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Saab 2000 touches ground in Unalaska

A Saab 2000 aircraft landed in Unalaska for the first time in three years.
Theo Greenly
A Saab 2000 aircraft landed in Unalaska for the first time in three years.

A Saab 2000 aircraft landed in Unalaska Wednesday morning for the first time in three years.

It was a test flight for Aleutian Airways, a new regional carrier operated by Sterling Airways, to demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration they are qualified to land the Saab 2000 aircraft at Tom Madsen International Airport.

Brian Whilden is the general manager for the nascent airline, and he was on the flight, Sterling Airways 1001, which touched down just after 11 a.m.

“We’re here to show the FAA that we understand how to do this, understand this market, and we can operate here successfully,'' Whilden said. “It was a smooth flight, and we’re happy to be in Unalaska.”

The Saab 2000 is the same kind of aircraft that was involved in a fatal plane crash in Unalaska in 2019. This is the first time that aircraft has landed at Tom Madsen Airport since.

In August, the FAA cleared the airline to fly to Cold Bay, King Salmon and Dillingham, but required the airline to go through more inspections before approving them for Unalaska and Sand Point.

Whilden said they had to go through a rigorous safety and approval process before being cleared to land. He reassured the community that their pilots used to fly for PenAir, a former regional airline, so they have thousands of hours of experience landing Saab 2000s in Unalaska.

An FAA representative was onboard the test flight to monitor operations. Unalaska Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson met with her after the flight landed and said she deemed it successful.

“She said she’d sign off on it as soon as she gets home to Florida,” Robinson said.

The highly-anticipated arrival comes at a particularly fraught time for air travel nationwide, and especially in Unalaska. Soaring fuel costs, inflation and a pilot shortage have all contributed to extremely high ticket prices and unpredictable travel.

Those effects are particularly hard felt on the remote Aleutian island, where a short runway and inclement weather create additional challenges. Ravn Alaska has operated the only commercial nonstop flights to Anchorage for the past three years, and many locals have been awaiting the arrival of a competing airline.

“Next steps are we finish the certification process with the FAA and then we launch a schedule,” Whilden said.

He did not say if they were on schedule to meet their anticipated launch in the fall.

“We’re hoping,” he said.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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