Late Friday night a child in Igiugig needed to be medevaced to Anchorage.
The small, remote Southwest Alaska village is right at the mouth of the Kvichak River on the south end of Iliamna Lake. LifeMed sent a King Air flight over from Kodiak. That usually takes about 30 minutes.
But this year, the village’s state-owned airport has had some problems with the runway lights. And when residents went to turn them on to guide the flight in, nothing happened.
Normally, this would stop a plane from landing.
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Ida Nelson had just climbed out of a steam bath and was getting dressed when she heard the LifeMed plane fly over her village.
“When they first flew over, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds like a weird vehicle. I’ve never heard that truck before,'” she said. “And it wasn’t a truck, it was an airplane.”
It was after 11 p.m., Nelson said. She knew something was wrong.
“Anytime there’s any type of planes flying after dark, you always assume it’s going to be something urgent and an emergency,” she said.
Nelson can see the airport from her steam bath. She said when she looked to see what was going on, she saw that the runway lights were off.
“Normally if you push the button like 10 or 15 times the lights will just light up,” she said. “But they didn’t and so the medevac plane flew over the village.”
Nelson hopped on her four-wheeler and sped the few hundred yards to the runway. Her neighbor jumped in to help too.
“She started calling other people and waking them up. Like, ‘Get up, get out of bed, come line up the runway,’” she said.
Nelson said her neighbor made 32 calls for help.
“That’s pretty much almost every household in this village. Pretty much every cell phone here,” she said.
A local pilot got contacted the LifeMed pilot. Meanwhile, villagers drove their cars, trucks and four-wheelers toward the runway.
Nelson said the weather was calm. The medevac pilot circled as she and others on the ground coordinated people by phone and radio. She said a lot of people got out of bed and were running around in their pajamas.
They staggered vehicles, facing east and running the whole length of the runway — lighting the pilot’s way.
“So he could be able to see end-to-end of the runway,” she said.
Then, they waited.
“I was anxious and nervous and I was like, ‘So what if that was my baby (waiting for that) plane,’” Nelson said.
As the pilot got ready to land, an on-call health aid told everyone to stay put when the plane touched down.
“And so, once she was able to get the patient on the plane, everybody still stayed in their positions and he was able to taxi out, taxi down the runway and take off,” Nelson said.
No one from LifeMed Alaska answered the phone Friday evening. But the company briefly posted a photo on Facebook. The image was completely dark, except for a straight line of lights off in the distance.
The company wrote: “What appears to be a blurry, dark photo is actually a view of what an amazing community can do with a lot of determination.”
Nelson said that’s her takeaway too. The community dropped everything and came together to help someone who needed it, she said. She said she’s also thankful for the pilot who was willing to land.
And, she said, she wants the state Department of Transportation to fix its runway lights “so we never have to do this again.”
But, Nelson said, if they do have to light the runway a second time, they now know how and can do it better and faster.
“I’m just truly happy and proud to be from here,” she said.
No one from the state’s transportation department returned messages Saturday evening seeking information about why the runway lights didn’t work.