One Year Later: Unalaskans Reflect On Anniversary Of Fatal Plane Crash

Oct 19, 2020

The fatal plane crash was a tragic event for the island and those involved, and marked the start of an unstable relationship and ongoing struggle with access to airline service on and off the island.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

 

Saturday marked the one year anniversary of Unalaska's fatal PenAir plane crash. On October 17 of last year, the Saab 2000 plane went off the end of Tom Madsen Airport's runway. 42 people were on board, over 11 were injured, and one passenger died.

The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the crash is still ongoing and an NTSB spokesperson said those investigations typically take 18-24 months to complete.

The crash was a tragic event for the island and those involved, and marked the start of an unstable relationship and ongoing struggle with access to airline service on and off the island. 

"There's challenges to traveling off the island because of weather conditions and canceled flights," said Unalaska City School District Superintendent John Conwell. "We've all gone through that. We've had ferry service that's been disrupted in the past. So this last year, that's just been magnified a lot." 

Conwell said the crash amplified many of the concerns local travelers face living on a remote Aleutian island.

He said he is thankful there was no greater loss of life, but recognized that the crash was still traumatic for everyone involved, including the Cordova Swim Team who was onboard at the time

Conwell said he's proud of the way the community showed their support for the students who were stuck on the island overnight, after the crash occurred.

"People started showing up with cases of Gatorade and potato chips and snack food—comfort food that teenagers like," said Conwell. "And Unlaska students were loaning their cell phones to the Cordova team members so that they could call their families, and so just immediately, people started pulling together." 

In the weeks following the crash, when the island was cut off from commercial air service, the community also pulled together through social media platforms. Andy Dietrick—who owns the local drone service business, Aleutian Aerial, and local tourism company, Aleutian Excursions—is the administrator on the Facebook page, Unalaska Plane Charter Coordination. The page was created about a week after the fatal plane crash, and Dietrick said it originated organically, through the needs the community was voicing on Facebook.

"It was mainly just so people could connect with each other when they were trying to coordinate a flight on or off the island in the absence of regularly scheduled air service," said Dietrick. "That was sort of the goal. And since much of rural Alaska is so prolific with their Facebook usage, it made sense to use that platform."

The group is meant to help coordinate air charter travel. And while there is now scheduled commercial air service through Grant Aviation to and from Cold Bay, various charter companies still use the page to advertise available seats and coordinate with locals looking for direct flights between Anchorage and Unalaska.

Bernadette Oller Namasivayam runs the operations for Dena'ina Air Charters on the island, and said the charter Facebook page is an essential means of coordinating flights for the community. 

After the crash, she said she was frustrated with the airline problems on the island and saw an immediate need for another form of transportation. 

"Somebody needs to fly here and help us," said Namasivayam. "Something needs to be done. I mean, there's gotta be a way."

So she reached out to several different charter companies, asking them to charter flights on and off the island. Namasivayam said Dena'ina was the only company who agreed to help. She said she offered to assist filling planes and coordinating flights, and now, with the help of her children, she runs the local Dena'ina Charter operations. 

Namasivayam said she plans to  continue coordinating charter flights, even though Ravn Alaska says it hopes to start providing commercial service between Anchorage and Unalaska soon. Last week, the FAA granted Ravn permission to begin flying charter flights on and off the island, but Ravn currently sits in a two-week window for anyone to show cause that the air carrier is not fit to provide scheduled flights, before it can begin serving the area commercially.

Despite Ravn flights on the horizon, Namasivayam said she remains skeptical of larger airlines, like Ravn, coming to the island.

"The trust is not there," said Namasivayam. "It's the fear of not knowing. Are they going to set up a new company again, and then what's going to happen next? A few times, they just left us, abandoned us, pretty much."

Despite some of the community's mistrust of airlines, Conwell said that he looks forward to the convenience of consistent and reliable commercial air travel.

"I just think that [regularly scheduled commercial air service] really improves the quality of life out here," said Conwell. "And I know, as a superintendent who's responsible for staffing the schools, it's going to make my job easier, attracting qualified teachers and support staff to come out here and live because it's a great place to live. There are just a few challenges with travel." 

For Dennis Robinson—who sits on both the Unalaska City Council and Qawalangin Tribal Council—the airport plays an essential role in life on the island. 

"The airport is the single largest choke point of this community," said Robinson. "It affects everything we do. And its ability to function is required in every aspect of island life." 

According to Robinson, in order to improve the quality of life in Unalaska—from access to comprehensive healthcare, to basic comforts like movie theatres or gyms, to creating an affordable cost of living—expanding the airport runway and providing access to safe and reliable air service are paramount. 

On Wednesday, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities will hold an airport master plan virtual meeting. They are seeking public feedback on issues related to future air service in Unalaska. 

The meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. and will air on 89.7 FM and Channel 8 TV. It can also be streamed on our website. Find more information on our Community Calendar.