Cordova Chronicles: Welcome to Cordova International Airport

Anyone who has lived in Cordova very long knows it is wise to check the arrival time of flights before heading out to the Mile 13 airport. Alaska Airlines has one of the best on-time records in the industry, but the vagaries of weather and airport conditions can quickly throw things out of whack.

And let’s face it. Despite its current remodeling, there isn’t a lot to do out at the terminal. When planes are late, often the dilemma is “do I go back to town and then come back out, or sit here and wait.”

On Feb. 22, my wife Sue, daughter Gretchen, and granddaughter Ellie were due to return from Anchorage. Gretchen had been up for an education conference, Ellie and Gramma for an eye appointment and shopping. I checked the arrival time of Flight 61, and it was right on schedule.

Sue had left her vehicle at the airport, so I decided to head out early, to shovel and defrost it.  The weather was cloudy, with a few flakes in the air. The roads were slick, as the temperatures had suddenly passed 32 degrees.

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So I am putting along, and when I reach the open clear cut just before the turnoff to the Terminal, notice the distinctive tail of an Alaska Airlines jet sticking above its roof. What the heck? Wow, this plane is early. Way early. Like, 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

I quickly park and head to the terminal. On the way, I notice passengers getting ON the plane. Kevin Quinn of Points North is standing outside the door. The Heli-Skiing season is about to begin, and he is admiring the snow. I say hi and ask what is going on.

Oh, that’s the Milk Run. They’re way late. Obviously Kevin has been here for a while, and knows the nickname for Flight 66. I wonder if he knows why. For years, the only way Cordova received fresh milk and produce was to fly it up from Seattle. The price in the local stores indicated it must have traveled in First Class.

Whew. At least the Gang wasn’t inside with their bags, wondering why I was late. So I wander over to Sue’s car. Not an inch of snow or any frost. That’s another surprise. I drive it over closer to the terminal, and just as I get out, hear the sound of a jet landing. Flight 61, right on schedule.

Hmmm. This should be interesting. There sits 66 being loaded. Hey, this is going to look like Cordova International Airport when 61 pulls up.

Mike Babic wanders out. He, too, is picking up family. We decide to watch the operation through the fence. Mike mentions the ground crew is doing a heck of a job. “They’re almost ready to close it up, and the plane has only been on the ground 25 minutes. That’s got to be some sort of a record.”

Flight 61 taxis up, and stops about 200 yards behind 66.  Both have engines running. Then a snag. Flight 66 needs to be de-iced. So it’s time for more terminal talk.

We chat about both planes being the Boeing 737 Combo Version, the forward half freight, the back for passengers. Mike notes they are being phased out. Too old, too slow, too inefficient. He mentions the original 737s traveled 350 miles per hour, but on a recent flight to Hawaii on one of the newer models, he turned on his GPS tracker and was surprised to see he was traveling 620 mph.

I counter with my first plane ride. In the 1950s, of course. It was on one of Mudhole Smith’s Cordova Air DC-3s. When they fired those Puppies off, smoke and flames shot out the engines. Stan and Ozzie, veteran ticket agents and ground crew members, stood by with fire extinguishers. I had a window seat. When we finally were airborne and leveled off, I asked my Mom: “We’ll, we’re finally up here. Now when do we get going?”

It took over an hour to get to Anchorage, and by the time we arrived, everyone was deaf.

The delay continues, so we switch to pilot stories. Mike tells me that Cliff Gurske, who graduated from CHS in 1987, was now flying 737s for Southwest Airlines, and sends him photos of the cockpits of the newer versions.  I tell him about John DeLeo, who graduated from CHS in 1933. He went on to be a senior pilot for United Airlines, and was in fact ranked No. 2 in hours flown among all their pilots. DeLeo was selected to test fly one of the first Boeing 747s out of their field near Sea-Tac.

Incidentally, this was the same John DeLeo that was shown standing beside Virginia Lacey, both laden with ducks, in the photo that accompanied the story about Virginia in The Cordova Times Feb. 10 edition. Maybe he spotted all those northern widgeons descending on Pete Dahl while flying a great circle route.

The de-icing operation is almost complete. I note how quickly it goes with Alaska Air’s modern lift and spray system, and tell about the time the Cordova basketball teams were trying to get to Anchorage for the State tournament back in 1987. Bob Lenz and Virginia Anderson were the coaches. Lenzo’s squad was 27-0, and avid fans took all the seats not filled with players. It was snowing so hard the ground crew couldn’t keep the wings clear. Eventually the huge lime-green Airport Crash Vehicle pulled up and sprayed down the entire plane, and we went roaring off. The Cordova boys lost to ACS in the semi-finals, and the lowly ranked Lady Wolverines won the only 3A State title in Cordova history.

Lenz also spent time working cargo for Alaska Air in the summer. I recount a tale about the time the ground crew was back in the terminal, the plane was sealed up and about to taxi off, when some one counted noses, and asked where Lenz was. Turns out he was about to get a free ride to Anchorage — in the baggage compartment.

Finally, 66 taxied out, and 61 taxied in. Mike took a photo of this unusual event: two jets passing each other on the Cordova tarmac.

Yes, the plane was late, in a sense. Yet the waiting had been time well spent, at Cordova International Airport.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. Shellhorn has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town.