The far end of the world

Published 11:10 am Tuesday, December 24, 2013

by James D. Howell

The flight to Alaska is an all-night-thing that makes connection with Reeve Aleutian Airlines in Anchorage. Reeve Aleutian operates a twice-weekly-schedule under government contract for service to the far reaches of the Aleutian Islands. They operate scheduled service to other distant islands, also. I along with an assortment of other passengers and cargo board the DC-6B split configuration, four-engine aircraft.

The forward most part of the aircraft is used for live and perishable cargo; the rest is passenger space. Live chickens, eggs, and other items that will not tolerate the very low temperatures of the cargo hold below decks is stashed here for delivery to stations along the scheduled route, hence the “split” configuration. Our flight will make a stop at Cold Bay and Shemya, with an overnight in the latter, before Adak the second day. Adak traffic will be deplaned and boarded on the return trip to Anchorage.

Cold Bay is about 630 miles along the Aleutian archipelago and comes as close to matching its name physically as any place I’ve seen. It’s bleak. I know that Pan American operates a series of outposts across the pacific ocean for fuelling stops and emergency landing runways. I don’t know who operates this one.

It’s bleak. We take a break and deplane while cargo is unloaded and the aircraft is serviced and refueled. There’s a small waiting area inside a somewhat weathered, colorless building. Gray rocks cover gray soil beside a gray concrete and asphalt runway. Gray clouds provide a darkened backdrop for a series of radio antennas close by and attached to the gray building. Inside it’s quiet, with a few muted conversations carried on by local personnel. Nobody is loud, boisterous, or fast; they’re just carrying out regular duties in a competent manner. It’s bleak. We reboard the aircraft and continue our journey.

It’s about a thousand miles from Cold Bay to Shemya. Our route takes us along the island chain most of the way. We sleep, read or just sit and not see anything outside the window for most of the way. I’m beginning to get an idea about the isolation of my future duty station.

Our plane touches down at Shemya; work stands are rolled up to the aircraft for deplaning and servicing. These are regulation work stands: painted steel, round handrails, expanded metal steps and platforms, a couple of wheels at the bottom for ease of movement. These stands are made for strength and durability in harsh climates. There will be no dancing girls and Hawaiian music in this part of the Pacific Ocean.

My overnight room is stark by Florida standards. It’s clean and cold. No curtains cover the bathroom window; no lounge chair awaits the weary traveler. It’s sorta like a holding pen – safe, functional, not meant for long term occupation. It’s a short night. In fact, it really is a short night in the middle of Alaskan summer. It was light outside when we arrived, light when we went to bed, stayed light for most of the sleep time period, remained light when we awakened and reboarded the plane for the leg to Adak. Daylight lasts for about 20 hours this time of year; night is mostly just a dusky period.

Shemya seems to be a repeat of Cold Bay, with a lot more people and buildings. It’s a U.S. Air Force base, maintained as a refueling and microwave relay station (White Alice), for communications during this period of the Cold War. It has a floating population of around 1,500 assigned personnel, with all associated support facilities.

This area is an important part of the detection and tracking system for Soviet launched satellites and missile tests, especially from the Kamchatka peninsula. Electronic surveillance flights, with highly specialized equipment, operate from this base routinely.

The microwave system transfers data from several sources to the sister station at Adak, which passes it along via other stations in the Aleutian chain. Somewhere on the mainland all this data is processed for varying purposes, one of which is to ascertain if detection of Soviet nuclear tests can reliably be accomplished. Electronic beams full of data have no problem penetrating the dull, gray cloud cover; human spirits have more difficulty.

We take off and climb through lower clouds to waiting sunlight. About two and a half hours later, we walk down a set of portable stairs with side shields and railings – the kind we are familiar with at airports.

I step onto the cold, gray earth of Adak.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at