Monterey Bay Ninety-Nines
"To most people, the sky is the limit. To those who love aviation, the sky is home."
by Jill Smith
Part 5 of a continuing series
as published in our newsletter, Logbook, November 1999
Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska is about 145 nautical miles southwest of Cold Bay. There is a Pen Air base there, but we at the Cold Bay base went there fairly frequently for charters taking anybody from telephone repairmen, heads of seafood companies to school board members or school kids.
Dutch Harbor is a pretty tricky airport. Dutch harbor is surrounded by water and high terrain. The weather is about the same as Cold Bay but a little warmer since it is farther south. It has a 3900 foot paved runway. There is a 1600-foot mountain (Ballyhoo) to the NNW, water on the SSE, water off the departure end of runway 30 and a road, then water off the departure end of runway 12. If you are landing or departing on 30, you have to click the mike seven times to close a set of gates to close off the runway from the road. After you pass the threshold, you click the mike again three times and the gates open. The road is so close to the runway that you are pretty much in the flare as you cross it, so you really want to make sure not to forget about the gates. Three hundred-foot cranes line that road too.
All of the "Alaska-based" airlines go to Dutch-Reeve Aleutian Airways, Northern Air Cargo, Alaska Airlines, plus Pen Air. With all that traffic, there is still only one approach to Dutch Harbor and that's an NDB approach. There are two versions of it. One is for all pilots and the minimums are 2200 feet and 1¼ miles. The missed approach point is directly overhead the airport and usually the weather is so bad that you can't get in on the approach. The other is for commercial operators only and you are required to have special training. The minimums on that one are 620 feet and 3 miles. The missed approach point is at three DME. The nearest airport with an instrument approach is Cold Bay. This means that a lot of flights get canceled since there aren't many options.
When I was finishing up my IOE (initial operating experience) in the Piper Chieftain, I was supposed to take a flight from Cold Bay to Dutch Harbor. My check pilot for that flight was Guy Morgan. Guy has been with Pen Air since the '70's. He's a salmon fisherman in the summer and a pilot in the winter. He flies all the different bush planes we have. Before leaving Cold Bay, we checked the weather in Dutch Harbor and it wasn't good. The worst part was the wind. It was gusting to 62 knots! I looked at Guy and said, "We're not going!" He said, "Why not?" I said, "What?!" He said, "If it's gusting to 62 knots every five minutes, then no, we aren't going, but if it's only gusting to 62 knots every 30 minutes, then we will go. We just time it right." I'm thinking, "Oh, but I'm sure glad you're going along."
Dutch Harbor has a local weather observation station. Connie and Bill are the two weather observers. They each work a week on and a week off. Connie was on this week so we called her and got a thorough briefing. After talking to her, we blasted off into the cold, windy air for Dutch Harbor.
Arriving in the Dutch Harbor area, we were cleared for the NDB DME-C approach-the one for commercial operators. I came on down and broke out at about 2000 feet. The wind was now 320 at 38 knots and was shifting between 320º and 340º between 36 and 42 knots. We were going to land on runway 30.
There are two ways to get to 30. The typical way is "the back door" where you go behind Ballyhoo Mountain and stay over the waters of Dutch Harbor hugging the mountains or the far side and pretty much don't see the runway until you turn final. The other way is to fly a "regular" pattern. The back door is normal so that you don't fly over the town, but it's not normal when the winds are blowing from the NNW. The turbulence is way too bad back there.
When you fly a "regular" pattern at Dutch Harbor, there are a few differences. It's very wide. You want to stay away from town and hug the mountains that are on the other side of the water so that you get as little turbulence as possible. This is what we did that day.
We were flying along, being bounce all over the place and Guy is telling me where to go in the pattern. All the while, Connie is giving me the changing winds, updating us at every change. Turning from downwind to base, things get even trickier because now you have to start watching for boats and large cranes on the land. Then on final you have to remember to click the mike and close the gates. AND, you're still trying to listen to Connie and fly the plane! By the time we got to base and final, I was "eehaaing" and "woohooing" because of the adrenaline flow and also concentrating so hard that, even though I could hear Connie giving the winds, I had no idea what she was saying! I was going from normal power on final, to full power, to idle the entire way down final approach. It was incredible. As we finally touched down in the pouring rain, I could see huge waves crashing on the end of the runway. After that flight I was in no shape to go home, so I ended up spending the night. The next morning when I went to leave, there was an airport maintenance truck on the runway. I asked him if I would be in his way if I went into "position and hold?" He said no that he'd only be another minute or two. He was just getting the sea urchins off the runway! That remark also surprised the flight service specialist who was monitoring the frequency.
I had a similar experience on a school charter later on. I was returning to Dutch Harbor with the Dutch Harbor girl's basketball team. (These girls were known for throwing up - the first time I flew them, all eight girls got out with at least two full sick sacks each. Thankfully, this time their coach had gotten them some Dramamine.) Anyway, there was a Pen Air Metro ahead of me and I kept talking to them to get updates on the weather. The winds were about the same as on the previous trip. The reports I got from the Metro were uninformative. Guy, who was in the Piper 1040 going to Atka, radioed me on company frequency and said, "Don't go in the back door." I shot the approach, broke out about 1500 feet and was getting pretty beat up going in. I did the downwind approach over town and when I turned base to final, there was a 200-foot williwaw off my left wing! All the schoolgirls were screaming with fear as the turbulence and wild power adjustments were scaring them. I was "eehawing" and "woohooing" again and I still couldn't hear Connie giving me the winds on final. I spent the night again.