Fake news bit down hard on the fairytale of the Igiugig airport runway lights - Must Read Alaska
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Thursday, June 24, 2021
HomeMust Read AmericaFake news bit down hard on the fairytale of the Igiugig airport runway lights

Fake news bit down hard on the fairytale of the Igiugig airport runway lights

It sounds so good. The lights were out at the Igiugig airport, and a medical plane needed to land to pick up an ailing little girl and take her to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. It was dark.

The villagers rallied. They called around, got in their trucks and ATVs and lined the runway with their lights facing in. The plane was able to land safely and take the little girl to the doctor.

Heroics! Someone needs to lock up the screenplay on that one. Humanity is shown to be basically good.

The view from the pilot’s seat as Igiugig came into view, lined with vehicles.

As told by the Alaska Public Media reporter: Late Friday night a child in Igiugig needed to be medevaced to Anchorage. 

The small, remote Southwest Alaska village is right at the mouth of the Kvichak River on the south end of Iliamna Lake. LifeMed sent a King Air flight over from Kodiak. That usually takes about 30 minutes. 

But this year, the village’s state-owned airport has had some problems with the runway lights. And when residents went to turn them on to guide the flight in, nothing happened. 

Normally, this would stop a plane from landing. 

Nowhere in the story is the real issue The lights were out because, as they so often are in rural villages, the kids from the village of 54 Alaska Natives (16 households, 13 families) drove on the runway in their ATVs and smacked them with bats or batons.

The village vandalized the lights, to the tune of about $40,000. The village has no responsibility. It just waits for them to be fixed by the government.

Who will repair the lights at Igiugig? The State Department of Transportation runs this airport and and will have to add the lights to its maintenance list. The job will need to be done in the next few weeks, before the cold sets in, but other villages have airports and vandalized lights too.

Alternately, the DOT could provide the village with LED lights in suitcases that they can operate on batteries and bring out when they are expecting a plane.

But the original fairytale made it all the way from Alaska Public Media, which never explained the vandalism, to the New York Times, whose reporter did uncover the problem, but buried it deep in the fairytale.

It’s a tale that enchanted the big-city reader because it had that ring of “truthiness.” This was “real Alaska.”

Such is the spirit of Alaskans, they said on Twitter, because rural Alaska is where people help each other, like they did in the #oldendays. Wouldn’t it be nice if #orangeman was this nice, they said on Twitter. Then we’d all get along.

Without the full telling of what happened to the runway lights in Igiugig, readers are left to surmise that the State just wasn’t on the ball, forcing villagers to fend for themselves.

But in rural Alaska, bored teenagers are whacking out the lights of runways so often that the Department of Transportation has an ongoing education program, pleading with villagers to keep the kids off the runways.

According to the New York Times, the sound of the plane alerted villagers to the fact that a plane was approaching. Suddenly, the villagers discovered the lights were out on the runway.

“Ms. [Ida] Nelson, 36, said she was taking a steam bath at her sister’s house near the airport when she heard the sound of the Beechcraft King Air plane.

“We ran out of the steam bath and saw the lights of the bottom of the aircraft,” Ms. Nelson said.

But when Ms. Nelson and her sister looked toward the airport, she said, it was dark. There are few landmarks to guide pilots at night, said Ms. Nelson, noting that the village school has lights, but that’s about it.

The Igiugig lights had been damaged earlier this summer by a contractor. They were repaired, and then the kids bludgeoned them last week. The village residents knew the lights were out. It’s kind of a regular occurrence in village Alaska.

But the New York Times went with the fairytale headline: “The Runway Lights Failed, So Villagers Used Their Headlights To Aid An Airlift.”

In another telling it would be, “Igiugig teen hooligans could have cost a young girl her life.”

With a backlog of maintenance at airports around the state, the Department of Transportation is likely to have to send in the battery powered lights, which can be brought out as needed. They can be locked in a storage locker when not needed, and maybe they’ll be safe from the light-whacking teenagers.

It’s not the romantic ending to the tale, but it’s a patch until the repair order for vandalized runway lights at Igiugig can get in the queue.

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Written by

Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Yeah, when you don’t have to pay for anything in life, nothing has value.

    • Dead on, Robert.

  • As a former airport employee (not that airport) I knew it had to be vandalism. The state spends much money on this type of vandalism every year. It’s not only the lights that get vandalized but large generators that produce electricity. And yes, the state runs an educational program for these types of issues. Maybe now that one of their own almost died they will have more respect.

