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Last plane to Akutan: New airport sits mostly idle as Goose makes last landing

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
Wikimedia Commons photo

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Scheduled airline service was abruptly halted Tuesday to the Aleutian Islands community of Akutan, Alaska, leaving mail and passengers stranded in Unalaska. 

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Peninsula Airways stopped flying the Grumman Goose, fearing damage to the vintage aircraft which was displaced from its former landing ramp by a hovercraft. The float plane has since been docking on a gravel beach in front of the village.

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“It’s pretty rocky. It’s just beating the heck out of my airplane,” said PenAir chief executive officer Danny Seybert. It’s only a matter of time before the amphibious aircraft is damaged he said. PenAir plans to retire and sell the high-maintenance plane, but Seybert doubts a buyer would want damaged goods. 

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“I’d rather stop flying while I still have an airplane I can sell,” said Seybert, who said the Goose was built in the World War II era. He said that not only did production of the plane stop in the 1940s, but also spare parts. Those original parts are unavailable anywhere he’s looked. He said federal rules only allow replacement parts built by the plane’s manufacturer. 

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Akutan’s mail is transported from Unalaska by airplane, and postmaster Ana Alfonzo at the Dutch Harbor Post Office said somehow the mail will get through to the village on the neighboring island about 40 miles away. 

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“They’re working on something,” Alfonzo said. “It has to move.”  

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PenAir had hoped to end Akutan service last month, with the opening of the new airport on Akun Island, with Grant Aviation taking over the flying. That plan requires use of a hovercraft to transport passengers and cargo the final six miles across a narrow, windy strait between the village and the new airport. 

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But Grant has been unable to work out a new contract with the federal transportation department, which subsidizes the route. Grant took over village service, after PenAir pulled out to concentrate on flights between Anchorage and rural Alaska hub communities like Unalaska and Dillingham. The transition to two other Aleutian villages went smoothly, and the same local agents were retained by Grant in Atka and Nikolski. 

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In the meantime, Grant has been flying into Akun on a charter basis, servicing Trident Seafoods and other customers. 

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The hovercraft is owned by the Aleutians East Borough, and operated by Hover Link, of Seattle, with a $2.5 million annual contract, according to Hover Link general manager Marty Robbins. 

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The contract is based on an hourly rate of $2,500 per hour for a 1,000 hours per year. Fuel cost are extra, and the hovercrafts uses 80 gallons of diesel per hour. The vessel is operated by a four-member crew, including a captain, pilot, deckhand and engineer. Two crews work the vessel on three-week rotations, Robbins said. 

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Robbins said Monday that the funding issue should soon be worked out with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which administers the Essential Air Service program. “We’re hoping it’s any day now,” he said. 

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PenAir’s Unalaska station manager Lowell Crezee said the “less than desirable ramp conditions for the Goose” were a result of a flat hovercraft ramp installed atop the old angled ramp. “It’s been compared to a basketball court. It’s just a flat slab of concrete,” he said. 

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The hovercraft ramp’s water side ends in a sharp edge that the Goose can’t climb over, he said. The gravel beach site has time factor limitation as well, inaccessible at low tides, Crezee said. On Tuesday he said a few Akutan passengers were stuck in Unalaska, and that he was very busily sending emails trying to get a better understanding of the surprising situation. 

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The Goose last flew to Akutan on Sunday, and a scheduled flight on Monday was cancelled because of the weather, Crezee said. 

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This article was originally published by The Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission. Jim Paulin can be reached at paulinjim(at)yahoo.com.