The End of an Era

Burke Mees

September 2012

If youíve been following the Mayan prophesy for 2012, then you know that something big is supposed to occur when their calendar comes to an end this year, something dramatic like the end of an era or maybe just the end of the world altogether. Sure enough something big is happening in 2012 and it will mark the end of an era after which things will never be the same. Or at least thatís what it seems like if you live in the Eastern Aleutian Islands. Of course the big event Iím talking about is the upcoming retirement of the Grumman Goose from commercial air service. The airplane has been here for more than a half-century and at this point it seems as much a part of the Aleutian landscape as the rocky shorelines or steaming volcanoes. Its disappearance will be no less remarkable than if one of the islands was to just sink into the sea, or if one of the volcanoes was to spontaneously vaporize in a cataclysmic eruption. Without the Goose around, the place just wonít be the same.

Alright, maybe Iím exaggerating the impact of the airplaneís departure. Maybe if you live in Kansas you wonít even know itís gone. Maybe if youíre from Juneau or Kodiak, youíve already lived through the retirement of the Goose in those places and know that life indeed does go on. Maybe the Goose didnít even exist when the Mayans made their calendar and the world will survive into the year 2013 and possibly beyond. Maybe all those things are true, but here in the Aleutian Islands, this is still a big deal.

The Grumman Goose first came to the Aleutians in 1948 when Reeve Aleutian Airways bought their first one, and it has been here ever since. The Goose was a natural fit from the start since it has excellent handling characteristics in the rough water and windy conditions that are typical of this part of the world. In 1977, Reeve turned the Goose operation over to Orin Seybertís Peninsula Airways, which operates it to this day. Over the years a few other operators have also flown the airplane here, including Tom Madsenís Aleutian Air. In this land of steaming volcanoes where time seems to stand still, the airplane has held its own against the tide of progress for quite a while and while it has already become an antique classic elsewhere, it continues to be a working airplane in the Aleutians.

The airplane has had a presence everyplace there is human habitation on these islands. For the villages and outposts, it is the connection to the outside world and its arrival means the delivery of the mail and freight. For the fishing industry, the Goose transports thousands of transient workers to their seafood processing jobs and, more importantly, comes back for them at the end of the season. For anyone who needs to get someplace or ship something, the Goose is the way to do that.

The Goose is also part of life at its home base in Dutch Harbor. You can see it stopping traffic when it crosses the road and rolls down the seaplane ramp into the water. It fills the air with the sound of R-985ís that echo off the mountains behind town. Flying overhead it accentuates the townís WW2 history. Most of all, the airplane has become a local fixture, a sort of iconic monument to the townís heritage, like the Space Needle in Seattle or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. When youíre traveling away from home and see a Goose in the Smithsonian, it makes you proud to be from Dutch Harbor.

Of course this is not the end of the Goose itself, the last two planes in the Penair fleet will soon be for sale, and they will certainly continue to fly, probably in private ownership. At that point something will be lost. They will no longer be in their natural habitat as working airplanes, rather they will be on display as antiques, and soon youíll have to go to a museum or an airshow to see a Goose. Youíll no longer be able to walk up to the Dutch Harbor ticket counter and buy a seat fare for a loud drafty and turbulent ride to Akutan sitting next to a bunch of people who donít think itís a big deal. The difference between experiencing the Goose as a working seaplane and seeing one in a museum amounts to the difference between coming across a platypus in the wild compared to seeing one in the city zoo that was bred in captivity.

In the end it is not obsolescence that caused the demise of the Goose. The airplane that was first built 75 years ago is still better suited to flying in the Bering Sea than any airplane currently in production. What finally made the Goose unnecessary was the construction of a runway at its principle destination, Akutan Island. Well actually the runway isnít on Akutan, thereís no good place to build it there so they put it on the uninhabited island next door, which is Akun Island. Now the route can be served by a more modern airplane, and by that I mean one that is faster and cheaper. Of course to get from the village to the airport, youíll have to travel across a five-mile stretch of the Bering Sea and a hovercraft ferry service will be established for that purpose. This all seems kind of complicated compared to just pulling up in front of the village in a seaplane, but I suppose that is progress. How much did all this progress cost? So far the tab comes to 88-million dollars of shovel-ready stimulus money for runway construction plus the ongoing cost of operating a 150 foot seagoing hovercraft and paying an airport maintenance crew to stay on an otherwise uninhabited island. Yes, it was getting expensive to operate the Goose, but itís really expensive to get rid of it.

In any case, progress marches forward and once the runway becomes operational, Grant Aviation will provide air service in the Eastern Aleutians. They are newcomers to the area and will be doing business in a Beechcraft Kingair. That is a good airplane and Iím sure good things will come out of twin-turbine service, but it is definitely a paradigm shift in Aleutian aviation. The Goose fit right in to this primordial landscape of rocky coastlines and steaming volcanoes, and the Kingair will definitely bring us out of the Jurassic period.

As I write this, the Goose is in its last days and it will almost certainly be gone by the time you read this. Despite my portrayal of this as a dramatic end-times scenario, Iím sure that life will go on. Even in Dutch Harbor, after the Goose retires I imagine the sun will still rise (obscured by the clouds certainly) and joy will eventually return to Mudville. In fact there may even be a net improvement in air service. Certainly the Kingair doesnít have the flexibility that comes with a water plane, but it does provide a comfortable ride with all the advantages of an IFR turbine operation. After all, the Goose was a strictly a VFR airplane and up to the end it is still flown much the same way as it was when Reeve first brought it here in 1948. Given the character of the landscape, I still think seaplanes are the way to go in the Aleutians, but maybe this was a change whose time has come. Regardless, itís clear that the Goose has had an extraordinarily good run of it here. Itís won a lot of peopleís hearts and it deserves a good sendoff. This article was written for that purpose, and there are other gestures that pay tribute to the airplane; Aleutian songwriter Sharon OíMalley has written a song about the airplaneís retirement. The Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor will feature the Goose in an exhibit scheduled in 2013. Iíve been working on a book about the airplaneís time in these islands.

Yes, the airplane will get some recognition on the way out, but mostly it will live on in the memories of the people here. And it will certainly live on in my memory. The time I have spent flying the Goose has included some great times, but it wasnít always easy or fun. It was mostly just hard work, but it was always a privilege to be a part of it.


Burke Mees has been involved with the Goose since 1996 and is currently available for pilot services and flight instruction in the Goose.