One Year Later: Unalaska community reflects on fatal PenAir plane crash

A crane hoists PenAir’s Saab 2000 airplane on Oct. 18, 2019. One person was killed and multiple people were injured when the plane went off the runway while attempting to land the evening before.
A crane hoists PenAir’s Saab 2000 airplane on Oct. 18, 2019. One person was killed and multiple people were injured when the plane went off the runway while attempting to land the evening before. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

Saturday marked the one year anniversary of Unalaska’s fatal PenAir plane crash.

On Oct. 17 of last year, the Saab 2000 plane went off the end of Tom Madsen Airport’s runway. Forty-two people were on board, more than 10 were injured and one passenger died.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the crash is ongoing and an agency spokesperson said it could take up to two years to finish.

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

“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 that more people were not killed in the crash, but he also recognized that the event was still traumatic for everyone involved, including the Cordova swim team that was onboard at the time.

Conwell said he’s proud of the way the community supported the students who were stuck on the island overnight, after the crash.

“People started showing up with cases of Gatorade and potato chips and snack food — comfort food that teenagers like,” he said. “And Unalaska 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. Andy Dietrick, who owns a drone business called Aleutian Aerials and tourism company Aleutian Excursions, is the administrator on the Facebook group Unalaska Plane Charter Coordination. The group launched about a week after the fatal plane crash. 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,” Dietrick said. “Since much of rural Alaska is so prolific with their Facebook usage, it made sense to use that platform.”

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

Bernadette Oller Namasivayam said the Facebook group is an essential means of coordinating flights for the community. After the crash, Namasivayam 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,” Namasivayam said. “Something needs to be done. I mean, there’s got to 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 Air Charters was the only company that agreed to help.

She said she offered to help fill planes and coordinate flights and now, with the help of her children, she runs Dena’ina’s local operations.

Namasivayam said she plans to continue coordinating charter flights, even though Ravn Alaska said it hopes to start providing commercial service between Anchorage and Unalaska soon. Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration 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,” Namasivayam said. “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?”

Conwell said he looks forward to the convenience of consistent and reliable commercial air travel.

“I just think that it really improves the quality of life out here,” Conwell said. “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,” Robinson said. “It affects everything we do. And its ability to function is required in every aspect of island life.”

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

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