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Akutan hovercraft, costly government gift, will finally be sold and replaced by helicopter

Alex DeMarban
Akutan's hovercraft waits out a northwest swell at its parking spot on Surf Beach. The Aleutians East Borough plans to sell the $9 million watercraft.

The hovercraft that has long been at the center of a national debate over cutting a road through an Alaska wilderness will soon go up for sale.

But that won’t mark the end of one village’s saga to improve access to health care, or another’s efforts to shuttle residents to a multimillion-dollar airport built on an island without a town.

Critics have blasted both communities as recipients of government waste -- with some saying the village of King Cove near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula wants to build a “road to nowhere,” while Akutan 150 miles to the west has already benefitted from an “airport to nowhere.”

The looming sale of the hovercraft by the Aleutians East Borough -- bought for $9 million using money provided by Congress -- could bring additional criticism because it was originally intended to get King Cove residents to safety. But it will likely never do that again.

Asking price: $5 million

The administrator for the borough, whose boundaries include both villages, said the hovercraft was too costly for the borough to operate, in part because it couldn’t always run in the spiteful weather that often beats down on the Aleutian Islands. Rick Gifford, the administrator, said he hopes the borough can get at least $5 million for the hovercraft, a 90-foot Suna X that can fit 39 passengers and has been upgraded with de-icing equipment to handle Alaska’s bitter cold.

“For someone to build a new hovercraft now would cost them more than $9 million, so they’d be getting a pretty good deal,” Gifford said.

When the borough first put the hovercraft into use in 2007, conservation groups saw it as the answer to King Cove’s desire for a gravel road slicing through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for 11 miles. The village of King Cove, population 950, has long sought a federal exemption to permit a road passing through the refuge so villagers can reach Cold Bay and its all-weather airport, where medevac flights can land in bad weather or at night.

Local leaders argue that sick or injured residents have died because they were stuck awaiting help in King Cove, with its tiny airstrip that doesn’t operate at night or when winds or visibility don’t cooperate.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell refused to allow the extension late last year, saying migratory birds and other animals in the refuge needed protection.

But Alaska's congressional delegation is pressing Jewell to reconsider, along with Gifford and other local officials who visited Jewell in Washington, D.C., this week to argue their case.

Grounded by winds exceeding 35 mph

Conservation groups and opponents of the road, including former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times, argue that the federal government has already done its part by providing money for the hovercraft, and millions of dollars more to upgrade the clinic.

But the hovercraft was unable to operate in 35-plus mph winds and 6-foot seas, so it was often grounded, Gifford said. The lack of reliability hurt the commercial ridership that was expected to help pay for the operation, and the borough lost huge amounts of money running the hovercraft in King Cove.

The limitations in rough conditions also meant it was often down when people in the village needed rescuing, said Gifford.

“The borough tried it, and they tried really hard to make it work, but it just wasn’t reliable, so it just reached a point where it wasn’t affordable,” said Gifford, who began working at the borough in 2012, after the hovercraft was retired in King Cove.

Although the hovercraft was shut down in 2010 after three years in King Cove, it wasn’t a waste of taxpayer money, he said, in part because it did haul some of the sick and injured to Cold Bay. “It got people to the hospital sometimes,” he said.

A $37 million congressional appropriation for the hovercraft, a clinic and an access road was granted in 1998 as part of a deal involving the late Sen. Ted Stevens and the Clinton administration, after President Bill Clinton had threatened to veto the road. Local officials have long maintained they weren’t part of the deal.

It was “take it or leave it,” said Gifford, and the borough gave it a shot, though some residents expected a hovercraft to be problematic.

Gifford added that some of the proceeds from the hovercraft’s sale will be available to help pay for the cost of a road, should Jewell decide to reverse course and allow it. He said the borough hopes to issue a request for proposals in the coming weeks in an effort to seek bids for the hovercraft.

$2,500 an hour to operate

After King Cove, the hovercraft spent time in the village of Akutan, where Trident runs a seafood processing plant that’s called the largest such operation in North America. Six miles from there, the state in 2012 opened a $75 million airport on Akun Island, because the flat stretches for a runway weren’t available on rocky Akutan Island.

Before the airport, people reached Akutan on PenAir’s World War II-era amphibious airplane, a Grumman Goose, landing on the water and taxiing to a seaplane base. But after the runway was built, PenAir stopped flying to Akutan.

Another airline stepped in, and the hovercraft was used for about a year and half to shuttle Akutan residents and plant workers back and forth between the village and the airport.

But the hovercraft was always seen as a temporary solution in Akutan, again because it’s so expensive to operate, Gifford said. Running the hovercraft there cost $2,500 an hour, in part because of the specialized crews needed to operate the craft.

Those crews had to be flown back and forth between Akutan and Washington state, home to Kvichak Marine Industries, the parent company of the hovercraft operator, Gifford said.

The bill didn’t include fuel for the hovercraft, which guzzled 80 gallons of diesel an hour, according to an article in the Bristol Bay Times.

At Akutan, the borough subsidized the hovercraft to the tune of $2.5 million a year, using money the borough collected from fishing industry taxes, Gifford said.

The borough shut down the hovercraft on Feb. 15. The next day, it fired up a helicopter to replace it. The helicopter is cheaper to run than the hovercraft, a fact that surprises many people, Gifford said. The borough still expects to lose money with the helicopter, owned and operated by Maritime Helicopters in Homer. But it will save $1 million compared to the hovercraft operation.

Kvichak Marine Industries will put together the request for proposals, since it knows the hovercraft market well, Gifford said. The borough hopes to sell the hovercraft by the end of this summer.

Potential buyers have already expressed interest, including one company that is considering using the hovercraft on the North Slope along the Arctic Ocean, where the vehicles have been used to support the oil industry.

“It can operate in pretty cold conditions,” Gifford said of the hovercraft.

The helicopter is a short-term fix, too, he said. The borough ultimately hopes to build a dock on Akun with a small breakwater to accept a conventional boat that can carry a lot of passengers and be operated by a small crew from Akutan.

“The operational costs will drop significantly, but it will be a high capital cost,” he said.

For now, the helicopter is working well, he said. The helicopter handles only six passengers at a time, but the flight across the water takes only six minutes, compared to more than half an hour in the hovercraft.

The helicopter, a Bell model, moves people and freight back and forth rapidly, he said. But it has yet to be tested during a busy fishing season when hundreds of workers arrive. The next one begins in April.

“The feedback is that people are people are real happy with it,” Gifford said.

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