  • Kids and bangers did the same thing and Stebbens a few years back. Delayed the construction project at the tank farm and ran everybody back into the cab of their heavy equipment. Ironically they didn’t get their fuel supply that fall because the project was put on hold. This is nothing new though. we did the same thing trying to get a plane into perryville back in 1998. Village councils need to take control of their own people. Vpsos need to actually do the job they’re paid to do instead of using the police car to haul bypass freight and Mail in from the airport to the post office into the family-owned store.

    • It’s been…almost 20 years since you’ve been in this area? Little long for you to have an opinion on VPSO’S as hardly any villages in this area have one. As we depend on the troopers to do little to no work out here. It’s also not the council’s responsibility to babysit troublesome residents.

      • Hi Max. Good to hear from you. Actually, your mom would tell you otherwise, that we have been just north of you for the past 9 years. Small world. Those vpso are the one I have personal observation of.

      • Max, you assume much to your error. The things I wrote about did happen. I saw them happen. Like I said, we lived on the other side of the mountain until a few months ago. Without law enforcement, the duty falls on the council. They have bannished people for crimes if it becomes habitual and effects the village proper.

    • Parents need to take care of their kids who are vandalizing government property. The blame solely is on their shoulders.

  • Led in suitcases would be a waste of money, too! the novelty item would end up in folks houses or on truck-snow machine-sled racks…just saying.

  • To write old stores to fit your story is wrong and ignorant. This did happen in a few villagers by someone maybe teenagers. But not in this case. You are just another person looking to make yourself look good at the expense of native people

    • Who are you commenting to?

    • In Gambell, they broke in and tried to take the safe. Broke 37 windows one summer. In Manokotak, broke in and did steal the safe. Vandalized the airport trailer. Pretty sure I know what’s what. And I native but don’t condone vandals.

    • Rich, I have seen this very thing happen more than once on the Y-K. I had every window shot out of our equipment once too. Common knowledge Rich. I’ve seen a new Fire Truck given to a village vandalized so badly it was rendered unusable. Shall I go on?
      A surveyor working for me on a remote job laughed at the news report when we saw it on the T.V. He was in the region just last month and knew of the vandalism.

    • Rich,
      Is it the truth that offends you? If you have facts to support your claim that it was not the local kids / teenagers “ in this case” that vandalized the runway lights, please share what information you have. I find it highly unlikely that Suzanne Downing would make up facts to make herself look good at the expense of native people. That is a brutal charge. Hopefully you have evidence to support it. Otherwise you owe an apology.

      • Speaking as a former resident of Igiugig, it was not local teenagers in this case. The lights were not vandalized–anyone who actually contacted the residents would know that. Igiugig is an amazing community full of hard-working individuals. It is Suzanne Downing who owes the apology to the entire Igiugig community for writing such an ignorant and uniformed article.

  • Simple solution. Do not repair until the village passes the hat and ponies up. No skin in the game, only us to blame for enabling.

  • People who have spent time in Alaska knew the backstory, but thanks for bringing it to light for everyone else.

    • Of course calling this “Fake News” in the article headline is misleading. The events actually happened.

  • Send the village a bill. They break the the lights , they go without them until new ones are paid for up front. If there are no consequences, it will never end.

    • Best solution…and if someone dies because of their actions, it’s on them. Actions have consequences.

    • I wish the state would listen to you.

  • Those darn teenagers! Nobody wants to let them have fun!
    .like the stories in the MSM about “teens” attacking someone, ransacking stores, or similar.
    That might be the perps ages, but we all know it’s not Norwegians wreaking havoc.


  • Sigh, I shared the story because it sounded like a feel good message ? now I feel duped…

    • I can tell you first hand the writer of this article is not telling the truth. The village of Igiugig is the cleanest most honest village I have seen in 40 years in the villages of Alaska. The ladies that this is written about are former students . I was their teacher for five years. They were so honest that a $5.00 bill sat on a bench in the school for two weeks . It was never taken. It was finally put in a student activity fund. Before you accept what was written about that village you should go see for yourself and then you will see what lies were written. This village really does care.

      • Thank you!

      • Richard, we want to believe you. Are you saying the lights were not broken out? Are you saying the report of vandalism is a dirty lie? Do you know precisely why the lights would not work?

