PCS From Island to Island

By Mark Wood 

Someone, somewhere said, “getting there was half the fun.”  In July of 1971, I made one of the most interesting and hair-raising trips of my life, a flight from Adak Island, about mid-point down the Aleutian Chain between Anchorage, on Alaska’s mainland and the island of Attu, at the far western tip of the chain.  I was to depart Adak Naval Air Station in the morning, remain overnight in Anchorage, then fly on to Sitkinak Island, via Kodiak the next day.

First a little background.  I had recently graduated from Coast Guard Radioman “A” School, which was, in 1971, located at the service’s training center on Governor’s Island, off the tip of another island, Manhattan in New York Harbor at the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers.  I had originally drawn a cutter out of Base Boston as my first duty station out of school. But with a little wheeling and dealing, I was able to trade Boston, a place I didn’t really want to go, for general duty in the Coast Guard’s Seventeenth Coast Guard District, in Alaska, where I desperately wanted to see.  After a couple of weeks leave visiting the folks in Southern California, I reported to Coast Guard Base Seattle, Washington where I was processed with an overseas physical – Alaska was considered overseas duty – and received my final orders, Coast Guard Radio Station, Adak Island.

In the latter part of 1971, the Coast Guard was winding down its operations in the Vietnam conflict and as such, many enlisted were leaving the service after their four years were up leaving a shortage in certain ratings (specialties), Radioman included.

About a month after reporting aboard at Adak, the command received an official message over the Teletype directing the Officer-in-Charge, a Senior Chief Radioman at the time, to “select and direct one RM3 or SNRM to report to the loran station on Sitkinak Island.  Since I was the junior Radioman, I was “selected and directed”.

On the morning I was to depart Adak, I rose early as was my custom, dressed in my dress blues – at that time, military personnel were required to travel in the uniform-of-the-day. Had one last lousy breakfast of cold eggs and toast at the Navy galley and proceeded to the Naval Air Station passenger terminal.

The aircraft was already waiting, having flown down the Aleutian Chain the previous day, dropping off or picking up passengers at Shymia, an Air Force Station, and Attu where there was another Coast Guard loran station.  On the return trip, the aircraft and aircrew normally remained overnight on Adak.

Our plane was an old Lockheed Super-Electra propjet, a four-engine propeller driven passenger liner owned and operated by Reeve Aleutian Airways, started by pioneering Alaska bush pilot Bob Reeve.

Now, most airliners flying in Alaska in the early to mid 1970s were divided in half.  The forward half of the fuselage was configured for air cargo, the aft half for passengers. In between, was a portable bulkhead that could be moved depending on either the number of passengers scheduled to fly or the amount of cargo to be delivered.

I need to interject at this point, a little information of the geographical nature of Adak Island.  Adak is at a point where the cold waters of the Bering Sea mixes with the warmer waters of the Japanese Current which passes just south of Adak in the Pacific Ocean. So, the prevailing weather conditions at that part of Alaska are usually soupy fog and constant rain.  Whenever a trough of low pressure, which usually originates in Siberia, enters the scene, a strong storm is generated making Adak the “birthplace of Pacific storms”.

The morning I was scheduled to leave Adak was no different than most days. Steady rain, falling horizontally with a strong wind.  Visibility, less than a mile.  I thought that the flight would be postponed for sure.  It wasn’t

When we boarded, we were greeted by the one flight attendant, then called stewardess, and seated. We were given special emphasis that since this was going to be a rough flight, we should buckle up tightly.  She was correct. Upon taking off, we got the snot beat out of us and continued to do so until achieving cruising altitude.  After that, we experienced an uneventful flight until descending into Anchorage.  The only remarkable part of the flight was that the cloud deck was so low that the tops of a few of the Aleutian volcanoes were visible from the air, a couple of them still smoking.  What a view!  It was then that I learned to take my camera onboard with me instead of packing it in baggage.

At Anchorage, instead of locating a hotel to stay the night, I decided to save the money and parked myself at the USO after purchasing a couple of magazines and pocket books related to Alaska’s history.

The next morning, the storm had blown south and was a beautiful day, rare for Alaska.  In the distance were the Chugach Mountains, still covered with snow, to the West, Redoubt Volcano.

The general plan for today was to fly from Anchorage to Kodiak on an old Fairchild F-27; a two-engine passenger medium sized passenger airliner making one stop at Homer. From Kodiak, the drill was to take a cab from the Airport, located near the Naval Station (Now a major Coast Guard facility) to the Kodiak Airways terminal downtown and catch an even smaller plane for Sitkinak Island.

The flight between Anchorage, Homer, and Kodiak, as compared to the previous day was a breeze. Very few clouds and some of the most spectacular scenery that I had ever seen.  I think that I shot 3 or 4 rolls of film on that leg of the flight alone.

I still didn’t quite understand why Kodiak Airways had their passenger terminal in downtown Kodiak until after I caught the cab and arrived in Kodiak.  On the waterfront, out by a medium sized building marked KODIAK AIRWAYS, stood a couple of sea planes; a Grumman Goose and a small Grumman Widgeon. This was going to be interesting!

After checking in and waiting for about 45 minutes, a gentleman in jeans and a flannel shirt (not plaid) walked in the terminal and called for passengers bound for Old Harbor, Alatak, Akhiok, and Sitkinak. That’s me!

