This week's episode of "Flying Wild Alaska" visits fewer communities than previous shows, focusing mostly on Era Alaska's hub in Bethel, which serves more than 30 other villages in Bush Alaska. Southwest Alaska finds itself in the midst of high winds, and every load becomes more fragile and every landing more precarious.
Weather warnings and wedding cake worries
The show opens this week in Unalakleet -- although the typical Unalakleet radio intro is conspicuously absent -- with a time lapse of the sunrise as the northern lights fade into the day. Jim Tweto, owner of Era Alaska, tells us that the temperature is in the low 30s, and a gauge in the corner of our screen tells us the wind is blowing at 23 MPH, so it's likely well below freezing. Indeed, Era pilot John Ponts is seen pushing his foot through a thin skin of ice that has formed on a puddle.
"Mother Nature's about to drop-kick us right in the gut," he says.
Ayla Tweto, whom we met for the first time in last week's episode, plays a bit of a role in this episode as well, telling us some of the dangers of wind for planes, highlighted by video of aircraft wobbling their way in to land, rocking back and forth against the crosswinds.
Where the show often relies on weather situations or the cargo being carried for a lot of its drama, the wind provides elements of both. Every landing becomes a tense moment, interspersed with shots of pilots turning the controls frantically to counteract the unpredictable influence that winds have on aircraft.
We're given a brief overview of the technique known as "crabbing" in which a plane compensates for the forces of crosswinds by turning sideways immediately after leaving the ground in a high-wind situation, or before landing, straightening out at the last minute to avoid the full brunt of a violent crosswind. It's an apt term, and a plane raising its landing gear upon takeoff looks distinctly like a crab working its way across a surface.
John Ponts performs two flights in this episode in which the wind plays a significant role. In the first, Ponts is taking Department of Transportation mechanic Jason to Nunam Iqua, southwest of Barrow, to repair a broken window on a snow-clearing grader before winter sets in. Jason is obviously uncomfortable with flying, although it's difficult to tell if it's simply a matter of anxiety or he deals with airsickness.
The flight he's on is more than enough to induce airsickness, and I wondered if the Era plane had a barf bag on it. The tail camera mounted on Ponts' plane looks like a hand-held camera in a Jason Bourne movie, wobbling back and forth unpredictably in the air. Ponts' eyes widen and he braces himself on the console as the wind picks them up from the bottom when they pass over some hills below and experience a moment of weightlessness. If Jason loses it, it's not shown. He just wants to get on the ground.
Once there, they find out quickly that the replacement window Jason has brought for the grader is not the right size.
"Here in rural Alaska, you don't have the necessities like you do in the big cities," Jason says. This turns into a discussion about mail service in rural Alaska, and Ayla Tweto tells us that "It's a long process to get it to all the smaller villages." The offload of mail in Anchorage, the distribution to a smaller hub, delivered on progressively smaller planes, illustrates why.
The second flight that Ponts takes in the episode is one of possibly the most sensitive of cargoes: a wedding cake. A baker in Unalakleet is mailing a cake to a bride in Koyuk for her upcoming wedding. The narrator tells us that at 60 cents per pound to ship mail through Era, the cake only costs $12 to ship. For a quick rundown, that's a 20-pound cake, and Koyuk has a population of less than 300, so a fair portion of the entire village is likely turning out for the wedding.
The baker says no matter what condition the cake is in when it arrives in Koyuk, at least it will be edible. Ariel Tweto is going with Ponts for the drop-off, and they're both worried about the high winds and the effect they will have on their fragile cargo. As soon as Ponts gets off the ground, the plane is picked vertically up in the air by the high winds and it doesn't look good.
They arrive in Koyuk shortly, and the bride comes to pick up the cake. They open the box to find it perfectly intact and looking as good as it did when they left. Ariel and Ponts are both relieved, and Ponts jokingly asks the bride if he can have a piece before they leave. Ariel coins in a new word -- Sarah Palin style -- "symbolization," in saying that if the cake had been destroyed, it could have been a "symbolization" of how the marriage was going to be.
