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

72 Hours With, Alaska Airlines, Trip Reports

After the tranquil morning flying floatplanes with so few people around, entering the terminal at Juneau was a wake-up call. That’s where we continue the story. Sadly, my vacation is also almost over.

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]

The Juneau terminal was jam-packed.

Alaska had 5 airplanes on the ground, though one was a freighter, and there was nowhere to move. Once the Anchorage flight boarded, it thinned out a little and we were able to wait in peace.

When boarding began, we went out first so we could enjoy the view and take some photos. After hanging out on a Caravan that morning, today’s Combi looked downright enormous.

They had a fancy boarding ramp to get up to the back door, but I did a double take. There, on the ground, was Allegiant branding.

First, can you believe Allegiant would ever pay to brand anything? But second, how the heck did this get here? Joe said he thought they had bought it off Allegiant down in Bellingham at one point. I’m assuming it made its way up by barge.

Before we made our way up, I saw the freighter in the background.

June 16, 2017
Alaska 64 Lv Juneau 141p Arr Petersburg 224p
Juneau (JNU): Gate 2, Runway 8, Depart On Time
Petersburg (PSG): Gate 1, Runway 23, Arrive 5m Early
N768AS, Boeing 737-490, Old Eskimo colors, 100% Full
Seat 24A, Coach
Flight Time 24m

Onboard, we were greeted by Dave and Andrea.

These two had been flying for Alaska for a long time, and they had been flying together for 15 years. I could sense a comfort level between them that I knew was going to make for a great time. Though they had done the Milk Run many times in the early days, they didn’t often do it in recent years. And a Combi? No, that hadn’t happened for a long time. They were excited to do it again.

I took my seat and then a woman with her two dogs sat down next to me. One was in a kennel down below while the other sat on her lap. Daisy Bell was a sweet pup who didn’t make a noise the whole way. She also stayed on her owner’s lap the entire time.

On this flight, I was a bit further back in row 24, and that meant it was a fair bit louder, but it also meant I had a less obstructed view. It’s too bad that there was very little to see for some time.

This flight was completely full, and we pushed back on time. After a short taxi, we launched to the south. It was beautiful and somewhat bouncy (by normal human standards, completely smooth by Juneau standards) on the way up, but before we had even gone a couple minutes we were in the clouds, banking our way past the dangerous terrain. This was RNP in action.

I had the chance to talk with Daisy Bell’s owner for much of this flight She lives in Petersburg, but now that her kids had grown up and moved to the lower 48, she found herself without much to do in the small town. She had been away for 6 weeks, first visiting one child in South Carolina and then visiting another in California. That morning she had flown from San Diego to Seattle and on to Juneau before getting on our flight for the last leg home.

For people who live in this part of the world, Seattle is the connection to everywhere else. You see airlines all flying from their hubs to Anchorage, but that’s mostly for the tourists flying north. It doesn’t even seem to enter into the consideration set for many of these people, maybe because many of those airlines abandon them in the winter when they want to fly south most.

The conversation was a welcome distraction from the drab gray outside, and we kept talking as descent began. At one point, she looked down to see that Daisy Bell had rested her head on the arm of the high school kid next to her. He hadn’t said a word, probably because he was polite and didn’t want to rock the boat, but he also looked mildly uncomfortable with dogs.

On the way into Petersburg, my new friend gave me a guided tour of what we would be seeing if it hadn’t been so murky out there. Once we did break through the clouds at a low level, she began firing off the names of the different glaciers, waterways, and islands that I was seeing. It was quite the education.

Unfortunately on the way into Petersburg, the action was on the right side, so I didn’t see the town. Instead I just saw the expansive wilderness until we glided to a halt on the runway.

Parked on the ramp, the now familiar routine kicked into action. A lot of people got off, mostly sport fisherman I believe, and fewer began trickling on board. I went to the back of the aircraft with Joe and chatted with the flight attendants. The pleasant sunny day on the stairs in Yakutat the day before seemed so far away. I stepped out into the cold, windy, and wet day to meet the Captain.

Captain Mark Alger, a Seattle-based pilot wearing a well-worn leather jacket, used to fly this run much more back in the day. He doesn’t do it much anymore, but he seemed to relish being able to do it this time around. Mark and Joe knew each other and talked for awhile, so I just enjoyed the view of the neat, little terminal building.

I was eager to talk to him about our next leg, one of the ones I had anticipated most of all.

The Petersburg to Wrangell flight is just a bit over 30 miles as the crow flies. When the ceilings are above 5,000 feet, you can fly it VFR. Yes, an airline 737 flying VFR just sounds remarkable. With our ceilings at 4,000 feet today and with the First Officer flying the leg, they opted to go IFR this time. In fact, the ride from Petersburg to Wrangell is one long RNP approach.

Mark told me that when the wind is coming the right way, you take off to the east and then circle around by the massive LeConte glacier before heading to Wrangell. Today, it was blowing the other way, but I was still in for a treat.

