If you’ve ever flown into Dutch Harbor, you know it can be an adventure. I remember a jet landing in which the pilot immediately reversed thrust and hit the brakes so hard that my head hit the seatback in front of me. At least we didn’t run off the end of the runway.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened to a PenAir/RavnAir flight last October. The aircraft was a twin-engine turboprop Saab 2000 with 39 passengers, including a swim team from Cordova. Another passenger, David Oltman, a 38-year-old man from Wenatchee, Wash., was killed when the plane crashed into rocks and a broken propeller blade slashed through the cabin.
The accident highlighted ongoing problems with the Dutch Harbor/Unalaska airport. Built at the edge of Amaknak Island, the runway is relatively short and narrow, 4,500 feet (total) long by 100 feet wide, with water at both ends and along most of the southwest side. To the northeast: the base of a mountain. Winds are notoriously strong coming off the Bering Sea and extremely variable. When the PenAir plane landed — on a second approach after one go-round — the wind was nearly 30 knots and on its tail. That the pilots hadn’t turned around and landed into the wind puzzled many observers. Neither pilot had logged much time in the Saabs.
Back in the ’80s, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska enjoyed mainline jet service, provided first by Alaska Airlines and then MarkAir. Both flew Boeing 737-200s, which were capable of landing and taking off from the short strip, if barely. But Alaska stopped flying 737s, and MarkAir went bankrupt after a failed expansion to the Lower 48. PenAir, another regional Alaska airline with national ambitions, also went bankrupt.
The most recent casualty is RavnAir, the state’s largest regional airline. In 2018, it had purchased PenAir assets after its bankruptcy. Ravn, with PenAir’s planes, provided daily service between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor with Saab 2000s and Dash-8s. After the October accident, service stopped completely for about a month. Alaska also curtailed its code-share and marketing arrangements with Ravn after the accident.
The coronavirus pandemic was the next hit. Air travel plummeted everywhere. With a stated 90 percent loss of revenue, RavnAir Group stopped all operations on April 5, grounding 72 aircraft, laying off 1,300 employees. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In a letter to customers, Dave Pflieger, Ravn CEO, said these actions would “give us time to ‘hit pause’ while we seek federal CARES Act grants... and emerge successfully once [the pandemic] has passed.”
Suddenly, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska was again without scheduled airline service. Even during a pandemic, the top seafood port in the country needs a way to fly people in and out, regularly.
“We’re seeing a lot of companies charter planes out of Anchorage,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of At-Sea Processors Association, in Juneau. “And around May 15th, Alaska Airlines set up a hub in Cold Bay, like back in the good old days.”
Because it has a huge runway, Cold Bay has historically been used for large planes thanks to its two paved landing strips built during World War II, one of which is over 10,000 feet.
For many years, Reeve Aleutian Airlines used Cold Bay as a hub for both Lockheed Electra turboprops and Boeing 727 jets. Reeve provided scheduled service between Cold Bay and Anchorage, and also, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, direct flights between Seattle and Cold Bay. In 2000, Reeve ceased operations.