Villagers light runway to guide plane to ailing elder

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2000

FAIRBANKS - A Tanana elder suffering from a life-threatening ailment desperately needed to be flown to the nearest hospital. But extreme cold weather had knocked the lights out at the Athabascan village's runway and the emergency flight couldn't wait until daylight.

So about 30 people brought cars, trucks, minivans, even a seventh-grader's snowmobile to light the way so medics could land in Tanana and take Winkler Bifelt to Fairbanks for the care he needed.

``The pilot said, `It was a beautiful runway,' and thanked the community for coming out,'' said Mary Starr, an FAA weather observer at the village airport.

``It was really a sight,'' Starr told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ``It's an amazing and beautiful thing to see the village come together. I got a big lump (in my throat) when I looked out at it.''

Tanana is at the junction of the Yukon and Tanana rivers, about 150 miles northwest of Fairbanks. It has been without plane service since early last week when frigid weather moved into the Interior.

Temperatures fell to 55 below Sunday. Airport workers noticed Monday that the runway lights weren't working, Starr said.

A few hours later, about 5:15 p.m., village health center nurse practitioner Vicky Aldridge realized 60-year-old Bifelt needed medical help that couldn't be provided locally.

``We had a person who was bleeding and had to get him out . . . ,'' Aldridge said.

The sun was already down when the emergency call came into Frontier Flying Service at Fairbanks.

``We told them the only situation we could fly was if they could find enough vehicles and snowmachines and get them coordinated so we could land,'' said Bob Hajdukovich, company president. ``The trick was we had to have all the logistics prepared before we launched into the wild blue yonder.''

Airport workers, the village public safety officer and the native council office rounded up villagers, who lined cars, trucks, minivans and snowmachines on both sides of the runway.

Jesse Fliris, a seventh grader, brought his old black Skidoo nicknamed the ``Tundra Tank.'' Fliris also helped Steve Cochran, the village public safety officer, clear the collar cones around each of the disabled runway lights to expose reflective tape.

Using a hand-held aviation-band radio, Cochran was able to talk to the Frontier pilots and tell them what the runway setup was like. Flares were used to mark the runway center line.

The plane landed without incident and was on the ground about 45 minutes before taking Bifelt to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. He was reported in stable condition today, said Rick Solie, hospital spokesman.

From start to the landing, the entire episode took about two hours and 15 minutes.

``There is this wonderful caring atmosphere in the village,'' Aldridge said Monday night. ``If anyone needs anything, all I have to do is call one or two people and everything will get taken care of.''

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