Attu: Among the world’s most unique camping

Sunday, September 08, 2013
Attu Island, Alaska, United States
To say that we knew today was going to be an interesting one is a gross understatement. Here we were living in the former home of a military family, about to go exploring a ghost town of a massive military community, and then fly in to Attu, the uninhabited last island in Alaska, and land on an non-maintained runway. It’s that last part that I wholeheartedly blame for most of the recent creases on my forehead ;-)

Starting our last day in “civilized” conditions meant a hearty and unhealthy diner-style breakfast . Fortunately the small restaurant across from our “hotel” had just that, including one of the biggest bottles of pancake syrup I’d ever seen. This, along with their expansive collection of hot sauces, was so telling of hard these folks were trying to maintain their sense of “normal” American lifestyle. It was a Sunday morning so they were excited about the NFL season kicking off. In Adak kickoff is at 8am so everyone was gearing up for some football while we were drinking our first coffee. Everything was just a bit off.

Before doing some exploring I filed our flight plans for today and tomorrow. The first flight was to Attu. The flight briefer made it sound like this was just a regular flight, but surely this was odd for him. The only planes to have landed on this island since the Coast Guard pulled out in 2010 were two of the planes in our group. It also doesn’t have an instrument approach, so we could only be cleared to the nearest radio beacon (Shemya) and from there have to wing it in “visual” conditions . Needless to say, this was all new for me. The second plan to file was the big one to Japan. Here I used a plotting chart to come up with additional latitude/longitude reporting points. Needless to say we were flying slower and lower than airliners that would use similar routes, so we needed to provide progress report update points since we’d be far out of radar range. To my pleasant surprise, both plans were easily filed at the same (800) number of US domestic flight plans. Ahhhh, how enjoyable it is for general aviation in the US.

We hoped in the Suburban for our whirlwind urban spelunking of Adak. We wanted to be back in 45 minutes or so to start our pre-flight, so this didn’t give us nearly enough time to really explore. Next time ;-). Still, we got a good idea. Tons of abandoned buildings, crumbling massive radar dishes, boarded up churches, vacated school buildings, an empty hospital, and then the icing on the cake: the old McDonald’s. This was such a bizarre sight as the seating and kitchen facilities were all still in place and the American flag was still flying as a table decoration . Somehow even the battery-operated clock was still ticking! Everything was ready to go and seemed ready for business, except that the doors had been sealed for at least 10 years.  

I enjoy doing some urban exploration in Berlin, and there’s a lot to do there in that regard (although it’s getting less and less). Adak took things to a new level. Here was a whole town just left to slowly decay. Unused power cables were dangling on the ground, all the street post signs were starting to sag, the paint on the quaint wooden church was peeling away, and the lettering on the middle school was falling off letter by letter. To think this was such an important military base during the Cold War and now was just left to rot, was really eerie. I remember telling one of my flight instructors, Richard Graham, that we would be flying to Adak in order to make the jump over to Japan. He said although he’d never been, Adak is what his squadron would file as an alternate when flying the SR-71 . The facility was that massive, that advanced, and the runways so long that it could handle the world’s fastest and highest-flying spy plane. And now there was nothing there. We learned that Alaskan Airlines, for whatever reason, still flies from Anchorage to Adak a couple times per week. If anyone is bored by Alaskan natural beauty and looking for something incredibly unique on their next Alaskan adventure, I’d recommend an excursion to Adak.

As we drove by the airport to take more pictures, we could see the three of the five total planes there depart. And as we were hand-pumping the last bits of fuel from the fuel drums into our tanks, the last remaining plane departed. It was a bit disconcerting that we were the last of the planes left. It was time to go. We changed into our exposure suits, took a last pee break, and began the cumbersome process of climbing in to Maggie looking like orange Pillsbury dough boys.  

My head was full of thoughts concerning the take-off with a healthy crosswind, the en route flight with icing a legit possibility, and the landing in Attu on the abandoned runway in what I assumed was going to be far-from-perfect condition . As if to accentuate these stresses, as soon as we started Maggie warning horn blared that we could not disarm. We tried pulling circuit breakers for the stall warning horn and gear warning horn, but it wouldn’t go away. There was annoying loud shrill that wouldn’t go away. It was as if someone was saying you’re overlooking something, you shouldn’t go, or you’re just downright stupid. This was the last additional stress we needed. We stopped, rechecked things, but the damn siren wouldn’t go off. I still have no idea what it was. All I know is that it was incredibly annoying and couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time. (EDIT: later on our trip this happened again and we played with the stall warning switch. Indeed this solved the problem. Just the circuit breaker had been moved!!)