The gentleman was our pilot.  Since our flight had no flight attendant, he grouped us together outside the plane and gave us the usual safety spiel then he himself climbed into the airplane’s cockpit and called for the Sitkinak passenger. That was I. He motioned me to join him in the cockpit and sit in the co-pilot’s seat.  I asked, “but what about the co-pilot?” He informed me that I was the co-pilot.  Small flights such as this milk run didn’t require a co-pilot, opening up the right seat for a passenger.  The rest of the passengers were instructed to board.  All our baggage was stowed in compartments either in the nose of the airplane or in the rear of the cabin.

The Grumman Goose was designed and built for the Second World War for surveillance and at times, light bombing.  After the war, these aircraft were perfect for light passenger and cargo work, especially in the more remote areas of Alaska where airfields were non-existent but had water deep enough for landings and take offs.

After the ground crew secured the hatch and un-chocked the wheels, the pilot fired up the two rotary engines. After that, any sort of conversation without yelling proved to be impractical. I wish that I had brought earplugs along.  The pilot then put power to the engines and we began to taxi down the ramp into the harbor.  After receiving clearance from the tower at Kodiak Airport, we “taxied” down the water to the designated take off area. 

The pilot then turned the aircraft around 360 degrees to insure there weren’t any boats in the way, then applied full power.  After a huge splash of water on the cockpit windows, we were finally airborne.

What an experience!

As our cursing altitude was much lower than that used by larger commercial airliners, we were able to get a good view of the landscape of Kodiak Island.  The northern portion is forested, mostly with Sitka Spruce and Hemlock. At a point about 30 miles southwest of the town of Kodiak is the tree line where the forest seems to change into grassland and muskeg, a tundra like plant community.  Much of this part of Kodiak Island closely resembles parts of Scotland, roughly at the same North Latitude.

I kept looking for Kodiak bear, the largest land carnivore on earth.  I saw none.  In fact, after 4 tours of duty in the Kodiak area, the only live Kodiak bear that I have seen thus far was at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

After about 20 minutes flying time, we maneuvered ourselves into the village of Old Harbor.  After landing, I got out of the plane to stretch my legs.  Upon looking at the village, the Aleut villagers and the terrain, all I could think was, “this was something directly out of National Geographic Magazine.”  Coming out of New York City just a month and a half ago, this was pure out and out cultural shock for me!  We stayed just long enough to drop off two passengers and a couple of bags of mail.

Off again, the flight to Alatak was a bit tricky and necessitated flying overland through a couple of mountain passes and turbulence.  We were low enough that I thought we were going to buy it a couple of times.  But I looked over to the pilot who remained calm and collected, so I didn’t question our position, even though I began to recall my life’s history in chunks, whenever the wind buffeted us close to a mountain point the walls of a gorge.

Alatak had no airstrip so we made a water landing, my first.  We make a pass or two over the lagoon, to look for obstructions, I guess, then made a steep bank, steep enough to where from my perspective, the plane was at 45 degrees!. After leveling off, we descended into the lagoon, again creating a huge splash from the bow wave on our windshield.  We then taxied up the ramp to a level point in the gravel, shut down the engines and again, a chance to stretch my legs while dropping off passengers and mail.

The flight from Alatak to Akhiok was but a short milk run and relatively unremarkable.

From Akhiok to Sitkinak – I was then the only passenger left – we crossed from the southern tip of Kodiak Island, over Sitkinak Straight, directly to Sitkinak Island.

Sitkinak is the middle of three islands in the Trinity Island Group located about 20 miles across Sitkinak Straight from Kodiak. The other two islands are East Sitkinak and Tugidak. 

Upon leaving Akhiok, the pilot radioed Sitkinak that we would be landing in 10 minutes, requesting the present weather.  The radio operator at Sitkinak answered that there were strong crosswinds on the airstrip but clear visibility.  The pilot acknowledged.

Approaching Sitkinak, we flew over the airstrip a couple of times while the pilot eyeballed the windsock to fathom the wind’s direction and strength.  The sock was definitely perpendicular to the airstrip and its full stretch indicated a strong wind.  We then flew back out to sea, did another steep bank that again nearly caused me to fall out of my seat (even though tightly belted) and to nearly pee my trousers.

After leveling off again, we made (what I thought) to be an approach on the airstrip.  I then noticed that the pilot hadn’t put down the landing gear.  I wondered to myself whether to mention that to him but decided that he probably knew better, so I didn’t. 

Halfway down the airstrip, still no landing gear but not close enough to touch town.  At the other end of the strip, another steep bank – I’ve thought to myself that I’ve really had enough of this! – and then descended and landed into a freshwater lake not far from the station.

The pilot looked over at me, tapping me on my shoulder and said, “Welcome home”.

Sitkinak Island Loran was to be my home for the next year and at 19 years of age; I was perhaps one of the youngest and most inexperienced Radiomen-in-Charge and Senior Weather Observer in the history of the service.  But there were personnel shortages and desperate times call for desperate measures.  Sitkinak Island was the place where I was to finally grow up and learn real responsibility under the tutelage of a crusty Warrant Officer, a couple of Chief Petty Officers.  But that is the topic for another story.  I survived the flight of my life. It was time to begin a new life.

Getting there was indeed half the fun!

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