How a fleet of rugged aircraft keeps remote villages connected
In northwestern Alaska, clusters of small, sparsely populated villages dot the Arctic landscape. Polar bears lazily roam the land, and Bowhead whales drift near the coastal communities where they serve as a vital food source.
Hundreds of miles can separate each village, but travel is possible because of regional air carriers like Bering Air. Without a road system in place to connect friends and family, the company’s aircraft are the sole mode of long-range transportation for many of the region’s 20,000 residents.
Bering Air’s fleet of Cessna Grand Caravan EX turboprops regularly travel throughout the villages and cities of the Northwest Arctic Borough, making multiple stops daily.
A collection of 32 airplanes and helicopters flying seven days a week means Bering Air works nonstop. From equipment for mining camps, to teenagers headed to basketball tournaments, to expectant mothers en route to the hospitals of Nome and Kotzebue, the company’s aircraft take on a variety of daily missions.
The air carrier has among its fleet CESSNA GRAND CARAVAN EX turboprops for many of these missions, because the aircraft are capable of carrying passengers and heavy loads of cargo efficiently.
“Our Caravans are the backbone of the schedule,” Jim Rowe, Bering Air’s founder and CEO said.
Reconfigurable and reliable
The turboprop's ability to quickly climb above Alaska’s harsh winter conditions and land on Arctic terrain made it a fitting flagship. Each Cessna Grand Caravan EX aircraft in Rowe’s fleet may support up to 20 flights a day.
The aircraft easily transform from charter operator to cargo carrier, which means Bering Air can fly passengers – and their belongings – with ease.
“For day-in and day-out work, the Caravan has proven itself to be ideal. Sometimes they’re reconfigured to move just passengers, other times just freight. Our flights are usually a combination of both, but they get reconfigured several times a day.”Jim Rowe, president and CEO, Bering Air
Because of each aircraft’s payload and storage space, Bering Air passengers flying throughout northwestern Alaska, where the company’s headquarters are located, can check more than a suitcase or two. That hauling capability also allows the company to transport domestic necessities – anything from furniture to groceries – to the outlying villages of the region.
“These are all villages that have no road access,” Rowe said. “Except for seasonal barges, all transport is done by air.”
For many of the region’s remote communities, Bering Air provides an essential air service.
In Little Diomede Island, residents are limited to weekly mail delivery via helicopter. Air travel is only possible during the winter when a makeshift runway is plowed out of a frozen portion of the Bering Sea. Necessities like banking, doctors and groceries are 134 miles away in Nome.
Since the Cessna Grand Caravan EX aircraft can land on and take off from short runways, it is Bering Air’s airplane of choice for trips to the tiny island neighboring Russia. The company serves several routes with the turboprop, offering regularly scheduled service to smaller villages like Little Diomede.
Made to fit
In 2015, Bering Air took delivery of nine Cessna Grand Caravan EX turboprops – including the 2500th model to come off the line – when the opportunity arose to retire the company’s older airplanes. To make flights faster and more comfortable for passengers, Rowe and his team decided to customize the new fleet.
Upgrades included McCauley® Blackmac® four-bladed propellers, single-point fueling nozzles and TKS ice protection systems. The propeller, which offers improved climb performance, along with the powerful 867 shp engine, allows the aircraft to quickly get above snow and ice to deliver passengers and their cargo quickly. The result was a new fleet of airplanes tailor-made to operate in the Arctic.
“Pilots and mechanics contributed to what we wanted in our aircraft,” Rowe said. “We knew from years of operation what worked.”
The air carrier had folding seats installed by a Textron Aviation authorized facility, further easing the reconfiguration of the airplanes. Gravel deflectors designed to protect the cargo pod and horizontal stabilizer of the aircraft were also custom fit to Bering Air’s new collection of turboprops. Once completed, the airplanes were equipped with top-of-the-line systems and equipment.
“People are shocked to find out there’s something like this in the Arctic, because Alaska usually gets the impression that there’s an old bush pilot operating out of a shack somewhere with a taped-up, beat-up airplane.”Jim Rowe, president and CEO, Bering Air
The high payloads the airplane is known for, along with the lighter Garmin™ G1000™ avionics suite installed in each of Bering Air’s new turboprops, also allow the airplanes to carry even more – a benefit to Bering Air’s business.
“For us, a pound translates to about $0.50 an hour. So if you have a 200-pound lighter airplane, that airplane can generate $100 an hour more. And if you multiply that times a thousand hours a year, that’s $100,000 a year just by being 200 pounds lighter. That’s significant,” Rowe said.
Preparing for the future
The decision to refresh Bering Air’s collection was an important one. As president and CEO of the company since its inception in 1979, the veteran Alaska pilot has gradually deferred leadership to the Bering Air management team, which today includes his two sons.
Bering Air is the only carrier in western Alaska with clearance to fly across the international date line into Russia. In 1988, Rowe completed the first non-military flight across the U.S. border with Russia since the start of the Cold War.
“The days are coming where our fleet needs to be a real stable common fleet, kept relatively new from a maintenance standpoint,” Rowe said. “The purchase of these Caravans was about consolidating the fleet and putting long-term plans in place.”
And the new fleet will be in capable hands. According to Rowe, Bering Air’s crew and staff have logged more than 120,000 hours of experience with the Caravan line since acquiring the first aircraft more than 20 years ago. In operation for 37 years, the company is the largest private employer in Nome.
From shuffling students to the big game, to aiding fire camps stationed in the Arctic’s most rugged corners, the airplane has made each mission an adventure.
“Very few Caravans live a boring life,” Rowe said.