Stranded Alaska Island Seeks Flights

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The 114 people who live on the Alaskan island of Little Diomede in the Bering Sea have been cut off from passenger air service — and basic health care on the mainland — for more than three months. The usual twin-engine helicopter has been out of service since July. City Clerk Jamie Ahkinga, a Native Village of Diomede Tribal Council member, says the entire community is frustrated.


On the Alaskan island of Little Diomede, they'd welcome an airplane right now. The 114 people who live on the island in the Bering Sea have been cut off from passenger air service for more than three months, which means they've been unable to get to the mainland for basic health care. A helicopter brings in mail to Little Diomede, but the usual twin-engine helicopter has been out of service since July. And the single engine aircraft that Evergreen Helicopters is using instead can't carry passengers over water. Jamie Ahkinga is the City Clerk for the city of Diomede, welcome to the program.

Ms. JAMIE AHKINGA (City Clerk, Little Diomede): Thank you.

BLOCK: And let's place where you are exactly, Little Diomede in the Bering Strait, you're just two and a half miles from Russia, right, from Big Diomede, you can see it?

Ms. AHKINGA: Yes. It's right in our front yard, so to speak.

BLOCK: And how far to the mainland to Nome.

Ms. AHKINGA: To Nome is about a 123 miles.

BLOCK: And what does that mean for people there to not have that helicopter service that could get you to the mainland?

Ms. AHKINGA: At this point, I believe that the entire community is pretty frustrated. These near four months has been a long, long time for those -especially the chronic patients - who go in regularly to be seen by a doctor.

BLOCK: Hmm. So for a regular doctor visits, it would be a pretty typical thing for somebody to hop on the mail helicopter and go over to Nome?

Ms. AHKINGA: Since our island is so remote and isolated and our transportation once a week, we don't have the advantage of having regular visits from a medical team. Most of our visits are scheduled when the ice runway is constructed.

BLOCK: What happens if airplanes can't land? There is a time of year when they can. Can you walk us through that?

Ms. AHKINGA: Yes. When ice comes in and freezes over - thick enough for an ice runway to be constructed. The last winter season, the ice was not stable and it didn't freeze thick enough for the runway to be constructed, so we had Evergreen mail service by helicopter throughout the entire year.

BLOCK: And what happens if somebody in Little Diomede has a medical emergency?

Ms. AHKINGA: During an emergency situation as to where a patient needs to leave, Evergreen or the National Guard Black Hawk will fly their helicopter to pick up that patient.

BLOCK: And what are you hearing from people who have been, you know, stuck there for the last, almost, four months now?

Ms. AHKINGA: Lately, we've practically given up on the fact that we're going to have passenger service sometime soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: You've given up?

Ms. AHKINGA: Just about. It's really frustrating and well, we're pretty much at a loss of patience for that time to come.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Ahkinga, best of luck. I hope things work out.

Ms. AHKINGA: Thank you and I'm hoping one day the congressional leaders of Alaska will remember that 114 people are out here practically in the middle of nowhere, and find a way for us to have an obligation for passenger service, and just to be able to come home on a space available flight once a week, if that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And you don't even have that right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AHKINGA: Yeah.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Ahkinga, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. AHKINGA: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Jamie Ahkinga is the City Clerk on the island of Little Diomede, Alaska, in the Bering Strait.

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