Alaska News

Delta Air passengers back on their way after emergency landing in Cold Bay

The tiny, remote community of Cold Bay temporarily quadrupled in size after potential engine trouble diverted an international Delta Air Lines flight on Wednesday.

The Boeing 767-300ER en route from Tokyo to San Francisco landed at Cold Bay's airport without incident about 6 a.m. after declaring an in-flight emergency, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said.

The flight deck crew diverted the flight "out of an abundance of caution" after an indicator showed a possible problem with one of the aircraft's engines, said Delta Air Lines spokesman Michael Thomas.

Flight 208 landed safely with 167 passengers and 11 crew members, including pilots and flight attendants, Thomas wrote in an email.

The runway used for the landing is one of the longest in the state, thanks to Cold Bay's military past as a World War II outpost in the Aleutian Islands campaign.

A few hours after the jet touched down, employees at the nearby Izembek National Wildlife Refuge ferried the stranded passengers to Cold Bay's community center and school in a small armada of pickup trucks, an SUV and a bus from town.

Refuge pilot Ken Richardson took 16 passengers in four separate trips of a Ford F-350 and said they mostly treated the experience like an unexpected adventure in a strange, new place.

Once off the plane, passengers lit cigarettes and started taking pictures despite the 20 mph wind and intermittent rain, Richardson said.

Most spoke English, he said. They wore light coats, some of the women scarves, though temperatures hovered around 40 degrees.

Nobody talked about the engine trouble that caused the stopover, although one male passenger said the unplanned landing was the best decision given the situation.

"They were the nicest people you'd wanna meet," Richardson said. "They were not disgruntled. None of 'em felt put out."

Airline and safety officials offered no immediate explanation for the signal that triggered the emergency landing.

The plane was en route to San Francisco when the crew got a warning from the electronic engine control system, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Delta's Atlanta safety team told an investigator that one of the plane's engines automatically shut down on approach.

Delta told the investigator there was no engine failure but "they did have an automatic shutdown," Clint Johnson, NTSB's Alaska Region Chief, said late Wednesday morning. "This is very, very preliminary information. We're working with the Delta folks in Atlanta trying to determine exactly what the circumstances were."

Another plane landed in Cold Bay at 1:30 p.m. to pick up the stranded passengers and departed at 3:38 p.m., according to Delta's flight status Website. The flight, originally scheduled to arrive in San Francisco at 9:40 a.m., was expected to arrive just after 9 p.m., nearly 12 hours later.

The airport at Cold Bay -- a community of about 60 on the Alaska Peninsula about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage -- is a former U.S. Air Force facility built after Japanese soldiers landed on Attu Island in 1942.

The wide runway where the jet landed Wednesday is just more than 10,400 feet.

It also served as a never-used backup landing area for the Space Shuttle, according to Jill Reese, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

Cold Bay's airport is Alaska's only Federal Aviation Administration-approved alternate landing area for diverted Pacific Ocean flights, Reese said. The airport gets funding from a partnership of the state, some air carriers, Ted Stevens International Airport and Fairbanks International Airport.

A few of Cold Bay's temporary residents were expected to extend their visit, including the original aircraft.

Cold Bay Lodge owner Mary Martin got an early-morning call Wednesday asking about accommodations at the lodge with 17 bedrooms in four buildings.

Martin said she'd be putting up crew members for the night including maintenance workers expected to arrive Wednesday evening.

The farflung and often storm-tossed community knows how to take care of unexpected guests, Martin said.

Cold Bay gets the occasional visit from commercial aircraft making emergency landings on the well-lit runway and residents make an effort to welcome their sudden visitors, she said. "We're a small town but we are mighty."

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.