The take-off and climb were uneventful aside from the warning horn that made radio communications difficult. We had a little ice along the way, but was forecast the headwinds weren’t strong and the cloud coverage intermittent at our altitudes . There’s no weather updates for Attu, so no way to judge which way the wind is blowing or which runway to choose. Fortunately, the Cheyenne was leaving Attu for their flight onwards to Japan, and we were able to get in touch with them for an update. They assured us, in what we could make out behind that damn annoying shrill, that the visibility was great, the clouds only broken and quite high, and that the winds were light.  

Over the Shemya clearance point our flight plan ended and we were left to our devices. For the sake of this blog we’ll state that we had sunny & 70 when we cancelled our flight plan. As if the gods were shining upon us, as we began our descent the shrill warning horn stopped. I’d rarely smiled and laughed so hard. Wow that horn was stress inducing. If it stopped on descent I can only think it was a stuck stall warning horn. But we pulled the circuit breaker. I vowed to look in to it. (Update: it probably was the stall horn). To make us smile further, the closer we got to Attu, seemingly the better conditions . Here too we studied the film and approach materials given to us by “Pilot & Flugzeug” magazine, but it was largely unnecessary as we could see the runway from 15 miles out.  

To say it was ominous approaching Attu is an understatement. This was the only American island taken over by the Japanese. Thousands died here during WWII not in naval battles or in pushing back Japanese troops on non-US soil, but rather here was the only instance of Japanese gaining control of a US island. As an additional ominous sign, as we neared the runway we saw the wreckage of a C-130 transport plane that, in the 80s and in far different weather conditions, didn’t turn in time. For us it really was sunny & 70. Maggie was warning us of nearing terrain, as Attu doesn’t exist in the GPS database. Aside from that, crazy amounts of bird dung, and some grass sprouting from that fertilizer, the runway looked to be in good shape. With calm winds we made the straight-in approach and I’m happy to say it was uneventful . What an incredible relief.

This was quite moving moment. We’d made it in to the eastern hemisphere. We were on a ghost island uninhabited really since WWII. We were told there are still mines on island and still unburied corpses. I believe it. It’s huge, it’s pretty, it’s majestic, it’s eerie, and it’s all ours. There’s probably no one around for 500 miles in any direction. There are a couple war memorials, including an old machine gun and part of a plane motor, that ominously greet us. The greeting that put a much bigger smile on our faces were two bottles of nice Californian red wine left for us by Dietmar and Veronika, the South African couple that was here the night before as they made their way to Russia and then Japan. It was incredibly thoughtful.

We unpacked, refueled with the canisters the Cheyenne crew had left for us, and set up tent next to the abandoned Coast Guard station building. From there, left to our own devices and with beers in hand, we did some exploring . The combination of exuberance at our accomplishment so far, the anticipation of the following day’s flight, and being on the abandoned hollowed ground of Attu was very moving. Here we were, in a sense, camping on the edge of the world. Just miles away from us it was already tomorrow, as the date line even makes a jut westward to keep Attu, in the eastern hemisphere, on the same day as the US. There were plenty of wild geese and other birds, but aside from that we were completely alone. For some reason even the satellite phone couldn’t pick up a signal.

We’d brought some bread & cheese and, combined with the red wine left for us, dined like royalty. The view was splendid and the weather, unbelievably, held. The moment was so crisp; I cannot put it in to words. Near sunset, quite late on Attu because the time zones can’t keep up, I walked on the runway and looked over Maggie. I believe I don’t do many incredibly stupid things, but flying low over the Pacific for 12 hours in a single-engine piston aircraft surely can’t be deemed as smart . My anticipation is high. I love a good sense of adventure. Climbing Kilimanjaro or wild camping on the side of the road in Belarus just has a bit more civilization thrown in to the mix. Here I really felt it was all up to us. Well, more importantly, up to Maggie and to the weather conditions. Would the wind be calm enough? Would we refrain from getting icing? Would Maggie burn oil slowly enough during that long flight to maintain oil pressure? These thoughts were enough to make my head spin.  

As the sun vanished, so did the last of the clouds. We had a cloud-free starry night and slept in our exposure suit thermals to keep warm. I set my alarm and woke up in the middle of the night to soak it in the stars. I hadn’t seen such a night since being a kid camping with the whole family at Big Bend. That memory from childhood stuck, and I hope this one will stick as well. What were the odds that, on an island that gets but a handful of sunny days per year way up in the north Pacific, we’d have a starry night! With no lights around for 500 miles, it was an amazing sight. I felt small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet with so much riding on tomorrow’s flight it was a good omen.

Again, what a day.  

Routing: Direct at 6000'. Flight time was 3h05m.
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I'm very envious. Such a unique, once in a lifetime adventure. Thanks for sharing!