72 Hours With Alaska: The Northern Part of the Milk Run

72 Hours With, Alaska Airlines, Trip Reports

We left off in Anchorage. After spending 24 hours on the ground, it was time to get that 737-400 Combi up in the air and on its way to the southeast. And yep, I’m still on vacation.

Preview: A Video Preview Of the Milk Run
Part 1: Introduction to the Milk Run and Getting to Anchorage
Part 2: Aviation in Anchorage
Part 3: The Northern Part of the Milk Run
Part 4: Juneau and Alaska Seaplanes
Part 5: The Southern Part of the Milk Run
Part 6: Going Home and Wrapping Up

[Disclosure: Alaska paid for this trip]

Since the cargo rides up front on these Combi aircraft, jet bridges aren’t an option. We went out on to the ramp to find our clean yet tired-looking aircraft waiting for us.

Climbing up the back stairs of an airplane is always a highlight, and this was no exception. There’s nothing quite like examining all the skin patches that give each airplane its own special character.

June 15, 2017
Alaska 66 Lv Anchorage 305p Arr Cordova 353p
Anchorage (ANC): Gate C8, Runway 33, Depart 3m Early
Cordova (CDV): Gate 1, Runway 27, Arrive 7m Early
N764AS, Boeing 737-4Q8, Old Eskimo colors, ~66% Full
Seat 19A, Coach
Flight Time 30m

I knew the airplane had no power, no internet, and older-style overhead bins. I expected it to look beat up on the inside. While there were clearly some scuffs, scratches, and repairs on the interior, the seats looked and felt great. That’s because I later found they were plucked from the 737-800s which had recently received new seats and were being changed again to go with slimmer ones.

I sat in row 19 on the back half of the wing. Row 17 is the first row for passengers, and it has the most legroom in the fleet with three windows all to itself.

I was strategically placed on the left side to get the best view on the way down south.

That afternoon we were scheduled on flight 66. These flights have kept the same flights numbers since long before I was born. Flight number dedication is a lost art that takes on an incredible meaning in the state of Alaska. People don’t say that they’ll be arriving at x time. They say they’ll be on 66, or 64, or 70. Alaskans seem to just know what that means.

Once boarding had completed, we pushed back and made our way to runway 33. I waved as we passed another Combi.

The 737-400’s engines roared to life as we barreled north. Once in the air, we veered left to avoid military airspace and then hung a right over the mountains to make our way toward Cordova.

We hit our cruising altitude and them promptly began descending. At just over 30 minutes, this flight was one of the longer ones on the Milk Run. The flight attendants came through with water or orange juice despite the short duration.

I had some water, but I was really focused out the window as glacier after glacier just kept passing by.

We made our way over Cordova, a fishing village near where the famed Copper River Salmon comes from before looping around and landing back to the west. Cordova is an essential air service market that doesn’t seem to have much trouble filling the cargo bins in the summer. But it’s a small town, and its airport, named after legendary aviator Mudhole Smith, is pretty far from the town itself.

I would quickly learn the rhythm of these flights. They were usually short flight segments broken up by longer downtime on the ground. In Cordova, the weather was spectacular as we pulled up to the small terminal.

Captain Russ Larnerd came back to visit with us. Russ has been with Alaska since 1990, and he’s an old pro on the Milk Run. He also wanted to make sure I had a chance to see everything that was going on. We walked by as the “igloos” from Anchorage were being unloaded with new ones from Cordova ready to go, probably full of fish.

I got closer as the bins were completely emptied.

Then I climbed the stairs and got this cool view.

Then, Russ then brought me up into the cockpit.

There is no way to get from the passenger cabin to the cockpit inside the aircraft when loaded. For that reason, there always has to be a flight attendant stationed up front with the pilots. He or she never sees a passenger and is really there to help in case of emergency. But most of the time, it’s just a quiet and probably boring job. There’s very little room up there. In front of the igloos sits a bulkhead and it’s about the size of a galley in front of that. Then there’s the cockpit.

Our First Officer on this flight was young. He had been with Alaska for less than year, coming up from Horizon. And he was clearly soaking up the decades of knowledge that Russ was providing. There was something about seeing this dynamic that really struck me as important… the veteran imparting his wisdom to the youth.

The 737-400s have some round dials, but they also have sophisticated technology. Alaska pioneered RNP approaches up here and these aircraft are well-equipped. But they’re still clearly old school in many ways.

After my visit, Russ escorted me back to the passenger cabin in the back. Here’s what the view looks like on the other side of the cargo.

A few people got off in Cordova, and a few others got on. But the boarding was occurring at a snail’s pace. These terminals were built long ago before the TSA needed so much space to screen people. So now, passengers wait outside security and only pass through when they board. That means there are a couple of minutes between each person emerging from the terminal. That’s also the main reason why people aren’t allowed to get off the aircraft while on the ground. There’s no place to put them.

