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Salmon-Thirty-Salmon
by Mac af Uhr

 

cartoon

 

Monday March 30, 1987, dawned absolutely gorgeous in Southeast Alaska, one of those perfect and elusive days seen mostly on postcards. By early morning the temperature had already inched into the low fifties (Fahrenheit—around 10°C) and there was scarcely a cloud in the skies. The sun-starved residents of Juneau, the state capital, came out in droves during their morning coffee breaks. Sitting on office building steps with faces upturned, their fleece jackets lay discarded nearby while they absorbed the early spring sunshine as if in a trance.

 

Alaska Airlines Flight 61 had arrived on time from Seattle, Washington, during the mid-morning. The flight that would go on to make ‘You have got to be kidding me’ aviation history had thus far been uneventful and routine, giving the crew plenty of time to enjoy the majestic scenery. After landing, the two pilots assisted the ground crew in unloading the two large cargo pallets, or igloos, from the forward main cargo door. Operating in a combi configuration, with two pallet positions up front and 72 passenger seats in the back, the layout was ideal to serve the smaller Alaskan communities on the airline’s route map.

With no road access between the Alaskan mainland and Juneau, aviation plays a vital rôle in the city’s transport needs. Indeed, Flight 61 was—and still is—a regularly scheduled ‘milk run’ through the Southeast. After departing from Juneau, the flight would continue to Yakutat, then on to Cordova before terminating in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and de facto capital.

capt morin
'Salmon' pilots Capt Bill Morin (left) and FO Bill Johnson.

Captain Bill Morin was in charge of the Boeing 737-200QC assigned to the flight that beautiful morning. He was a likeable and relaxed commander with seven years’ experience. Assisting him in the right seat was First Officer Bill Johnson, who had been with the airline a little over three years having previously worked for Boeing, appropriately enough as a flight instructor on the 737. An affable and gentle individual, he would soon join the ranks of Alaska’s own IPs (instructor pilots); but on this day he had been ‘short called’ by crew scheduling whilst on reserve.

After a quick cup of coffee during the brief stop, the crew headed back to the aircraft. There, a Mr ‘C’, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Carrier Inspector, joined them from the Seattle Flight Standards District Office, or FSDO. He was to ride all the way to Anchorage with the crew. Mr C’s duties included monitoring the crew’s performance. He would also administer an en route check ride, observing the two pilots’ aircraft handling, communications, and air traffic control procedures.

Any time an inspector from the FAA rides the cockpit jump-seat, tension on the flightdeck rises a few notches. All crewmembers strive to perform at their best, and to remember and abide by the many obscure and Byzantine FARs by which they will be judged. After briefing Mr C about what was expected of him, including assisting with scanning for traffic, the crew prepared for departure.

They were planning to take off on Runway 26 as their flight path would take them westbound to Yakutat. Taxiing away from Juneau’s small terminal down the parallel taxiway, they noticed several large bald eagles circling to the south of the runway down toward Douglas Island. Eagles are a common occurrence in most of Alaska, the majestic birds soaring effortlessly on their powerful wings whilst searching for prey.

Captain Morin had flown the leg into Juneau; so, adhering to the established protocol of each pilot operating alternate sectors, Bill Johnson briefed the departure from Juneau, which incorporated an immediate left turn toward the infamous Juneau ‘cut’: a narrow valley in the hills immediately to the west of the airport. This ‘cut’ has shaped the approaches and departures into and out of Juneau since the dawn of aviation in Alaska. It was not until the recent advent of RNP (Required Navigation Performance) approaches that this has changed, with more options becoming available.

With maximum power from its two JT8D engines, the 737 thundered down the runway before rotating smoothly about halfway along the available length. As the gear retracted into the wells, Bill banked smoothly toward the cut while pulling the nose up to about 20°. Whilst settling into the climb, the flightdeck occupants noticed a large bald eagle approaching from their left. The three of them quickly surmised, with some relief, that they would pass beneath the eagle with plenty of separation. Hitting a large and heavy eagle with a jet aircraft at 200mph (320kph) can leave you with quite serious damage.

news clipping

That the eagle had sighted the fast-approaching Boeing jet was equally obvious as it spread its huge wings out fully and literally stopped in the air. Only then did the two pilots realize that the big bird’s breakfast hunt had been successful because in its powerful talons the eagle carried a decent-size fish. Apparently deciding that discretion is the better part of valor—or believing that the Boeing was a much larger bird intent on poaching its catch—the eagle smartly executed a sharp U-turn and headed back toward the south.

