Late Friday night a child in Igiugig needed to be medevaced to Anchorage.
The small Southwest Alaska village is right at the mouth of the Kvichak River on the south end of Iliamna Lake. LifeMed sent a King Air flight over from Kodiak — that usually takes about 30 minutes.
But this year the village’s state-owned airport has had some problems with the runway lights. And when residents went to turn them on to guide the flight in — nothing happened. Usually, this would stop a plane from being able to land.
Ida Nelson had just climbed out of a steam bath and was getting dressed when she heard the LifeMed plane fly over her village.
‘When they first flew over, I was like ‘oh my gosh,’ that sounds like a weird vehicle. I’ve never heard that truck before. And it wasn’t a truck, it was an airplane,” Nelson said.
It was after 11 p.m. Nelson said. She knew something was wrong.
“Anytime there’s any type of planes flying after dark, you always assume it’s going to be something urgent and an emergency,” she said.
She can see the airport from her steam bath. And when she looked to see what was going on — the runway lights weren’t on.
“Normally if you push the button like 10 or 15 times the lights will just light up,” she said. “But they didn’t and so the medevac plane flew over the village.”
She hopped onto her four-wheeler and sped the few hundred yards to the runway. Her neighbor jumped in to help too.
“She started calling other people and waking them up. Like get up, get out of bed, come line up the runway,” she said.
Nelson said her neighbor made 32 calls for help.
“That’s pretty much almost every household in this village. Pretty much every cell phone here,” Nelson said.
A local pilot got a hold of the pilot of the LifeMed plane. Villagers drove their cars, trucks and four-wheelers toward the runway.
Nelson says the weather was calm. The medevac pilot circled as she and others on the ground coordinated people via phone and radio. She said a lot of people got up out of bed and were running around in their pajamas.
They staggered vehicles, facing east running the whole length of the runway — lighting the pilot’s way.
“So he could be able to see end to end of the runway,” she said.
Then, they waited.
“I was anxious and nervous and I was like what if that was my baby [waiting for that] plane,” Nelson said.
As the pilot got ready to land, an on-call health aid told everyone to stay put when the plane touched down.
“And so, once she was able to get the patient on the plane, everybody still stayed in their positions and he was able to taxi out, taxi down the runway and take off,” Nelson said.
No one from LifeMed Alaska answered the phone Friday evening. But on Facebook, the company posted a photo briefly. It’s completely dark, except for a straight line of lights off in the distance.
The company wrote, “what appears to be a blurry, dark photo is actually a view of what an amazing community can do with a lot of determination.”
And Nelson says that’s her takeaway too. The community dropped everything and came together to help someone who needed it. She’s thankful for the pilot who was willing to land.
And, she also said she wants the Department of Transportation to fix its runway lights. “So, we never have to do this again.”
But if they do have to do it again? Nelson says they know how to do it and can do it better and faster.
“I’m just, I’m just truly happy and proud to be from here,” she said.
Department of Transportation spokesperson Sam Dapcevich said on Sunday that crews have been out to the airport multiple times this year repairing lights. Most recently, last week.
“The [Department of Transportation] was out there Tuesday to repair a wiring issue and discovered that multiple lights had been run over,” Dapcevich wrote in a text message. “They will be returning soon to repair the damaged lights and make sure the system is operational.”
He said crews have been out three times this year attempting to repair the lighting system. Some had been damaged due to winter maintenance, he said. And, while an individual bulb can go out without bringing the whole system down, when the wiring on one is damaged it can disable all of them.
“We’re glad the community was able to safely guide the medevac flight in,” Dapcevich said in a text message.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information from the state’s Department of Transportation.