and Western Service Center, Requirements Manager, Chris Chesak flew in rural Alaska for the first time. They were joined by Alaskan Region Senior Advisor Jacki Holzman. For Rich and Chris, this first-time experience was enlightening and for DRA Van Allman, even inspiring.
After an early morning flight from Anchorage to Bethel on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737, the team toured FAA facilities and offices with the help of Alaskan Region Aviation Safety Inspector Erik Wilson. They toured the FAA housing, Federal Contract Tower, and Technical Operations shop and office in Bethel. No trip to Bethel is complete without a stop at the local Alaska Commercial (AC) store. DRA Van Allman photographed the $8 bag of chips and the $55 box of Tide. You know you are in rural Alaska when you see prices like those.
Chips and Tide in the Bethel AC Store
The team arrived at Hageland Aviation Services facility in time for a dispatch and flight-planning demonstration and discussion about flying IFR (instrument flight rules) to villages in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwin (Y-K) Delta. The Y-K Delta is the location of the first Capstone demonstration of ADS-B. After successful ADS-B demonstrations in Alaska, ADS-B became a cornerstone technology in FAA’s NextGen modernization. Hageland’s entire fleet is equipped for both ADS-B in and out. This equipage exceeds FAA’s 2020 mandate for ADS-B out equipage.
Our flight was on a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan.
Hageland Cessna 208, Grand Caravan
Chris Chesak sat in the right seat next to the pilot and was fitted with a headset so she could hear the pilot communicating with air traffic control and his company operations center. The pilot explained the use and benefits of all the equipment in the aircraft. The flight departed Bethel and flew for 40 minutes to the Alaskan village of Chefornak VFR (visual flight rules). Chefornak is one of 82% of Alaska’s communities that is not accessible by road.
Short final approaching Chefornak, Alaska
As the flight neared Chefornak, Chris could tell we were close by watching the instruments, but in the flat winter light in rural Alaska, it was hard for her to pick up the village and when she did, it was even harder to find the runway. This experience clearly demonstrated why the Alaskan Region values lights at airports, even when their presence doesn’t result in lower approach minimums. Airport lights, especially runway edge lights, enhance situational awareness and make it easier and safer for the pilot to acquire the runway.
After dropping off a teacher and her students, mail, and freight, three passengers boarded the aircraft. The pilot held a seven month old infant while her mother buckled her seat belt. The pilot flew over the Alaskan village of Kipnuk, to demonstrate why all flights to Kipnuk are VFR.
A new runway opened at Kipnuk in 2011 and the updated instrument flight procedures are scheduled for publication in October 2017. Many rural village airports in Alaska don’t have instrument approaches. Even if they do have instrument approaches, some airports still lack weather or communications, both of which are required for commercial carriers to utilize the instrument approaches. Recognizing that flying IFR is beneficial, carriers sometimes file IFR flight plans knowing they will cancel and fly VFR to the airport (if conditions are adequate) when one or more pieces of infrastructure are unavailable. Alaskan commercial Part 135 operators are resourceful and make the most of the limited infrastructure to safely access rural airports. However, without adequate infrastructure to fly IFR, many commercial carriers are forced to fly VFR in some of the most demanding and dangerous conditions on the planet.
The next landing was at Kwigillingog (Kwig), Alaska. The runway at Kwig undulates along the entire 1835’ X 40’ length.
Undulating runway at Kwigillingok, Alaska
The edge of the runway is marked with construction cones instead of runway edge lighting. The FAA does not maintain any communication, navigation, surveillance, or weather equipment at Kwig and by the way, this was a picture perfect VFR day; not always the case. Mail and cargo were delivered to Kwig and a few passengers were picked up. The pilot assisted an elderly passenger to board the aircraft and find a seat.
For the last leg of the flight, the plane returned to Bethel.
VFR Approach to Bethel, Alaska
Upon arrival in Bethel, the pilot requested, from Hageland ground crew, a wheelchair for the elderly passenger from Kwig. The FAA team boarded a Dash-8 for our trip back to Anchorage a little smarter and a lot more inspired by the pilots that fly in rural Alaska.
Many of you may ask, “Why do they live in such remote and austere locations?” It is a simple, but not often apparent answer; this is where their home is. Generations have been born, grown up, married, had children and worked as they have always done. It is their culture, their way of life, their heritage. Aviation has brought many of the modern conveniences to these remote villages and don’t we have a responsibility to allow these Americans to have the same access while not asking them to give up their culture? Alaska presents different challenges with regard to supporting aviation than found in other locations, but to the people in Alaska, aviation is their lifeline, as important as a car or public transportation is to those in the “Lower Forty-Eight”. As much as you may read, it is almost impossible to gain a true appreciation of the importance aviation plays in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people that live in rural Alaskan villages all over the state until you get out and see if for yourself.
Yes, you know you are flying in rural Alaska when the pilot loads and unloads cargo, mail and other vital supplies; takes students to school and the sick to doctor’s appointments; and does this all while flying commercial VFR to many locations. We owe Alaskans access to the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world and that may require a slightly different view when evaluating needs and requirements. Alaska has been called unique, different and even odd, but one thing is unmistakable and that is the beauty of the scenery and the people that call Alaska home.