In the process, the eagle either voluntarily released its meal or the rapid turn ripped it out of its claws. The bird’s timing and the trajectory of its drop would have made that infamous Irishman Murphy (of Murphy’s Law fame) very proud. In one of those ‘I cannot believe this is happening to me’ moments, the two pilots watched the fish fall toward the aircraft as if in slow motion.

Bill Morin would later estimate that the fish was about 12 to 18in (31 to 46cm) long, and that it may have been a Dolly Varden, based on the fact that they were running at the time. Alaska Airlines’s Juneau customer service manager thought that it might have been a cod. Whatever the piscine interloper was, it impacted the aircraft with an almighty thump just behind the last cockpit window on the captain’s side, hard enough to leave a small dent.

After a short, somewhat stunned and silent interlude—while the pilots tried to comprehend what had just transpired—the engine instruments were scanned for signs of damage while Bill Johnson also conducted a quick check of the flight controls. Having determined that all controls and indications were normal, Bill Morin let out a low chuckle and asked, “Did we just hit what I think we hit?”

Agreeing that they had in fact collided with a fish, the crew contacted the airline’s dispatch and maintenance control for further instructions. A consultation with all involved parties produced the decision that the flight would continue to its intended destination, Yakutat—which was reached uneventfully.

As they approached Yakutat, the crew of Flight 61 was advised that the aircraft would need to be inspected. Unfortunately, there were no qualified personnel in Yakutat to perform that task; so, a mechanic would have to be flown in from Juneau. The airline promptly chartered a small Piper Cherokee SIX from a local Part 135 company and dispatched a mechanic to check the 737 on the ground in Yakutat.
Meanwhile, as the Boeing taxied up to the ramp adjacent to the terminal building, the crew found that almost all the townsfolk were waiting for them, news of their airborne adventure having travelled at the speed of radio.

salmon logo
The 'official' salmon-thirty-salmon logo of Alaska Airlines.
eagle with fish
Was it this eagle that dropped the fish?

After shutting down, the pilots and FAA inspector left their seats to go out and inspect the damage. There was, however, not much to see after the 45-minute flight from Juneau. Apart from the dent, all that remained was a greasy spot, a trail of blood, and some fish scales.
While waiting for the mechanic to arrive from Juneau, Morin made a PA announcement requesting the passengers to wait inside the small terminal where it would be more comfortable. He also explained what had happened and what the problem was. Several passengers refused to believe him as they thought he was telling them an elaborate lie to cover up a much more severe mechanical problem.

The subsequent inspection proved very much a non-event, and after passengers were re-boarded the flight continued to Cordova and Anchorage as scheduled. But news of the incident overtook the Boeing, reaching rapidly across the small Alaska Airlines system. By the time the crew arrived in Anchorage—an hour or so late—the fish had grown to become a King Salmon, at least 5ft (1.5m) long and weighing 20lb (9kg). The crew soon became minor celebrities, before the story began to fade from memory.

Mr C from the FAA did, however, recall the event somewhat differently. Interviewed for the August 1987 edition of FAA World (the official FAA employee publication), he had this to say: “When the mechanics arrived and inspected the airplane their jaws—along with ours—nearly hit the pavement. What they found was the remains of a three-to-four-pound [1.3 to 1.8kg] salmon wedged in near the forward door and the wing root.”

The FAA inspector even gave Captain Morin a fishing pole and asked the crewmembers to pose with him for a photo, which they reluctantly did. The event had now received the official seal of authenticity from the United States Federal Aviation Administration, thus assuring its place in the annals of aviation history.

 

ripley's

 

When the story broke in the national press two days later—ironically on April 1—many readers predictably dismissed the tall, fishy tale as an April Fool’s joke. But the story was real enough. The fish strike even made in into Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Like most good fishing stories about the big one that got away, this tale grew even taller with the passage of time, and recently even popped up in a popular aviation website. One correspondent wrote: “I remember reading about this. In Alaska, a large bird carrying a fish was startled by the ’plane and dropped the fish. The fish came through the radome and ended up by the co-pilot’s feet.” He also stated that he remembered seeing photos of the damage.

Both pilots are still with Alaska Airlines. Captain Bill Morin leads the airline’s CIRP (Critical Incident Response Program) team, while Captain Bill Johnson was instrumental in introducing the AQP (Advanced Qualification Program) training program. Neither professes to be much of a fisherman; but they have shown how fly-fishing is done—Alaskan style.

 

the end

 

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