On Sunday morning, Don Hammond watched as powerful winds at the Palmer Municipal Airport grabbed hold of his six-seat flightseeing plane “and threw it around like a toy,” he said.
The plane crashed upside down onto the icy pavement.
Hammond’s Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six was one of at least five aircraft that were totaled during the severe windstorm that has caused mayhem throughout Mat-Su and left thousands without power for days in near zero-degree temperatures.
Some of the hangars and many, many planes sustained damage, Hammond said Tuesday. He estimates that there was well over $1 million in damage at the airport.
But it could’ve been worse: Without help from other plane owners and good Samaritans who worked with him to secure planes at the airport, Hammond said the loose aircraft could have added much more chaos and damage during the already-intense storm.
The National Weather Service reported a peak gust of 79 mph at the Palmer airport, and 88 mph elsewhere in Palmer. Hammond said he was recording with a handheld wind meter and his readings were as high as 110-120 mph.
The windstorm was worse than anything Hammond said he’s ever seen before.
“As I was doing one of my rounds at the airport, I came by and those airplanes were actually flying,” he said. “They were lifting up off the ground, on one wing, about 4 feet in the air.”
Hammond said that many of the other destroyed aircraft appeared to be personal use planes. He’s not sure how many were insured, but said he anticipates the losses will be significant for many.
He’s been using the Palmer airport for more than 20 years and said he’s familiar with severe Alaska weather. Each time he sees a storm on the radar, Hammond said, he heads to the airport to patrol.
Heavy gusts can easily pick up smaller planes, such as Super Cubs, and toss them around the airfield if they’re not properly tied down. They can cause damage to other planes after they break free. Hammond said he and a small group of other owners routinely keep watch and secure any planes that come loose before mayhem breaks out.
During one of his patrols at the airport over the weekend, Hammond watched as a plane broke free and careened down the tie-down area, striking and damaging about five other planes. He knew the situation was quickly getting out of control.
Others arrived to help, and Hammond put out a plea on social media for people to drive large vehicles to the airport so they could be parked in front of the airplanes to shield against the wind.
He said he was amazed at the response: People he didn’t know showed up with vehicles to use as shields or offered manpower to help wrangle the planes back into secure areas.
“I had a friend there helping me, and we had to laugh because this guy gets out of his pickup and he’s wearing cowboy boots. I said, ‘You’ve got to be from Texas!’ But he wiggles across the ice and comes over there and helps me pull a rope,” Hammond said. “I had no idea who he was.”
Strong winds threw rocks and debris up at the parked vehicles and broke several windows, Hammond said. The gusts were powerful enough to slide one truck about 4 feet across the pavement.
Hammond said he’s disappointed that the airport supervisor didn’t help or call for aid from the city.
“I would venture to say two-thirds of the airplanes at the Palmer airport would’ve been destroyed if people hadn’t shown up,” he said.
Airport Superintendent Frank Kelly said by phone Wednesday that he spent hours calling plane owners during the storm and parked his vehicle in front of a flipped plane to shield it from the wind.
The public works department and police stopped by, “but there’s only so much you can do in that kind of an event,” he said. “Aircraft owners need to be responsible for tying down their airplanes properly and providing vehicles to block wind. It’s a catastrophic event and some aircraft owners are very responsible and they did the right thing. Others were incognito.”
About a half dozen planes were damaged, Kelly said, and some of those were ones that were fully tied down and shielded from the wind.
“There wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to it,” he said.
There’s still a lot of work to be done at the airport to clean up, Hammond said. He hopes to do a full inspection of his planes sometime this week, as the weather allows, to assess the full damage.
Hammond’s totaled Cherokee Six wasn’t insured because insurance grew too costly over the last two years, he said. The pandemic mostly shuttered his flightseeing business, and Hammond said he’d temporarily taken the plane out of use to save money.
Hammond co-owns a flight training business that he said also suffered during the pandemic. Business had been recovering in recent months, and he hoped by summer that he would be able to resume his flightseeing tours.
With his plane totaled, he said he’ll have to shutter that portion of the business.
“My livelihood of my flightseeing operation, which can do hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of business a year, now it’s gone,” he said. “It’s history. I don’t have the money to go buy another airplane right now.”
Hammond is hopeful that federal or state disaster funds might be able to help some plane owners with their losses. Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a state disaster declaration for the Mat-Su Borough on Monday in response to the storm, and the borough has also made a local disaster declaration.
“Palmer really did get hurt,” Hammond said. “There’s a lot of impact to businesses. ... Our flightseeing business, which we were really gearing up to go great guns this year, and now this. It’s a major setback.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add comments from Palmer Municipal Airport superintendent Frank Kelly received after this article was initially published.