Alaska Air Ending its Arctic Eagles Unit

ANCHORAGE -- They called themselves the Arctic Eagles. For years, they flew Alaska Airlines passengers on the lonely routes from Alaska's largest city to 20 remote outposts. With limited instruments and little air-traffic control, they faced blizzards, bear heads, gravel runways and volcanic eruptions.

But after 25 years, the Eagles are being disbanded.

Alaska Airlines two weeks ago retired the last of its banged-up Boeing 737-200s, affectionately known as "mud hens." The airline is sending the roughly 60 pilots onto newer aircraft that will fly to California, Mexico and the East Coast as well as the Alaska destinations.

Alaska no longer is the Eagles' exclusive fief, either. Other pilots will be able to fly the Arctic routes as long as they're "checked out" on some of the most demanding airports.

Jet crews usually cheer the arrival of new equipment. But the Arctic Eagles lament the idea of manning aircraft that can land on automatic pilot. And many are not crazy about flying to cities in the Lower 48, where air-traffic controllers dictate their every move. They wax nostalgic about the stubby, noisy planes and the challenge and wonder of flying them in the frozen north.

"We were just a different breed of cat in Anchorage," said Capt. Kevin Earp, a 26-year veteran.

Capt. Steve Rhodes, 44, once inadvertently flew into ash spewing from a volcano. "The cockpit smelled like rotten eggs, and it got dark," he recalled. Volcanic dust can shut down jet engines, so he changed course.

In Nome and Kotzebue, on Alaska's northwestern coast, high winds and snow squalls roll in from the Bering Sea difficult conditions for the most experienced pilots. "When you get into Nome on the third shot, after going to Kotzebue to gas up and try again, people say, `Thank you,' " said Capt. Terry Smith, a 28-year Alaska Airlines veteran and chief pilot of the Anchorage base.

Years ago, Capt. Malcolm af Uhr, 45, co-piloted a Juneau-bound flight in a snowstorm. He and his pilot, he recalled, aborted four attempts to land because they couldn't see the runway.

After refueling in Sitka, 95 miles away, they returned to Juneau and tried to land five more times without success. As local fliers dozed or read the paper, a passenger from California stood and demanded, "What's wrong with you people?" The plane landed on the 10th try.

Way out in the Aleutian Island chain sits Dutch Harbor, a former Navy base with one of the trickiest airstrips anywhere. The short runway is surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by a mountain.

Alaska says it operated more than 7,000 mud-hen flights to Dutch Harbor over a decade, and it never had a reportable incident. Yet because of difficulty landing there, service was unpredictable, so the airline stopped serving Dutch Harbor in 2004. Alaska still flies to other Aleutian locations.

Anita Davis, an Alaska flight attendant for 27 years and married to a pilot, recently found herself and the crew grounded by nasty winds at Red Dog, an isolated zinc mine northwest of Kotzebue. The crew and passengers stayed at the mine dorm, sleeping while miners worked and then clearing out when they returned. It wasn't awkward, Davis said, because "these people are some of my best friends."

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines was founded in Anchorage in 1932 and is the nation's ninth-largest airline. But it still devotes more than 20 percent of its seats to its namesake state and its jets are emblazoned with the carrier's navy-and-teal logo of a smiling Eskimo.

Connecting towns inaccessible by road, flights ferry groceries, plasma TVs, high-school teams, musher dogs, walrus meat and whale blubber, as well as prisoners, itinerant priests, dentists and oil workers. Alaska once hauled a plane full of frozen Chicken McNuggets to Anchorage after local McDonald's stores ran out.

Jeff Munro, manager of cargo operations in Anchorage, says communities awaiting goods know what they want most. "Two things they ask us to prioritize beer and toilet paper," he joked. "The groceries can wait."

Several years ago, Capt. Rhodes was flying a woman with a high-risk pregnancy from Nome when a flight attendant announced the baby's arrival "just this side of Galena," Rhodes recalled. Galena has a runway but no hospital, so he flew to Anchorage, where an ambulance waited. First, though, cargo containers in the passenger cabins had to be unloaded so the mother and baby, both fine, could be lifted out through the freight door.

Pilots liked to tease out-of-state tourists by announcing the imminent crossing of the Arctic Circle. As the plane passed over the line, pilots goosed the controls to make the plane wobble, producing the "Arctic bump." The airline banned the practice after a passenger complaint, but many pilots smile coyly when asked if they still do the bump.

A passenger recently boarded in Dillingham toting the head of a freshly killed black bear in a plastic grocery bag. Flight attendant Mary Jane Bridwell hid the memento "about the size of a large St. Bernard head" in a galley cupboard. When another attendant asked about an odor, Bridwell showed her the source. "She got very pale," said Bridwell, a 10-year Alaska Airlines veteran.

The mud hens were designed to land on short runways, and on gravel and ice. They guzzle gas, and black smoke trails from their engines. Cockpits lack digital controls, advanced navigation aids and computerized maps that guide newer planes around mountains and other hazards. Passengers disembark from the rear on fold-out stairs.

Mud-hen pilots had to endure rigorous training to learn to spot local landmarks, understand extreme weather conditions and perform landings with rudimentary airport beacons.

"You pass that training program, you had a lot to be proud of," Capt. Earp said.

Newer 737s are bringing the 49th state all the modern cockpit and passenger conveniences, and they will make flying in rugged weather safer, the carrier says. Because they aren't designed to land on gravel, the landing strip at Red Dog had to be paved.

The pilots say they'll miss the old challenges and camaraderie with crew members and local passengers.

Capt. af Uhr, who co-piloted that 10-approach flight to Juneau, said flying planes that put "food on the table in Nome" always will be more rewarding than "getting a bunch of irate people to Newark."

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