To the casual observer, it looked like April 25 would be the day the salmon died. Alaska flight 650 arrived in Seattle from Albuquerque just after 9:30pm that evening. This was the last flight for N559AS — the big airplane/fish better known as the Salmon Thirty Salmon — before heading to the paint shop. Little did the public know that it would be getting a stunning new livery that took the idea of the original salmon and added far greater meaning.
Even non-airline folks may be aware of the Salmon Thirty Salmon. Back in 2005 Alaska painted a 737-400 with a giant fish spanning the entire side of the airplane. They blew it up and wrapped it on an airplane, and it was an instant hit. It was so popular that the 737-400 was replaced by a 737-800 which would remain in the fleet with Alaska longer.
Last summer, about 10 years after that second Salmon Thirty Salmon made its debut, Alaska had to decide what to do. The airplane was going to head in for scheduled paint this year, so would it get the same paint job again? It would not. Alaska made the conscious decision to move beyond the Salmon Thirty Salmon and do something with more meaning, something that would do more to honor the native culture with the work of a native artist.
Alaska’s Regional VP for Alaska Marilyn Romano explained that in a conversation she had with the airline’s VP of Marketing Sangita Woerner, she was asked if she knew an artist who could do this. Marilyn had one in mind: Crystal Worl.
Marilyn was familiar with Crystal’s work thanks to Trickster Company which was founded by Crystal and her brother Rico. As Marilyn describes it, Trickster took an old artform called formline which is native to the northwest coast and gave it modern appeal by putting it not just on clothing but things like skateboards and basketballs.
Marilyn had read that Crystal really liked doing monumental art, big art, and she knew she had done a large mural in Crystal’s hometown in Juneau as well as one in Anchorage. So she reached out last year to see if Crystal would be interested in designing an airplane.
Crystal told me she had grown up flying Alaska, living in Juneau but having family in Fairbanks. Her mother even worked for Alaska in Fairbanks and was one of the founders of the Native Employee Network (NEN). The idea of painting an airplane was not new for her. Crystal had taken a template for an airplane back in 2020 and posted her initial design on Instagram back in 2020.
The post said “Are you ready for me @alaskaair ?? ✈️ I’m ready for you…” Marilyn says she’s never even looked at Instagram, and she had no idea Crystal had done this mock when she reached out. Obviously, Crystal was up for the challenge.
The timeline to turn this design around was quick. They had their eye on the Salmon Thirty Salmon as the airplane to paint, and it would be going in at the end of April so they needed to get moving.
For Crystal, there was no question that a salmon-themed livery was a perfect fit. Crystal explained to me that formline wasn’t created as an art but rather as a way to identify who is who. Everyone has a clan and they have their regalia and crest to identify who they are. Crystal — whose mother is Athabascan and father is Tlingit and Filipino — comes from the Sockeye clan.
Crystal immediately got to work and came up with a few ideas. She went back and forth with Alaska’s creative team — whom she praised for being great to work with — before settling on the final design.
For Crystal, the salmon is incredibly important. It provides food, of course, but it also brings up nitrogen from the deep ocean which eventually goes into the ground and drives large forest growth. Salmon are born and migrate for up to 600 miles before returning home to spawn and die. When they die, they leave nutrients that help take care of the next generation. That is something that Crystal thinks we can all learn from.
What makes this more urgent is the devastation of the salmon population over the last few years. This has led to restrictions on fishing, something that has hugely impacted native communities. In some cases, the skills of working with fish are not being passed on; the kids aren’t being taught. She takes this very personally, making a plea on her website for people to donate to the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association to help ensure salmon runs continue into the future.
It was this motivation that led Crystal to design something that she hoped would inspire people to learn and grow. Once the design was done… what to name it? Crystal chose — after, as Marilyn tells me, consulting with X̱’unei Lance Twitchell a professor of Alaska native languages — X̱áat Ḵwáani which translates in English to Salmon People. In native cultures, people and animals are considered equal so this simple name carries with it deep meaning.
With the design all done, N559AS headed down to Amarillo on the morning of April 26 where it would sit for 12 days to get painted in the new livery. This made Crystal anxious.
“I was worried they wouldn’t know how to paint formline in Texas,” she told me. She thought about whether she needed to go down there. After all, she says that the quality of formline has been degrading over time. More people are doing the art, but they aren’t putting in the time to really understand the principles and the structure. With this airplane flying around the country acting as a billboard for the artform, she wanted to make sure it was done well. In the end, she didn’t go but instead waited until May 10, the day after it had arrived into Anchorage to prepare for the big reveal.
She was thrilled. “It turned out awesome.” And there was a lot to explore. Crystal works in a 2-D world, so her design had to be adapted to a 3-D object. Alaska’s creative team did that work, and seeing it in person gave Crystal some very happy surprises.
You’ll notice that there are two fish on each side of the airplane. Crystal says that two is “a very balanced number.” The one on the tail is a female which has pink salmon eggs. This was meant as a nod to future generations.
That same fish now appears on the winglets. Crystal didn’t know that was going to happen, but she was very pleased to see it appear in a place where it was visible from the cabin. This fish has now also been adopted as the logo for the NEN.
The large one covering most of the fuselage is a male. And the pink line coming out of his mouth is what Crystal calls the “lifeline.” It’s the oxygen that runs through the salmon, it provides life to the salmon and everyone who depends upon the salmon. She had that line going forward, but she did not know exactly how it would connect across the nose. She called that a “pleasant surprise” to see it neatly rest on top and then go back down the other side.
Crystal puts great emphasis on learning. She says that every piece of art she does she wants to show that she is studying and learning and improving. As she put it:
There were so many things about this piece that had its own personality you can never replicate. And I’ve never seen my art scaled that big. I’ll spend along time learning from this airplane.
She hopes that others will also be inspired to learn more about salmon, the native cultures, the native languages, and more when they see this airplane. Remember that the next time you see it.