June 16, 2017
Alaska 64 Lv Petersburg 309p Arr Wrangell 332p
Petersburg (PSG): Gate 1, Runway 23, Depart 13m Early
Wrangell (WRG): Gate A1, Runway 10, Arrive 20m Early
N768AS, Boeing 737-490, Old Eskimo colors, ~65% Full
Seat 24A, Coach
Flight Time 10m

We headed out to the runway and throttled up for the shortest hop of the trip. At the end of the runway was a massive mountain.

Right after takeoff, we made a very hard left turn to find a small channel to follow between islands to get where we needed to go.

Mark told me later that was one reason they filed IFR on this leg. You never know what you’ll find around that corner in terms of weather.

We climbed to 5,000 feet, sat in the clouds for about a minute, and then began our descent. The approach was over a large expanse of water, and in fact, we didn’t cross over land until the runway appeared underneath us. The First Officer planted us down HARD just 10 minutes after we departed.

As the usual passenger and cargo dance began, I went to the back to see the terminal looking a lot like the others.

Mark came up first and everyone was joking around about the hard landing made by the First Officer. He put his wings askew and messed up his uniform a bit to play along with the joke. Meanwhile the flight attendants playfully suggested they drape toilet paper and say that the landing had made a mess in the cabin. Just as this was happening, Brian the First Officer, walked in.

Brian was a new hire at Alaska who, as was the case with the crew the day before, was learning a lot from his elder. He flies C-130s for the National Guard and had been flying CRJs for SkyWest before coming to Alaska. He laughed when he saw Mark’s wings askew. We joked about the hard landing, and he took it all in stride. Of course, that’s probably because on a short, wet runway, a hard landing near the threshold is never a bad plan. Put that thing on the ground and slow it down fast.

Mark and Brian explained just how hard it is to fly that short leg. There’s a lot of navigation required, and there were several frequency changes. It was really challenging for them to keep ahead of where they needed to be on that flight. It’s the kind of flying the most pilots love… but not every day.

Wrangell must have had a bigger terminal than most, because people boarded in a group there. In the meantime, since they couldn’t do a service on either the previous or next legs because of the short flight duration, Dave and Andrea came through and handed out water and orange juice on the ground.

June 16, 2017
Alaska 64 Lv Wrangell 417p Arr Ketchikan 449p
Wrangell (WRG): Gate A1, Runway 10, Depart 15m Early
Ketchikan (KTN): Gate B1, Runway 11, Arrive 22m Early
N768AS, Boeing 737-490, Old Eskimo colors, ~75% Full
Seat 24A, Coach
Flight Time 19m

Once we were loaded, it was time for the last of the short legs. This time, we were off to Ketchikan.

We ascended into the soup once more and wound our way to the right around the mountains. We climbed to 17,000 feet where it was… still cloudy. But then, halfway on our 19 minute flight, the clouds began to part.

Soon we were left with just a low layer of scattered clouds. The water was stunning, and the light filtering through the clouds made for a welcome respite from the muck as we glided into Ketchikan.

Compared to Petersburg and Wrangell, Ketchikan is a big city. The water was buzzing with boat and floatplane activity when we landed at the airport which lies on a small island just a few yards from the mainland. Several cruise ships were docked nearby.

The runway, oddly enough, is elevated higher than the terminal building. So the taxiways bring airplanes in and out at an angle. Ketchikan has a sterile area in the terminal, so we were able to get off. That was a nice change of pace. It also gave me this view.

In the terminal, we met with Jeff, Alaska’s station manager in Ketchikan and someone that Joe has known since his days working for Era. Ketchikan has grown for Alaska and there are 60 people working there for the airline this summer. It’s only going to grow more with the addition of the freighter fleet.

I stopped at the snack bar since apparently it’s a requirement for Alaska crews to get the famous popcorn with jalapeños. (Either that, or I got hazed.)

There was nothing particularly special about the popcorn, but I had never thought that mixing any popcorn with jalapeños would taste good. It did. Meanwhile we saw the Captain bringing back some bags for the crew.

June 16, 2017
Alaska 64 Lv Ketchikan 541p Arr Seattle 834p
Ketchikan (KTN): Gate B1, Runway 11, Depart 23m Early
Seattle (SEA): Gate N12C, Runway 16R, Arrive 33m Early
N768AS, Boeing 737-490, Old Eskimo colors, ~65% Full
Seat 24A, Coach
Flight Time 1h26m

Joe and I got on early and took our seats for the last leg home. Once we were all boarded, we taxied up (literally) to the runway and took off.

The weather hadn’t changed and that meant we had a tremendous view of Ketchikan and the coast as we climbed. Once we got above the clouds, it smoothed out nicely and there wasn’t a ripple the whole way back to Seattle.