    • Now you can share the rest of the story! ?

  • So bears must be vandals also? Has to be those teenage bears.

  • I am so disappointed in the writer of this article and some of the above comments. I own a lodge directly across the river from the village of Igiugig call Last Cast Lodge. I was there at the lodge that night wonder why was this planed making so many attempts to land. I sent a text to one of my good friends and asked what was going on and she told me they had an emergency and had to medevac a young girl out and the runway lights weren’t working. The fact that they organized the whole village and lined the runway with cars and four wheelers so the pilots could see was and is an amazing act of love and community involvement. Whether the lights were vandalized or not shouldn’t be focus of this story. What should be the focus is how this village came together to aid this young lady in a crucial time of need.
    I bought our lodge because of the people in this village. They are extremely resourceful, efficient and independent in an extremely remote part of Alaska. They have a recycle program for bottles and for aluminum, they have a community greenhouse where they grow fresh vegetables, they have a river generator where they harness energy from the river. Since there is roughly only 70 people in the village, many of the village leaders have many roles and responsibilities. In the summer time many of the men and teenagers leave and go commercial fishing leaving the women to take care of the village, the elderly and the young.
    I don’t know if the runway lights were actually vandalized, it would really surprise me if they were. But its wrong to punish and slander the village as a whole if it was in fact true. It would be pretty easy to accidentally run over a runway light while on a four wheeler hunting a spruce hen. Don’t be so quick to judge. Instead celebrate with the village on the outcome of successfully aiding in this little girls rescue. By the way the young girl is doing better for all those that should be wondering!

    Indy Walton
    Owner of Last Cast Lodge

    • Oh they are resourceful but not so independent. They are great at grant writing to get the government to build chalet style homes for them to live in which the would then rent out to contractors and such and then have them vacate when government inspectors would come in to check on things. Saw that myself. But otherwise I agree with your assessment of that village. I very much enjoyed the year I spent there.

    • Thank you!

    • Not supposed to be on a runway or hunting at an airport.

  • I don’t understand how the story is flawed. What community doesn’t have mischief as a product of bored and unstimulated youth? I see it here in goldenview. Regardless of the cause of the lights being out, it is remarkable and heartening that people worked together to help someone other than themselves.

    • If you’ve ever been there, you’d know nearly everyone is related. There are a dozen, maybe 15 families so they are not truly helping a stranger “other than themselves.” they are helping a family member. But it’s nice they work together to get their family member to the hospital. That part is nice.

  • Runway lights are not just any lights. They are specialized in order to put out the proper ontensity and color over several thousand feet of runway. And the villages cannot be quickly reached any other way other than by air. The lights are subject to weather, maintenance accidents, and deterioration in addition to vandalism. They are supposed to turn on when a pilot keys the communication radio channel. The problem of course is greatest over the Winter.

  • Of course calling this “Fake News” in the article headline is misleading. The events actually happened.

    • Not at all misleading headline to me. “Fake news bit” because the first report on this focused on MacGyvering the lights but never asked why the lights were broken in the first place and how much it costs to replace then every time the kids play hockey with them. New York Times sorted it out … but barely. The village should be embarrassed that they had to do this. Instead, the mainstream media makes it look like they are victims.

  • There are two stories here. One is how the villagers lit the runway. The other is how the lights we’re broken . Neither is fake news. I lived in AK for most of my adult life and finally moved away after concluding that the political climate had changed. Your article is unnecessary and arrogant. Glad I moved.

    • No, the story is not unnecessary and arrogant, it tells the rest of the story. The original story was dishonest by omission. There is a problem with this in the media, and evidently there is a problem in Igiugig with vandalism and destruction, and the offenders should be held accountable. Taxpayers should not have to pay for their damages. This could have been a tragedy, caused by criminal activity and fortunately it was not. Now we have the whole story.

    • This article is a lie plain and simple. I have lived and worked in the villages of Alaska for 40 years. I know the people of Igiugig. I would be willing to swear in court they told the truth. I kew the parents of all the young women that were mentioned. I know they are truthful and do not seek attention. The writer of this article has not been to the village but is writing fake news .

      • Baumfalk,
        Your experience with this village is certainly different from mine. I have been in and out of Igiugig several times almost yearly since 1968. There has always been vandalism of one kind or another. We always hoped that our aircraft would be left alone, but every so often they would be damaged or broken into. I landed with an hour out of full tanks only to find the tanks empty when I went to fly home. When you need fuel at Igiugig it is very difficult to find and it will cost you. A Lot!
        I personally saw teens shooting at empty skiffs beached on the island in front of the landing on the river. And on more than one occasion.

