Diomede mail delivery remains an adventure

Flying in and out is as challenging as Vietnam, pilot says

Posted: Monday, March 25, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Years after man walked on the moon, walrus-skinned boats still delivered mail to Diomede.

Occasionally, a cargo plane would fly over the tiny island village 28 miles off the Seward Peninsula. Sacks of mail would be thrown out, tumbling hundreds of feet to the tundra.

"We couldn't order fine china," said Francis Ozenna, city manager of Diomede.

The village didn't get regular mail service until 1982. Except for one year when it was underbid, Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska has provided the weekly mail runs to Diomede, 135 miles northwest of Nome.

The postal contract now is one of the oldest in the nation, the most expensive in Alaska, and the only one that uses helicopters to deliver the mail.

"Flying in the weather out here is just as challenging as Vietnam and it can be just as deadly if you're not careful," says former Army pilot Eric Penttila.

Little Diomede Island, home to 147 mostly Ingalikmiut Eskimo inhabitants, is less than 3 square miles. The island's rocky, steep slopes prohibit construction of a runway.

If weather permits, villagers construct an ice landing strip that lasts from a few weeks to a couple of months each year, and a

ski-equipped airplane delivers the mail by another company.

Few floatplanes attempt the flight because of foggy skies and choppy seas, so the rest of the time, a helicopter is required.

The postal contract costs more than $300,000 annually, according to Debbie Castignetti of the Postal Service in Anchorage.

Since the inception of the mail contract, Penttila has been delivering mail to the island in Evergreen's Messerschmidt helicopter. During summer months, cloudy skies and fog prevail. Winds blow consistently from the north, averaging 17 mph, with gusts to 60 or 80 mph.

A former Army pilot in Vietnam, Penttila said delivering mail to Diomede is not unlike flying under fire.

During the Cold War, straying off course also could be cause for grave concern. Big Diomede Island, two miles away in Russia, and home to a military base, was heavily armed with anti-aircraft weapons, Penttila said.

"Pilots could be penalized with violations from the State Department, or worse, when we weren't buddies with the Russians," Penttila said.

For years, Penttila landed on the bow of a shipwrecked scow. A storm took the old barge away a few years ago, prompting the state to build a helipad.

In addition to mail, Penttila has used the company helicopter for medical evacuations and rescues.

In 1993, the airplane of visiting missionaries crashed off the coast of Nome and Penttila helped pluck seven gospel singers out of the ocean.

Penttila, 58, said he doesn't know how much longer he'll be flying to Diomede. His wife, Sharon, is a teacher in Nome and will retire in about four years.

"We'll take a look at it then," Penttila said.

Before regular mail service, mail was sorted in Diomede and left on a pool table in the village's recreation center. Today, a small post office is housed within city offices.

Regular mail service, said City Manager Ozenna, has helped change the community, for better and worse.

Diomeders have long been known for their ivory carvings and whale hunting. But those cultural activities are in decline.

"There are fewer skin boats on the beach, and we still have some great carvers here, but not as many," Ozenna said.

Ivory carvers once used their wares for barter for everything from food to electricity, but money, mostly through welfare checks, has replaced that method of trade. Less than a quarter of the population is employed.

Today, it's typical to see mail-ordered packages from J.Crew or Victoria's Secret among parcels from J.C. Penney, Ozenna said. But much of the mail consists of food and other supplies, shipped from Anchorage Wal-Marts and Kmarts. Pampers and soda pop are popular.

Mail sometimes contains drugs and alcohol, Ozenna said. Diomede is a dry village, where the sale and importation of alcohol is illegal.

Ozenna said she and other villagers had hoped that tighter security imposed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 would have quelled some of the illegal shipments, but that hasn't happened.

No law enforcement personnel are located in the community, so villagers police themselves.

"If we see a suspicious box, it gets reported," Ozenna said.

Despite mail and other factors that have brought the Western culture to the Eskimo community, it still largely remains an odd American outpost.

The village has satellite television, telephones and Internet, but none of the community's 47 homes have running water or flush toilets.

There has been talk by politicians and state officials of relocating the village to the mainland, but that's an unpopular option with the locals, Ozenna said.

The International Dateline runs through the Bering Sea between the two Diomede islands. Ozenna said residents just have to look over that line to see tomorrow, and the present, due largely to mail service, has caught up with Diomede.

"We have our walrus, bear, seal, fish, greens and berries here," Ozenna said. "Modern life, everybody is getting used to it. Everybody wants it easier. But in Diomede, easy is a hard thing to do."



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