Diomede Enters More than One Month Without Flights

Diomede in November 2010. (Photo: KNOM file)
Diomede in November 2010. (Photo: KNOM file)

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 is keeping flights from resuming, but residents say they’re getting by despite just one delivery of mail and cargo in the last month.

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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 and 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), Father Ross 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 cell phone 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.”

He chuckled. “When the chips aren’t down they share. And they help each other out.”

There has been some relief since the last regular flight took off in January: a single flight landed roughly 10 days ago, 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 off 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 Bölkow BO-105 that had been down in Anchorage for weeks of maintenance, returned for further inspection.

Father Ross said the resupply 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 with state’s division of homeland security and emergency management says the department is in “close communication” with Diomede leaders—and while there haven’t been any requests for emergency aide, he says 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” made it as far as McGrath last week before weather kept it on the ground.

“It departed from Anchorage to Nome on Thursday, and then arrived into McGrath,” Blandholm said Friday. “And then they identified a minor maintenance issue, and that was corrected, and then we ran into some weather issues. So at this point we’re just waiting on weather.”

Once the twin huey makes it to Nome, Blandolm said it will be in regular service until a larger helicopter, a Bell 412SP, can be readied as a full-time replacement. That craft is currently being configured for permanent service in Anchorage.

“[The Bell 412SP] is making its way up there as well, which is a larger, heavier, and frankly more reliable aircraft,” Blandholm said on Sunday, after continued poor weather and freezing rain kept the smaller 212 in McGrath.

On Monday Blandolm said Erickson watched for clearing weather through the afternoon, but “freezing fog did not burn off in time for a flight.” Blandholm said Tuesday’s weather forecast “is looking promising” for sending the 412 from Anchorage to Nome.

When weather clears Erickson says getting the helicopter to Nome to resume flights to Diomede should only take a few days.