Sidelined helicopter disrupts service to Alaska village

AP News
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Posted: Feb 13, 2015 5:50 PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The only flight service to a remote Alaska island village has been cut off for three weeks because a designated helicopter was sidelined by maintenance work, but the service provider said Friday the aircraft is expected to be returned to service Saturday.

Oregon-based Erickson Inc. spokeswoman Susie Elliott said the last flight to Alaska's Little Diomede Island was Jan. 22. The Alaska Native village of Diomede is located on the western coast of the island, about 650 miles northwest of Anchorage and only 3 miles from Big Diomede Island, Russia.

The Erickson helicopter was in Anchorage for maintenance when extensive problems were discovered on the aircraft, cutting off the twice-weekly flights, according to the company, which is based in Portland, Oregon. Elliott said a backup helicopter also had maintenance issues.

"In recognition of the importance of the service we provide to Little Diomede, we're going to actually put a third aircraft on this contract," Elliott said. "It will be ready to go, so that we won't have this issue again."

Elliott said maintenance has been completed on the primary helicopter, which was sent Friday to the western Alaska town of Nome, 135 miles southeast of the island.

Diomede city administrator Karen Kazingnuk said the village store shelves are bare, but plenty of food, except for milk, has been available from the school and the village's Alaska Native corporation.

Adding to the complication for the community of about 100 people, a funeral was held there just before the flight services stopped, stranding between a dozen and 20 additional people, school principal and teacher Pam Potter.

Given the size of the community, she said, "that's a big amount added."

With food available, the village school stepped in to provide lunches and dinners this week to residents and visitors. Potter said 506 meals were served between Saturday and Thursday.

Besides waiting for medications and checks to arrive, residents have dealt with unexpected emergencies. Last weekend, an 18-year-old pregnant woman went into early labor and had to be flown off the island by an Alaska National Guard helicopter crew, Potter said. While responders were in the village, they were alerted to an ailing two-month-old infant, who also was flown off the island, Potter said.

The tiny island has no natural place to land fixed-wing planes, but enough offshore ice usually forms during the winters to allow a seasonal runway, said Robert Soolook, president of the local tribal council.

This winter has been windy and unseasonably mild and enough ice hasn't formed to providing that option, he said.

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