For the past year and a half, people on Akutan have been taking a hovercraft to get to their airport on a different island. Now, the Aleutians East Borough has made the switch to a helicopter as their new airport taxi. The change has been a relief for residents.
On a typical quiet day in February, Akutan’s school bus had to do something unusual: yield to oncoming traffic — in this case, to a helicopter.
Kids: “The helicopter’s here! Helicopter! Mr. Sharpe, the helicopter!”
The kids’ teacher, Chip Sharpe, was driving them to lunch on the other side of town when the helicopter came in for a landing. This was its second day in service.
The students weren’t the only ones excited about their new airport taxi. Sharpe and others in town were more than ready to say goodbye to the old hovercraft.
Sharpe: “I had my doubts with the helicopter, you know, but yesterday was a foggy day — it wasn’t real windy, but I can almost guarantee the hovercraft would not have went yesterday because of the fog. And the helicopter, you know, he didn’t seem to mind.”
Both vehicles come from the Aleutians East Borough, which is tasked with getting people from Akutan to the airport. The borough’s community development director Annie Bailey works in Anchorage. She says at a cost of more than $3 million dollars a year, the hovercraft wasn’t sustainable. It only brought in about $350,000 in passenger and freight fees in 2013, according to borough records.
Now, Bailey says they’re contracting with Maritime Helicopters of Homer.
Bailey: “We anticipate it to be a million dollars less, which is still not affordable, but it’s more affordable.”
For passengers, it costs exactly the same — $100 each way. But Akutan Mayor Joe Bereskin says it’s going to be more reliable.
Bereskin: “I think it’ll do a little better job than the hovercraft did, because they don’t have to worry about water — the swell — which was, in the wintertime, one of the bigger problems for the hovercraft.”
Such a problem, in fact, that the hovercraft could only run about 60 percent of the time. Plus, it took about half an hour to make the trip over. The helicopter does it in five minutes.
One drawback: The chopper can’t haul as much cargo. Outgoing hovercraft captain Alan Burt thinks that’ll be a problem.
Burt: “To be honest, I think the hovercraft’s the best thing for this place… just because of our capabilities, our load-carrying capabilities.”
But it seems like most Akutan residents are willing to make the trade-off. The biggest items can always be brought in on a barge. And the helicopter can carry some loads in a hanging sling.
Pilot Todd Engle and his mechanic, Ray Simpson, are up for that challenge. They were in Akutan until the end of March, when they tagged out with another crew.
Engle’s got almost a decade of experience, but he’s never flown in the Aleutians.
Engle: “You know, I’m gonna keep my personal restrictions really conservative for the moment ’til I get familiar with the area. I have a family to go home to at the end of the day, so I’m not going to be pushing any limits, and it’s not worth anybody’s life for getting somebody somewhere.”
They’ve been respecting those restrictions, but Engle and Simpson have been keeping busy.
In February, they spent their first day on the job dealing with a storage container full of packages left behind after the hovercraft service had ended the weekend before. There were medications, groceries, even Christmas presents that had been stuck there since the holidays.
Ropeik: “So this was your first load of mail?”
Engle: “First load of mail, yep.”
Ropeik: “How many do you have to go?”
Engle: “There’s probably a good six or seven more loads. Maybe more.”
Once he landed in Akutan, Engle unpacked the bags and boxes from the helicopter’s cabin. Ray Simpson and postmaster Kay Bereskin, who is also Mayor Joe Bereskin’s wife, loaded them into a pickup truck.
Kay Bereskin: “I didn’t expect that much — I didn’t expect you to be able to carry that much!”
Simpson: “I like puzzles.”
There were reasons for residents to be skeptical about the helicopter. The Aleutians East Borough hadn’t worked out fuel storage or permanent housing for the crew before they started running the service.
Still, in the first week, borough records show the chopper carried 44 passengers, 290 pounds of freight and more than 11,000 pounds of mail. And that went a long way toward winning over locals like teacher Chip Sharpe.
Sharpe: “If what we’ve seen in the last day and a half is any sign of what’s to come, I think we’ll be fine.”
Fine for now — but the helicopter’s still too expensive to keep long-term. That’s the next challenge, even more daunting than trying to fly or hover over the Bering Sea: the challenge of connecting Akutan to its airport for good.
This is the first of a two-part series. Part two: “Aleutians East Scrambles for Cheaper Link to Akutan Airport.”