It’s amazing how much perspective matters. Normally, a flight of an hour and a half would seem really short. But today, it was shockingly long. By the time we reached 35,000 feet, most of our other flights would have probably been finished. I relished the opportunity to sit back and start writing. The flight attendants came through with a full service including paid snacks and all. I decided I had earned a scotch so I ordered one. They gave me a double.

In the meantime, I just continued to reflect on the incredible experience I had just had. The words flowed with ease, and I just hoped I could remember the details of every person and experience that had touched me on this trip. We crossed over Vancouver, though it was hazy so I couldn’t see much.

Soon we began our descent.

The late evening light reflected on the scattered clouds as the population centers north of Seattle came into view.

It felt like quite a jolt to see so many man-made structures compared to the nature-dominated scenery in Alaska. I had only been gone for two days yet it felt like I had been in another world for far longer. We touched down very early and our gate was ready. I stayed until the end with Joe so I could soak up the feel of this old Combi and get some photos of the old girl, warts and all. As we walked down the stairs, I felt a mix of sadness and gratitude. Most of all, I felt fortunate to have been able to have this experience.

Getting into the terminal was a real shock to the system. There were people everywhere and they were all in a hurry. It couldn’t have felt more different than what I encountered in Alaska. I had trouble believing how quickly my perspective had shifted.

I went off into the evening to have dinner with friends and regale them with tales of adventure. The next day I’d head back home.

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15 comments on “72 Hours With Alaska: The Southern Part of the Milk Run

  1. Thanks Brett for the Milk Run narrative.. My only trip to Alaska so many years ago included the towns and islands of the Southeast. Wonderful to revisit them here.

    1. David SF – I just assume that’s kind of how they operate in Alaska. The flight attendants didn’t say anything, but honestly, they may not have even noticed it. It’s such a short flight. I wonder if she was allowed to have the dog in her lap on the longer flights from the lower 48.

  2. “You see airlines all flying from their hubs to Anchorage, but that’s mostly for the tourists flying north.”

    You sure about that? I know that DL has at least one daily R/T in the dead of winter ANC-MSP. I know because I have friends that live in AK and take that flight often. I’ve also met more than a few seatmates that were AK natives connecting in MSP on their way home. Sure, the little towns are only served by AS but there is competition in ANC.

    1. I believe that in the winter there are a grand total of 4-5 flights operated from the Lower 48 to Anchorage by airlines other than Alaska: DL to MSP (1x except Saturdays, so 6x weekly) and SEA (2 or 3x, depending on the day) and UA to DEN (1x except Saturday, so 6x weekly and thus no option for United to get you to Alaska at all on winter Saturdays). AS has 13 daily SEA-ANC nonstops (so not counting the milk run) the week of January 15, plus 2x daily to PDX, 1x daily to LAX, and HNL, 4x weekly to OGG, and 2x weekly to KOA. That is, even AS’s non-SEA flights have about as much capacity to Outside as the rest of the industry combined. So I think Cranky’s statement that the other airlines are *mostly* there for the tourist trade in the summer is entirely fair. DL certainly has ramped up their Alaska presence in connection with building their SEA hub, though.

    2. A – I think Alex covered this well, but yes, there is competition. It’s just most airlines dramatically cut back not only frequencies but destinations during the winter. It’s more of a skeleton schedule. I’m sure a lot of people like being able to fly to Minneapolis on Delta, but I wonder if that will suffer more now that Alaska and Delta aren’t frequent flier partners.

  3. Great story. Easy to picture a great world class airline growing out of its challenging bush flying origins. I sailed thru southeast Alaska in the 70’s and can relate to the shock of cars, people, civilization. Alaska is magnificent country.


  4. Enjoyed this series on Alaska very, very much. Just like you got to escape to another world for a while, so have we.

  5. “There, on the ground, was Allegiant branding.”
    Urgghhh! says the Alaska Airlines Manager of Branding in Seattle ;)

    1. I believe that ramp is brand new to Juneau; I flew on the Combi a few weeks ago and we used air stairs.

  6. Dear Cranky,
    Thank you for the wonderful tour through your sights and sounds in the airplane trip. Am a 2nd generation Alaskan, both parents born in Juneau; I was born in Seward and the 4 boys (now all in 40’s) were born in Anchorage. The pictures were outstanding and I appreciate all of them plus your commentary. I’ve visited all the towns you did on your way down the Panhandle so it was a trip down memory lane.
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Flying in airplanes has always been a fun treat and living in AK made for many flights. The first time we flew to Seattle it was out of Merrill Field and took 13 hours with two stops for fuel.. It was 1948.

    Gaile Walter

  7. I second those who say that this is a great series.

    I know that you are pretty judicious about when you accept free flights/hotel/travel, Brett, and that’s part of the reason that many of us read and trust your blog, but I’m glad you accepted Alaska’s invitation for this trip. What an experience.

  8. The Wrangell and Petersburg terminals are nearly identical. They won’t let you though security until they are ready for you to board, because the post security space is just big enough for about 5 people to get their belongings reconstituted and then walk out to the plane.

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