Living in a remote community with limited air and road connections has its challenges. It can be inconvenient at the best of times and life-threatening at its worst. It was undoubtedly a risk when a medical flight dispatched to pick-up a child was unable to land in the remote village of Igiugig, Alaska. The runway lights had failed last Friday night, and the plane was unable to land without having visibility of the runway. That’s when villagers banded together to shed a little light on the problem.
“Any time a plane flies over that late at night, you know something is wrong,” – Ida Nelson, Igiugig resident via The New York Times
Waiting for a special flight
It was the evening of Friday, August 28th, when a child was waiting to be flown from her home in the village of Igiugig, Alaska, to Anchorage to receive special medical attention. With the Beechcraft King Air 200 scheduled for the pick-up, the runway lights of the state-owned airport had failed, jeopardizing the airlift operation.
According to The New York Times, the plane circled overheard as the pilot of the LifeMed Alaska flight could not see the runway of the rural airstrip.
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Lighting up the runway
As a creative response and a literal ‘light bulb moment,’ locals jumped into action, bringing their vehicles to the sides of the runway to light the path. Villagers of the close-knit tribal community of just 70 residents sprang into action. Some drove their sport utility vehicles (SUVs), all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and cars to the rural airport, where they pointed their headlights at the runway. This allowed the pilot of the LifeMed Alaska Beechcraft King Air to land. A photograph of this can be seen in the New York Times Twitter post below.
A child was waiting to be flown to hospital in Anchorage, but the pilot of a LifeMed Alaska flight could not see the runway of the rural airport.
So locals sprang into action, using the lights on their vehicles to illuminate the way. https://t.co/rBFCXn4aDu
— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 31, 2020
In an interview with The New York Times, tribal clerk Ida Nelson said that at least 20 vehicles, including her Honda 4-by-4, lined the runway. Nelson says that her neighbor even made 32 phone calls to mobilize the villagers. With just 70 residents in the village, it would be a safe assumption that the entire town was called.
This enabled the twin-propeller aircraft to land and safely evacuate the young girl to Anchorage to seek medical attention.
A result of vandalism
A spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities says that the runway lights had been vandalized, run over by an all-terrain vehicle. The state department is responsible for the airport, and maintenance workers had inspected the damage the week prior and were planning to perform repairs.
“Vandalism on Alaska’s small airports does occur every year…and the state has been working to educate all Alaskans as to the importance of protecting the infrastructure, particularly the role it plays in emergencies, such medical flights. We respond to any reports of damaged runway lights and repair them as quickly as we can.” -Shannon K. McCarthy, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities via The New York Times
It’s not easy to make these types of repairs in remote northern communities. Maintenance workers must fly in from other locations, taking up to several days.
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LifeMed was contacted for a statement but did not respond to our inquiry before the time of publication.