June 15, 2017
Alaska 66 Lv Cordova 438p Arr Yakutat 524p
Cordova (CDV): Gate 1, Runway 27, Depart 12m Early
Yakutat (YAK): Gate 1, Runway 11, Arrive 12m Early
N764AS, Boeing 737-4Q8, Old Eskimo colors, ~45% Full
Seat 19A, Coach
Flight Time 37m

Once boarded and ready to go, we were ready to take off to the west, but behind us to the east was a big, threatening storm cell. The wind had started to pick up and I just hoped we would get out of there before it arrived. We did. Once airborne, we turned around to point toward Yakutat but then we stayed off the coast just a bit so we could avoid the nasty stuff. About halfway to Yakutat, the storm was gone and we were again treated to a spectacular display of jagged, icy peaks.

On this leg, we passed over the Malaspina glacier which, as the Captain noted, was larger than the size of Rhode Island. We were well on descent as we passed over it, and I thought it was never going to end. On most flights, you’d be at cruise altitude and the scale wouldn’t be so apparent. But on this one… wow.

Yakutat had a ton of rain earlier in the day but when we arrived it was sunny and, dare I say, warm. We parked on the ramp and I noticed something different. Yakutat didn’t use the same kind of igloo-loader we saw at Cordova. At this station, it was just a guy in a forklift picking up the igloos and dumping them into the aircraft. That must require some serious training (or serious insurance).

Driving the forklift that day was Steve, on the right below. (That’s Joe Sprague, EVP External Relations for Alaska on the left.)

Steve is a slender man with some of the best facial hair you’ll ever find. He’s also a 40-year veteran with Alaska who would be retiring in just a couple short weeks. The man is a legend, literally. Alaska has a “Customer Service Legend Award” that honors the best of the best, and Steve was a recipient back in the 1990s.

Joe knew Steve, so he was excited to see him as he ambled up the back stairs while we sunned ourselves.

Steve’s wife had tired of the small-town Alaska life and had moved down to Washington. Steve was finally going to join her. It’s a win for his family but clearly a loss for Alaska.

With the aircraft expertly loaded, it was time for us to make our final flight of the day over to Juneau. We said goodbye to the little blue terminal and moved on.

This is where the good weather disappeared, something that’s apparently par for the course in that part of the state. That was sad, because Juneau on a clear weather day is a sight to behold.

June 15, 2017
Alaska 66 Lv Yakutat 609p Arr Juneau 653p
Yakutat (YAK): Gate 1, Runway 11, Depart 1m Late
Juneau (JNU): Gate 2, Runway 26, Arrive 1m Early
N764AS, Boeing 737-4Q8, Old Eskimo colors, ~35% Full
Seat 19A, Coach
Flight Time 35m

Once out of Yakutat, we climbed up to altitude and soon found ourselves in the soup. While I was sad to have lost the view, it did give me a brief respite to have some water and enjoy the mostly smooth ride… for 5 minutes until it was time to descend.

Juneau is one of the more challenging airports in the world for pilots. Arrivals from the north were the norm for years, because to the south is the narrow Gastineau Channel that has a gentle curve making the use of traditional navigation aids impossible. This map shows what I mean, but it doesn’t really make you understand just how high those peaks are and how narrow that channel feels.

In the last couple decades, Alaska worked with the feds to develop an RNP program that allows the use of the southern route even when the weather obscures the dangerous peaks on either side. I was hoping we’d see this in action on our way in, but the winds apparently dictated otherwise.

We came in from the north, but I wouldn’t know it until we broke out of the clouds around 4,000 feet. The view was spectacular with water and mountains everywhere. We headed down toward Juneau and the canal before making a very low, steep bank to whip around and land pointing northward. I love this photo where you can see the still water reflecting the gray sky just before we straightened out.

I think my jaw literally dropped as we straightened out seconds before touching down.

In Juneau, the Combis park at gate 2, the jet bridge-less gate in the corner of the terminal.

Gate 1 is the non-secure gate for small aircraft, so it is in a different area. But next to gate 2 is gate 3, 4, and then inexplicably 6 followed by 5. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

As we walked off, Russ was there to say goodbye. He would continue on to Seattle, so this was our last trip with him. Tell me this guy isn’t straight out of central casting.

Joe and I headed into town, but the rest of that story will have to wait until the next installment.

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6 comments on “72 Hours With Alaska: The Northern Part of the Milk Run

  1. Hope you’re enjoying your vacation as much as I’m enjoying this vicarious trip through Alaska via your awesome posts!

  2. If you want scenery, get out of a large jet and into a small seaplane. That will make your jaw drop and have your brain thinking we’re going to die, since you are lower and closer to everything.

    At least that’s what I was thinking when I did it years ago….LOL

  3. I’ve flown with Russ before and I appreciate the way he imparts flight and weather info to pax. ‘ve flown to more than half of Alaska’s destinations in the lower 48 but never to Alaska itself, You’re making me want to fix that!

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