When an airplane ends service it's a big deal, especially in Alaska, where planes are a vital source of transportation for so many residents and regions.
So it was on a clear, bitterly cold Anchorage day that PenAir's Grumman Goose got its send off, complete with airport fire and rescue crew sirens. Had it been warmer, the plane would have gone through the complete service, which includes being sprayed with water.
Not that the amphibious plane needed another submerging. The Goose, a World War II era relic, is famous for its buoyant hull, which allows it to land on both land and water.
Instead, it was just a gentle landing for the Goose -- nicknamed the Spirit of Akutan II -- and a gentle taxi before stopping in front on the PenAir terminal, ending the last commercial “flying boat” service in Alaska.
It was an emotional day for all involved, especially PenAir owner Danny Seybert. Now 51, Seybert took his first Goose flight with his father when he was 5 years old.
“It's the end of an era, but the beginning of a new one,” Seybert said.
His father, PenAir founder Orin Seybert, purchased two Gooses (the preferred plural of the plane) in 1977 to provide service to rural Alaska communities without a runway. In its 35 years with PenAir, the Grumman Goose served the Aleutian Island communities of Cold Bay and Akutan.
Gooses were crucial in Alaska's early aviation history. The Grumman Goose, with its ability to land in water, made it a crucial transportation link for many rural communities, particularly in Southwest Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
“A lot of people here have ridden on this airplane,” said new owner Jerry Ball. “Especially if they live in Bristol Bay.
Ball learned to fly the plane from his father, Albert, while growing up in Dillingham. Ball, 65, now owns two of the planes, which he will use to ferry passengers visiting lodges in Western Alaska with his company Freshwater Adventures.
For decades, the Goose has provided regular air service to the remote Aleutian community of Akutan, where the surf was too rough for the floats of more traditional seaplanes. The flights were long subsidized by Essential Air Service, a government program that provides money to air carriers offering regularly-scheduled flights to communities that otherwise might not get it. The Goose's history in the community had a sudden end in late October when PenAir ceased service after the seaplane ramp that used to serve the Goose was converted into a hovercraft pad. The Goose was instead forced to pull ashore onto a rocky beach, risking damage to the 70-year-old aircraft.
Worried that beaching the plane on the rocky runway would cause too much damage to the plane (replacement parts stopped being produced in the 1940s), PenAir canceled service in the hopes the plane could still be sold.
Now a hovercraft transports passengers between Akutan and Akun Island, an uninhabited piece of land six miles from the community. There, a new multimillion-dollar runway sits, served by more traditional aircraft operated by Grant Air. Concerns over the reliability of the hovercraft have led the city to open a hotel on Akun Island for weathered-in travelers who might otherwise be stranded.
So far, just over 50 percent of the hovercraft trips have been canceled due to poor weather. That was about the same success rate the goose had for scheduled service, Seybert said. He admitted that flight service to Akutan had “never made money.” But that wasn't the point. Seybert said his father made a commitment to provide flight service to the area, a commitment PenAir served until it couldn't any longer.
Ball plans to fly the plane to Dillingham near the beginning of the new year to join his other goose in service to remote Alaska lodges in the Bristol Bay region.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com