In Ketchikan, We Have Our ‘Thrill'
By DAVE KIFFER
October 23, 2013
Ketchikan International Airport has been named one of the “10 Most Thrilling Airports” in the world, according to USA Today.
Ketchikan International Airport
Not just in Alaska, not in the US of A, but in the whole wide wacky wonderful world.
Yep, in amongst airports that are little more than goat paths in the Himalayas or penguin paths in Antarctica, our own little salmon path to “Outside” is listed.
Top ten, baby!
According to Airfarewatchdog.com, KIA makes the list because “the awfully short runway is close to mountains and the ocean, which drops to freezing temperatures.”
That does sound pretty “thrilling” all right, and yet, doesn’t it sound like just about every other airport in Alaska?
Of course, when I saw the headline “Scary Landings: See the 10 ‘most thrilling’ airports," I immediately started reading because I knew there had to be at least one Alaska one on the list. I was just shocked that “we was it.”
After all, for years, surveys of pilots have always listed the Juneau airport as one of the most dangerous ones in the country, primarily because the northern approach comes through some serious mountains and then is complicated by one last flop down over the Mendenhall Peninsula at the last minute.
We have all been thrilled at one time or another to hear the pilot announce that we are “overheading” Juneau rather than giving the landing another try. The Capital City is nice and all, but not so much so that it is worth augering into a mountain side in a snowstorm to get there.
Even the most up-to-date technology has not prevented a number of serious crashes at Juneau over the decades and that is before you take into account the frequently awful weather, especially during the winter.
The airport in Sitka also often draws a lot of attention.
Partly because of the equally bad weather (which you could say about any airport in Alaska, including Ketchikan), but also because the runway starts out in the water and ends in the water.
Landing in Sitka is always exciting because the plane gets lower and lower and the water gets closer and closer and just before your toes get wet the jet kaffumps loudly onto the runway and immediately the reverse thrusters blast on in order to keep it from sailing off the other end into the ocean. The only thing missing is a “tail hook.”
In most Alaskan landings, there is a big sigh when the plane touches down. In Sitka, there is a second sigh when the jet comes to a stop short of the water at the far end of the runway.
But neither of those airports was deemed as “thrilling” as Ketchikan’s. Go figure.
Let’s cogitate on this a bit.
Yes, there are mountains nearby and the “ocean” is there. That’s if you consider Tongass Narrows, the ocean. And Tongass Narrows does get cold in the winter, but the last time it froze over was, well, technically never.
I have seen some old photos of freshwater from Ketchikan Creek freezing out into the harbor Downtown, but it barely reached Pennock and never Gravina. And the area by what is now the airport never did freeze as far as anyone can tell. This is not like that crash in Washington DC years ago where nearly everyone on board died when a jet smashed into the icy Potomac.
Yes, the water gets cold and yes, it hits “freezing temperatures” in the winter, but so does the water at just about every American city north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Hardly “thrilling.” Perhaps, “brisk” would be a better description.
As I noted some of the airports on the list are indeed “thrilling.”
For example, the one in Lesotho in which planes zip down the runway, go over a cliff, and then hopefully grab enough “air” to get airborne. Just like in the Indiana Jones movies, but not something Alaska Airlines probably wants to make a habit of.
Or the one in Gibraltar where a “major highway” cuts across the middle of the runway.
Considering that just about every week, we read about a bad crash at a railroad crossing somewhere in America caused by an idiot thinking he or she could “beat the train” I can only imagine the carnage if there was a highway across the airport in Our Fair Salmon City.
Sorry, but not even your Subaru Forester with the Chevy small block V-8 is going to beat that 737-400 across the runway.
Oddly enough, the Gravina Island Highway actually does go under the runway. That in itself is “interesting” but not really “thrilling.”
Several of the airports on the list are there because of the proximity to other development. It is always thrilling to come in to land on a 100,000 pound partially guided missile and realize you can see in the windows of the nearby apartment buildings and that the girl sunbathing in the communal pool has blue eyes.
Fortunately, that isn’t our problem here. If it is, it means the jet is trying to land on the wrong side of The Narrows and “thrilling” doesn’t begin to describe that situation.
One time I was flying in to Yakutat and when the jet broke through the clouds, we were out over the open ocean and flying parallel to the airport which was several miles away. Since we were about to dangle our feet in the Gulf of Alaska, the Captain elected to “full power on” to warp speed and nudge the nose of the plane into an angle extreme enough that items started “shifting about” the overhead luggage bins and raining down upon some of the passengers. Now, that was “thrilling.”
But as usual, I digress.
So what could it be that makes the Ketchikan airport truly “thrilling?”
First of all, I have to note that successfully landing at any airport in Alaska is always thrilling. Especially in the winter when just about the only transport that doesn’t “overhead” now and again is the airport ferry.
But what else is truly “thrilling” about KIA?
We don’t have a big food court or a dozen different airport shops to browse through. On the other hand it rarely takes more than a five or six minutes to “clear security” and that is certainly more “thrilling” than spending mucho quality time with the TSA in Seattle. Still.
Our “special passenger boardroom” is nonexistent. And it seems like about half the time, the TV in the passenger “lounge” doesn’t work. That’s “thrilling” only because it prevents you from being verbally assaulted by the bombastic national news programs that make it seem like Outside is one big cluster-muffin and you are about go there in a lovely silver, white and black handbasket.
It must be something more basic than that.
Something that causes so primal a “thrill” that we hardly even sense it before it overtakes us.
Something rouses you from the inevitable departure lounge lethargy that massages us as we “hurry up and wait.”
It’s the popcorn!!!
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