Alaska Air Ending its Arctic Eagles Unit

The mud hens -- the Boeing 737-200s -- were designed to land on short runways, and on gravel and ice. They guzzle gas, and black smoke trails from their engines.


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.

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