Cordova Chronicles: The turkeys have landed

American Airlines crew spends another night in Aleutians

Back on 12 October 2016, an American Airlines Boeing 787 bound from Shanghai to Chicago was diverted to Cold Bay, Alaska, after the crew noticed what was described by news reports as “an indicator light that suggested a possible mechanical problem with one of plane’s engines.”

The huge 787 was dubbed the Dreamliner by Boeing, who developed it to compete with the massive Airbus created by an European consortium of aircraft manufacturers.  The twin-engined 787 is over 200 feet long, has a wingspan of 197 feet, and can carry up to 335 passengers while cruising at 567 miles per hour.  This flight carried 100 passengers and a crew of 14.

What the news reports didn’t mention was that the problematic engine was shut down, and the plane flew over 700 miles in two hours on one engine prior to making an emergency landing at this remote place in Alaska.

Living in a roadless community, we wizened Cordova air travelers all know that modern jets can fly on a single engine, but that had to be a long couple hours staring out the window at the remaining source of flight.  One has to suspect the flight attendants were kept busy going up and down the aisles with their drinks carts, if in fact they were available.

The runway at Cold Bay is 10,000 feet long.  It was built in World War II as a key base during the Aleutians Campaign against Japanese invasion forces.  It also saw considerable use during the Cold War, but contrary to myth, was never considered as an alternate landing strip for the Space Shuttle.  NASA shot that one down, by explaining it was far too distant from the Shuttle’s orbital path.

Meanwhile, the news of the incoming flight spread quickly through Cold Bay, and its 48 residents mobilized. Crash trucks and ambulances were posted at the airport, and plans were made to feed, entertain, and even house all the passengers, if necessary.

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However, after the huge jet landed without incident and taxied up to the terminal, it was learned that all onboard could not be allowed to leave the area due to lack of security screening and immigration issues surrounding international flights.

None-the-less, many of the passengers did disembark and wander around the restricted area, and enjoyed the hospitality of the generous Cold Bayers.  The plane landed at 9:45 am.  Passengers and crew departed on a specially scheduled Alaska Airlines 737 flight at 8:00 pm.

Flash forward to 15 November 2016.  Captain Martin Reedy, pilot of that flight, and seven other American Airlines representatives, arrived at Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage with an unusual cargo:  turkey dinner for the everyone at Cold Bay. Their mission was to thank this small town in remote Alaska for the kindness, support, and generosity they had shown to everyone aboard Dreamliner.

The last leg of their journey would be an eye-opener.  The only flights from Anchorage to Cold Bay and other points along the Aleutian Chain are with PenAir, which flies twin-engine SAAB340’s.  The Swedish-manufactured plane seats 30 passengers, and cruises at 250 miles per hour. It is very similar to the Dash8s that RAVN brings into Cordova.

Several years ago, I was invited out to referee the 3A Northwest District playoffs at Dutch Harbor/Unalaska. Alaska Airlines had discontinued jet service to the city made famous by the TV Deadliest Catch series due to countless cancellations caused by weather conditions.  One has to suspect the 4,500-foot runway that terminates in ocean on both ends may have been a factor.  By comparison, the Cordova Airport runway is 7,500-feet long, and on some icy winter days, it seems pretty short.

Boarding PenAir”s small plane with my faithful Fox 40 whistle and referee gear, I was a bit taken aback when the co-pilot of the PenAir flight walked down the aisle and gave each passenger a pair of earplugs for the three hour flight, after announcing “we would be stopping whenever possible to pick up fuel.”  The SAAB340 has a range of 1076 miles, and it is 790 miles to Dutch Harbor.

The weather in the Aleutians is chronically bad, and leaves little time for circling before departing elsewhere.  In fact, the National Weather Service ranks Cold Bay as the “cloudiest city in the U.S.”   Guess what, Cold Bay was one of the places we stopped to refuel.

One has to wonder what Captain Reedy, accustomed to a 787 Dreamliner, thought when he bent over to walk down the narrow aisle of a SAAB340 with one row of seats on each side.

I wonder if he carried a stack of pumpkin pies aboard.  Hopefully he and 45 pounds of turkey, plus trimmings, landed for a warm thank you in a place called Cold Bay a couple hours later.

A KTUU news report mentioned the American Airlines envoy wanted to be sure there was enough for leftovers. Hopefully there were, for their return flight did not make it due to bad weather, and they had to overnight in a now very familiar Alaska outpost.

I bet those cold turkey sandwiches tasted great the next morning.

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