        The village has replaced landing lights on the airport many times because they were damaged. Not because the light wore out. How do you suppose that happened Baumfalk? Wind, Bears? Ha!
        Truth be known, this village, like some others would just as soon keep the sport fishing lodges and fishers from landing at the airport. Some of the locals resent those folks.

        • Dear Alaskans First,
          If you are still flying through Igiugig please be sure to come into the office and report the things you noted when they are happening. Stealing avgas out of planes is a serious thing and to my knowledge has never been reported to the village in the 30+ years I have worked here. As you know the village office is at the airport and in non-COVID19 years provides bathroom facilities as a courtesy to any travelers, as well as a gift shop for those visiting the village, and a lobby for lodge guest to linger in out of the bugs while they wait for their flight.
          If you have had problems getting fuel you should probably step into the building and talk to our fuel person who keeps a truck at the ready for travelers such as yourself.
          It would be good to also let us know of teenagers shooting as well, but I’m thinking the people you saw would be middle aged by now because there no longer is an island across from the landing. The river changed course years ago.

          • Sandy, Thank you for your courteous reply. I am glad to hear that fuel is now available. It was hard to come by and was very costly if you needed it. The person who seemed to be in charge of the Village died a few years ago in a planet crash. It was on his watch where I saw many ( not all) of the things I mentioned. He generally laughed off my complaints and at one time said “they are just bored kids”when I showed him the slashed tires on my Cessna 206. Nobody would rent me a room while I waited for new tires to arrive. So I stayed in the plane. Talk about local hospitality. And it was commonly known that you left your plane unattended at your own risk.
            The island I referred to is slightly down stream from the landing. I and our guests fished from it this June. It is a quite large piece of ground and is likely to remain.
            I have complained toAlaska DOT about the vandalism. They always knew it occurred at the airport. It seems that it is always repaired and maintained using local Contractors and labor with the State once again paying the tab. Kind of a make work project. Tear it down and get paid to build it back up.
            Yes, you provide restroom facilities which are located right next to a shop
            that sells so called local art work. Problem is there are lots of things that have origin of manufacture listed as from China other Asian countries. . And doesn’t the lease with the state require you to provide certain amenities?. Sounds only fair since the village now profits from the tourism and sports fishing in the area as well as benefits from all of the grant funds from the Feds and State. That is a story by itself. An investigation of who has benefited most from these programs would be an interesting article. Maybe Suzanne Downing should research that subject, don’t you think?

  • So bears are vandals also? Those teenage bears.

  • Ms. Downing,

    Unless I missed something in this article you don’t actually have any first hand information on what happened to those lights. Neither do I. You get to choose whether to build people up or tear them down. The former is harder than the later. The fact is, there are lot of fine people in Igiugig working super hard to create a community there… a good one where people might want to live and raise a family. I’m disappointed you felt the need to post this rubbish and create yet another platform for stereotypical racist remarks.

    • Taryn: You said that you had no first hand information on what happened to those lights. And then you accused the author of “posting this rubbish”. How do you know it is rubbish if you have no information? Just asking but not expecting an answer.

      • Greg Heister basically spelled it out already.

  • This is incredible – as a journalist for 30 years I would love to know who this writer is attributing this knowledge that she felt necessary to report to the world? Who in the community of Iguigig was able to substantiate this information? If this story came from the DOT then who should we attribute the information to? Were there assumptions made? Perhaps stereotypes that have been moved forward? This is highly irresponsible and frankly not my experience with the people in this community. I own a lodge there and have never had anything vandalized – destroyed or damaged because of anyone in the community. This article is trash without facts that’s are attributed – Do your job

    • You hope it doesn’t happen to your property. The earlier pilot said it best. That’s first hand knowledge.

  • I am not going to waste my time reading the rebuttals to the article but merely going to say that I personally can attest to and confirm the rampant vandalism throughout not only villages but all cities. Relatives steal from relatives taking to the lowest level. Normally alcohol is the culprit but with younger teens it irresponsible behavior based predominantly on boredom coupled with lack of respect due to lack of knowledge.

  • it’s another manifestation of the ………”what else can you do for me” mentality.

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