Residents of Deering in Northwest Alaska hopped on their ATVs, trucks and snowmachines Sunday night to help a medevac plane land on a dark runway and transport an infant to a clinic.
The runway lights at the Deering Airport have been out for more than a week, and only daytime flights have been operating to and from the village, said airport worker Calvin Moto. But when Moto received a call about a medevac needed for an infant, he said he tried to come up with a solution to light the runway -- for example, by asking community members to use lights on their personal vehicles. The residents were quick to respond.
“It felt really good for all the community to just come together,” volunteer Daisy Weinard said. “When they said people needed help, you know, we’ve always done this, we’ve always helped each other when we are in need.”
On Sunday, after several back-and-forth calls with medevac operator Guardian Flight, the pilot received approval to land, and Moto and resident Alvin Iyatunguk Sr. gave instructions for community members to park in a safe area near the runway lights and to point their lights in one direction.
“That way the pilot from one direction can see their headlights and then in the other direction he can see everybody’s tail lights,” Moto said.
Over 25 volunteers gathered near the Deering Clinic at about 9 p.m. to get ready, Moto said, and the village was able to put a vehicle at each light. Moto also used lights on a loader and grader to increase visibility.
“Everybody came together and did their part to save the patient,” Moto said. “I knew there would be definitely people willing to participate, but it just turned out to be that the whole runway was lit by the vehicles.”
Before the plane took off from Kotzebue to Deering, volunteers did a test run to make sure everything worked well, said Ashley Barr, one of the volunteers.
The plane landed at about 10 p.m., and Weinard was in her side-by-side at the end of the runway.
“That was kind of intense,” she said. “The plane landed right there, it was pretty loud.”
Most volunteers were on four-wheelers, Weinard said, “clearly committed to helping this plane land,” despite a temperature of minus 8 degrees and a 20-below wind chill.
“It was kind of heartfelt, you know, seeing all those other people up there to support the patient that needed to go out,” Weinard said. “It’s kind of emotional.”
A crew is expected to come to Deering on Tuesday to get a temporary fix for the Deering Airport runway, said John Perreault, a spokesman with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
“If need be, they will send a set of emergency runway lights to use in the meantime while repairs are made,” he said.
A similar effort took place in Igiugig in Southwest Alaska in 2020, when community members there also used cars, trucks and ATVs to light a runway for a medevac flight.