On the way back, Ponts asks Ariel if she ever wants to get married, and she laughs it off with a reply about wanting to have a different guy in every country.
The final story in Unalakleet is a race against the weather as a Beechcraft 1900 that has just arrived from Anchorage needs to get off the runway as the winds pick up. The narrator tells us that if the wind gets up to 46 MPH, the plane will be grounded. After frantically unloading the plane and repacking cargo, they find that the plane won't start.
Jim, Ferno, and several other Era employees scramble to find the "start cart" -- a mobile battery jumper that they hope will give the plane what it needs to get the props spinning -- and load it into the back of a pickup. As they pull back toward the plane, Jim shouts to Ferno from the back of the truck to pull along the left side of the plane, then feels the need to elaborate.
"The pilot's side," he says.
"Thanks," Ferno says, "I know which side is left."
They get the battery started, the props spinning, and the plane takes off in 44 MPH winds.
A greenhorn no more
Almost the entirety of the rest of the episode takes place in Bethel, described by Jim as "Era's busiest hub," and it's a flurry of activity in the terminal and in the cargo transfer hangar, which we get to see a little of both of in the episode. The narrator tells us that Bethel handles over 60 flights every day and more than 15,000 pounds of mail.
Jim's in town to check on the hub and observe progress on the construction of a new hangar, and the contractor on the job tells us that they're one or two weeks behind schedule, and have just poured the concrete slab for the floor. While they're in no immediate danger of being snowed on, since it's clear throughout the state in this episode, the cold weather and high winds are going to make for a slow cure of concrete. Jim is worried, since he wanted the steel skeleton of the building erected before winter weather becomes too severe. He wanders the slab, checking its layout in what seems like a distracted fashion.
Later, he goes on a hunt for a way to turn off lights shining outside another hangar in the middle of the day. My wife thought he was overreacting at first to having a couple of lights on, but considering the cost of electricity in villages -- even one as large as Bethel -- I can certainly see where he's coming from.
In Bethel, a pilot from the Lower 48, John Koeppen, is wrapping up his 15-week Era apprenticeship. He is scheduled for his last flight with a safety pilot before he'll be allowed to fly solo for the airline. He's very thorough on the headset as he prepares to take off in 29 MPH winds with two passengers bound for Tuntutuliak.
One of the best parts about "Flying Wild Alaska" is the geography lesson that every episode offers. It always amazes me, given that I've lived here for more than three-quarters of my life, that there are so many places in Alaska that I've never heard of, and each one can be home to hundreds of residents. Anyone in congress interested in abolishing the Essential Air Service program needs to watch this show and realize how much people rely on the services of these aircraft. Okay, side note over.
Koeppen lands safely in Tuntutuliak, and returns the same way to Bethel. The narrator makes us think that the fact that he forgot two bags on the flight is a dealbreaker for him earning his right to fly solo, but that's soon allayed when Koeppen has his shirt-tails cut as part of a tradition for a freshly minted solo pilot. He's now officially an Era pilot, and Jim congratulates him.
Koeppen, despite his new ability, tells us he wouldn't want to land on one landing strip in high winds, and it happens to be the one that Phillip Samson is headed to, in Kwigillingok. The narrator and Jim both describe it as possibly Era's most dangerous landing strip. It's about half the width of a typical runway, and a high-wind landing can be a dangerous proposition.
"Landing in Kwig is like driving a motorcycle 100 MPH through the front door of your house," Koeppen says.
Samson handles the task admirably, with a very smooth landing to deliver teacher K.C. Bodily back to the village school.
The show ends on a positive note, as Jim gets a call back in Unalakleet that the steel frame for the Bethel hangar is being assembled, and we see a time-lapse of its construction. Whether the steel skin will make it up in time is anybody's guess, and it's a question we might have answered in the weeks to come.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing