We are over the Bering Sea southwest bound at FL410 in the Lear 40. Off to our right is an ocean of broken ice heaped into odd-shaped forms. To our left is a group of yellow/brown tundra-covered islands with patches of snow visible even though we are well into spring. Except for one container ship heading west, we are alone as far as we can see. And from 8 miles high you can see a long way.
We left Anchorage (PANC) a half-hour ago and are flight-planned to land in Dutch Harbor (PADU), about half way down the Aleutian Island chain, some 400-nm further ahead, in about 50 minutes.
Dutch: Remote Yet Important Fishing Port
There are few places a business jet crew can fly that are more isolated than Dutch Harbor, (known to the locals as just plain Dutch). Located 53.53 degrees North, and 166.32 degrees West, it is about 650 nm southwest from Anchorage, which itself is isolated. Unpredictable, low IFR conditions are common, alternate airports are few and far between, and there is only one ILS along the entire route, and that has the inhospitable but appropriate name of Cold Bay. Once you get to the far end of the chain, if unable to land it would be slightly shorter to just fly further west to Russia rather than return to Anchorage.
Yet, this isolated outpost of modern America purchased from the Russians in 1867, is the most productive fishing port in the world with well over 800 million pounds landed annually. In fact, the fish in just about every McDonalds-type “fishwich” sold nationally at one time came across the docks of Dutch. The fishermen that do this work, realistically stereotyped by “Dangerous Catch” TV programs, are for the most part family men of Scandinavian heritage from the Seattle area. They rotate back home every two to three months depending upon how quickly their trawler can land its quota of the available fish.
Bring Them Home
There are only two ways for them to leave the island. One is by boat, which back to Seattle is a daunting 1,600 nm journey across the Gulf of Alaska. The other is to fly from the 4,500-foot, World War II-era paved runway wedged into the only area of flat ground available on the island.
After spending months on the Bering Sea, with all its hazards and frozen discomforts, the ability to get quickly back home to relatively tropical Seattle is for fishermen like a gift from heaven. It is for this reason that Jeff and I earlier in the day departed BVS (60 nm north of SEA) on the 2,000-nm trip to Dutch. Flying first about 1,300 nm northwest to Anchorage for refueling, and then another 700 nm southwest to Unalaska Airport (PADU). We will spend the night in Dutch, then the next morning board the crew of the Auriga for the return flight to Seattle. The Auriga is a 200-foot trawler that (co-pilot) Jeff has an ownership interest in, which even with some challenging mechanical breakdowns, still had a very successful season.
We left Skagit Regional (BVS) at 10 a.m., with an empty airplane on a windy, cool day with 1,500 overcast and light rain. Over the next two hours, we run up the west side of British Columbia, then over the middle of Hecate Strait with the very remote Queen Charlotte Islands visible off the airplane’s left side. A bit later we are over the Chugach mountain range that lies between the Gulf of Alaska and Anchorage. On joining the PANC YESKA 6 arrival over the Johnstone VOR (JOH), we are told there is a 747 behind us and asked to keep our speed above Mach 0.78. In visual conditions, we find ourselves in trail with a long line of cargo 747s inbound from Asia. We land and quickly make exit Echo to get out of the way of a closely following 747, who we note deploys his reversers well before the nose wheel touches down, something considered very poor form in a Lear.
Signature Flight Support is located close to our exit point off runway 7L. Knowing that fuel at PADU is more expensive than at PANC, we request the tanks be topped at 6,000 pounds. Our other reason is that it is not uncommon to miss the approach at PADU, and that usually requires a deadhead all the way back to PANC, a location also known for weather at minimums. Leaving Anchorage for Dutch with legally minimum IFR fuel reserves is a very bad idea indeed.
Tanks full, we depart PANC and turn to the southwest. An hour and a half later we start our descent and begin reviewing the special approach procedure we will use at PADU. The standard published approaches do not allow a descent below 2,000 feet, and require visibility of at least 3 miles, conditions that rarely exist. So, we have approval for the special procedure to runway 31 that allows a descent to 500 feet while over salt water at DAWKU, which is still 5 miles from the airport, and then on a path 112 degrees off the runway heading.
The requirement is if you do not have the surrounding island terrain in sight at DAWKU and recognize visually the entrance to Iliuliuk Bay, then you must make an immediate right 180-degree climbing turn while remaining safely over the water.
Fortunately for us, it is a pretty nice day with about a 2,000-foot broken ceiling, and nearly unlimited visibility. When we break out, we can clearly see where we are and continue inbound doing a Vref of about 125 knots. The waves on the bay are whipping by 500 feet beneath us and we are less than a minute from touchdown when runway 31 finally comes into sight. We then make a sharp right turn to pass over a small high island just short of the runway, pull the power all the way back and drop like a rock to cross over the numbers at about 40 feet. The landing goes well, and there being no parallel taxiways, we turn around on the runway to exit at our approach end, while a departing King Air is taxing out to the numbers.
The ramp near the terminal is owned by the local commuter airline, and given that it is often icy with poor braking, they take a dim view of other aircraft parking near their space. Knowing this, we park near the grass 200 yards from the terminal, and are promptly met by the airport operations manager, who is very welcoming and ask if she can have her photo taken by the Lear. Shortly thereafter a member of the Auriga’s crew arrives and invites us out for a short boat trip, while they reposition the vessel. We board to see several bald eagles calmly perched in the rigging, and spend the next few hours looking over the trawler and its machinery.
We then visit the fish processing plant where 600 Philippine guest workers are running a mountain of pollock on conveyor belts through automated cutting knives. All are hygienically dressed in white overalls, rubber boots, hats and face masks, and intently struggling to keep up with the machinery, which is running fish by so fast it blurs the image on my camera. This visit makes me glad I am a pilot, not a fish plant worker.
That evening over dinner with the trawler’s crew, we have an interesting discussion about how dense the fish schools are in the Bering Sea, and the fact that the numbers are increasing. Sometimes the schools are so thick the depth sounder cannot detect the bottom. This is great from the crew’s perspective, because each vessel has a seasonal quota. Once that is caught, they can all go home.
We then talk about the flight details for the morning. There were six Auriga crew members scheduled as passengers, but now it appears there is also an additional fellow, well over 6-foot, 6-inches tall, who they would like to go with us. We decide anyone that can tolerate working on a fishing boat on freezing rough seas can handle being a bit cramped on the airplane’s (legal) toilet seat for a couple of hours.
The next morning Jeff and I get arrive at the airport to find most of our trawler crew, now dressed in jeans and pullovers rather than rain gear, already waiting. As a fisherman’s gift, they also bring us a large box of freshly caught frozen cod. We make sure the box is safely stashed in the luggage bay, and load up the group.
The winds mandate a departure on runway 13, which shortly after liftoff requires a sharp left turn to stay over the water and avoid terrain directly ahead on the other side of the bay. When releasing the brakes after getting the engines to stabilize at maximum takeoff thrust (MTO), the airplane shoots down the runway like a drag racer accompanied by shouts of enthusiasm from the guys in back. With the Lear climbing at over 4,000 fpm, we make the required sharp left turn pulling an extra one-half G
in the process, only to hear more whoops from our now enthusiastic homebound passengers.
We arrive in Anchorage an hour and a half later, do a quick refuel and load a couple of cases of Alaska Amber Ale and lunches for everyone. We depart and hear the caps coming off the beer bottles as we climb to altitude. Jeff and I, of course pass on the beer, and in fact drink little else, wanting to avoid the potentially awkward mix of beer-drinking fishermen, the largest of whom has comfortably adopted the small toilet room as his own.
From FL410 we can see all the way to Vancouver Island as we work our way southeast, and shortly thereafter go IMC over Victoria (YYJ). We remain in moderately bouncy clouds (which doesn’t seem to bother our Bering Sea experienced trawler crew at all), until reaching SOCLO the initial approach fix (IAF) for the RNAV approach to runway 11 at BVS. We land in a gusty crosswind, and pull up to a crowded ramp with a light rain falling. As the engines spool down Jeff opens the door and our passengers begin to file out to loud cheers from an excited group of wives and children waiting on the ramp just outside the FBO.
I am standing by the cockpit entry nodding to our guests as they exit, when a little girl yells out “Daddy” and breaks away from her mother’s tightly held hand and with long, blond hair streaming. She runs toward the airplane’s door with a huge smile on her face, and arms outstretched. Our stoic, fisherman/pax still dressed in his Dutch Harbor best, picks her up, throws her above his head then catches her with a big hug. Her watchful mother starts wiping tears, as the fisherman beams, and his little blond daughter laughs with joy.