It's been a full month since regular helicopter service was halted to remote Little Diomede in the Bering Strait. The aviation company flying to the island village blames a combination of mechanical issues and weather for keeping flights from resuming, but residents say they're getting by despite just one delivery of mail and cargo in the last month.
Diomede Mayor Andrew Milligrock was busy in the community clinic Friday, saying that beyond some bare store shelves, the community is doing well by sharing what they have.
With no runway in the community clustered along the shore of a steep mountain jutting from the Bering Sea, Diomede has long relied on helicopter service to ferry mail, cargo and people to and from the island. Oregon-based Erickson Aviation contracts with regional nonprofit Kawerak to provide what's known as Essential Air Service, but the only helicopter flying from Nome to Diomede and back went to Anchorage in January for maintenance.
That's left residents unsure when flights and deliveries would resume. But they're not the only ones stuck when no helicopters are flying.
"Today's day 31 of my six-day trip to Diomede," Father Ross Tozzi said Friday.
A priest based in Nome (and KNOM board president), Tozzi flew to Diomede for a funeral last month, landing on Jan. 21. Family members flying to the island for the funeral arrived the next day — the last day of regular flights. Calling from his cellphone on Little Diomede, he said the attitude on the island is one of "riding out the storm.
"There's a sense that we have the capability to endure. It would be nice if things were different, but when the chips are down we share."
There has been some relief since the last regular flight took off in January: A single flight landed on Feb. 13, bringing mail and supplies but only part of the growing backlog. On that helicopter's trip back to the Alaska mainland, an Erickson spokesperson said a caution light went on and the pilot had to make an unscheduled landing in the coastal village of Wales, about 26 miles east of Diomede. The helicopter, the same Bolkow BO-105 that had been down in Anchorage for weeks of maintenance, returned for further inspection.
Tozzi said that visit replenished some essentials, but other needs could only be met with regular flights.
"The thing that's more critical (are) things like prescriptions," he said. "The pharmacies only want to issue a quantity as if you could go back to the pharmacy very easily, and get an additional supply. But for people in Diomede, some have run out of some of their prescription, and (are) awaiting the mail to bring them now for four weeks."
Jeremy Zidek of the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services said the department is in "close communication" with Diomede leaders. While there haven't been any requests for emergency aid, Zidek said the state is standing by if asked to step in.
Erickson marketing director Susan Bladholm said the company is now flying two helicopters up to support Diomede, a smaller Bell 212 "Twin Huey" that made it as far as McGrath last week before weather kept it on the ground, and a larger Bell 412 SP. According to Bladholm, the 412 had arrived in Nome by Wednesday, but was unable to head to Diomede due to weather.
"We anticipate this weather system to continue through Sunday, but our personnel are standing by if there is a break in the weather," Bladholm wrote in a Wednesday morning email, and that the company was in communication with elders on Diomede, providing updates.
This story was originally published by KNOM and is republished here by permission.