Sunday, March 8, 2009

Travelling the Puddle Jumpers

I have known that flying is a vital mode of transportation in Alaska, but when the college I work for sent me to a conference in Fairbanks this week I got to experience firsthand what I call the "puddle jumpers"--small planes that are vital links to all the small communities in Alaska.

Fairbanks is not even halfway across the state from where I live in Homer, but it would be a 12 hour drive in perfect conditions. Even people who attended this conference from Anchorage flew, and they had half that distance to travel.

Some things struck me as I made the flights from Homer to Anchorage to Fairbanks and then back to Anchorage and on to Kenai (I had a meeting there the day after the conference ended, and my daughter had a forensics tournament in town, so that worked out perfectly!):
  • The cultural diversity in the Alaskan airports is amazing. I couldn't even begin to list all the different cultures I saw represented in each airport I was in, though there were many different Native Alaskan groups represented (Many people would think Native Alaskans are all Eskimos, but that is only one small slice of native population. Compare Alaskan Natives to what people call "North American Indians" and all the various tribes that make up that category).
  • The lack of security is delightful. I actually had to show my ID with my ticket, which is not something all the small airlines require, but that was the extent of it. There were no embarrassing searches, shoe removal, x-ray machines, lines, etc. Coincidentally, as I was reading the paper in the Anchorage airport I came across an opinion piece stating that there are new tightening security regulations on the horizon for these small airlines. It would devastate this means of travel, since the cost of implementing all these security measures would jack up prices, and ultimately the locals would be the ones hurt by it. People from the Outside who can afford to get to Alaska can afford a rate hike, but people who count on these local flights to get them to doctor appointments, sports games, meetings, etc. would be hard hit.
  • In one airport an employee casually pulled out a pocketknife and cut up a label before tossing it in the trash--something that most people would grab a pair of scissors to do the same job. I wondered if maybe he was breaking some rule, but he didn't seem to notice it, nor did the employee he was talking to!
  • The airline and airport staff were the same on both my outgoing and returning flights, so there was a sense of humanity: Wow! I actually recognized them!
  • The dress was decidedly casual: Carhartts, jeans, khakis, baseball caps and bandannas were the norm for men. I consider that "business attire" in Alaska!
  • In one flight that wasn't full (the plane in the above picture) the stewardess moved some of the passengers to other seats to "balance the load!"
One interesting event occurred as I was leaving Fairbanks yesterday. They made an announcement that our flight would be a little late. Meanwhile, a private plane landed just outside the door, about 10 men somberly filed in, were in the terminal for about 5-10 minutes, and then they all filed out, boarded the plane and it took off. I suspect they were oil field workers, though I got the sense of prisoners they way they walked. They were all big men, they appeared tired or at least very serious, and it looked like they had done this before.

A fast turnaround surprised me in Fairbanks. When our flight finally came in the passengers disembarked, we loaded, and the plane was back in the air in less than 20 minutes! I picture the puddle jumper pilot job as something like a bus driver or taxi!

And to top off the strangeness of the above incident, the man who sat next to me on the plane from Fairbanks to Anchorage calmly opened a thermodynamics textbook (upsidedown!) and proceeded to take notes (upsidedown)! He read the book upsidedown the entire hour long flight! Hm. It makes me think maybe I'm just too normal!!


Lady of the Lake said...


I do believe you must have been hallucinating! Either that or I'm thinking someone needs to start questioning the company you keep.

How on earth did you keep a straight face? Did you ask him why he was reading and writing upside down? I'd have wanted to grab my camera and video tape that. It is just too weird.

Yep, the problem must be you are too normal - of course that makes most of the rest of the civilized world a little too normal as well.


Michelle Waclawski said...

Well, I was tempted to ask him, but he seemed to want no contact, and I didn't want to act like anything was out of the normal--since he didn't. I know--I keep shaking me head at that one. I really should have asked!!