In a state full of remote places, Little Diomede is among the most isolated. A tiny island 135 miles from Nome, Alaska, and a mere 2.5 miles from the Russian island of Big Diomede, Little Diomede has long struggled to connect itself to the rest of the world. Now, the community of about 100 people will take a step in that direction as helicopters will soon begin shuttling passengers on regularly scheduled service back and forth from the rocky little Bering Strait island to the U.S. mainland.
Previously, residents of Diomede had to hope that they could hitch a ride on the once-weekly mail delivery flights to and from Nome, an iffy proposition dependent on space. But thanks to $200,000 written into the state's budget and matched by a federal subsidy called Essential Air Service (EAS).
EAS provides government dollars for air service providers to maintain regular passenger service to qualifying, remote U.S. communities. It already subsidizes travel to 43 Alaska communities, to a total tune of more than $14 million. Some, like Icy Bay and Minto, get less than $50,000 annually. Others, like Yakutat and Cordova, see more than $2 million to ensure that residents can come and go at regular intervals.
But Diomede has its own unique challenge, too: the island's runway, carved into Bering Strait sea ice, is only accessible a few months out of the year. The rest of the time, the community relies on helicopters for goods from the outside world.
More specifically, they rely on one helicopter: a BO-105 operated by Evergreen Helicopters. Mike Kutyba flew the mail route to Diomede for two years, and said that the problem with the Diomede passenger service is that it wasn't predictable. Sometimes the mail would be light and allow several passengers, other times only one person could sit with the pilot in front, in a seat that must remain clear. Then, there was the weather to contend with.
And even then, it's only one day each week. "We run mail on Wednesdays," Kutyba said, "unless the weather cancels the flight. The other six days, (the helicopter's) available for charter operations. EAS would be another day of flying between Nome and Diomede."
Kutyba, who is now chief pilot for Evergreen Helicopters based in Anchorage, said that he never lived in Nome, but would fly up every week to do the mail run. Sometimes, the sheer amount of goods being transferred to the island and the other nearby island of Wales would necessitate multiple runs. On those days, he said, "everybody gets where they need to go."
The price of a ticket from Nome to Little Diomede runs about $400 on the mail delivery route. To Wales, it's another $200. Provided, of course, that it's not too windy or too foggy out in the middle of the tumultuous waters of the Bering Strait. The trip from Nome to Diomede takes about an hour, and it's another 15-20 minutes to Wales.
A single-engine helicopter is also on its way up to be stationed in Nome, Kutyba said, and the new pilot lives there.
The new service for Little Diomede is also unique in a couple of ways: First, it would become the only EAS community in the nation served by helicopter, rather than fixed-wing aircraft. In fact, EAS typically requires fixed-wing aircraft, said Bill Mosley, spokesman with the U.S. Department of Transportation, but an exception was made since Little Diomede is without an airstrip most of the year.
When the ice runway is operational, mail is delivered by Bering Air. A separate postal service subsidy allows for year-round mail delivery.
The other unique thing is that a local entity is providing a matching amount to kickstart EAS service to the island. Mosley said that Congress passed a law six years ago that a local source of revenue could be matched by the federal government for a community that qualifies for EAS. But, according to Mosley, this is the first time the provision has been used.
Scott Ruby, director of the Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs (DCRA), said that it's been a long haul getting those state funds. He said that DCRA entered talks to bring EAS to Diomede just a couple of years ago, but the discussion had been going on for much longer than that.
"It's really been about trying to get the money together up front," Ruby said, adding that it's hard for local groups to collect the necessary funds to make the matching program worthwhile.
State Sen. Donnie Olson, D-Nome, inserted the $200,000 into the DCRA's budget in the form of a grant to Kawerak, Inc., a regional nonprofit in the Bering Strait region. Kawerak will then put that money toward the federal EAS matching program.
Ruby said that since other EAS communities are subsidized solely by federal dollars, "This is very different from what anybody else in the state is getting from EAS."
Of course, it still has to go through the bidding process, with hopes that the money will be enough incentive for a carrier to provide a much-needed service to the Northwest community. It's not exactly far from the realm of possibility, though.
Kutyba said that Evergreen had been part of the discussion to provide EAS to Diomede, so it seems likely that they would be the ones to apply for the subsidy, considering they have the equipment and the manpower already stationed there -- not to mention the experience to back it up.
"We're ready to go," Kutyba said. "We're just waiting for the call."
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com