In the last week of April, a captain and senior flight instructor finished off a nearly 30-year-career with Alaska Airlines the same way he started it – flying the “milk run” through Southeast Alaska. 60-year-old John “Hal” Andersen says that challenging flight is what hooked him on the airline.
Alaska Airlines has several routes nicknamed the “milk run” but they all mean the same thing: short hop flights between several communities. Those routes bring in groceries, cargo and passengers to the panhandle and send out the region’s bountiful seafood catch. The route was also the first training flight Andersen did with the airline back in 1992.
“Of course the real hook the first time is the challenge of flying into these airports with the weather and the terrain and the short runway,” Andersen said. “It was very rewarding and challenging flying.”
Andersen had the chops for this kind of challenge. He grew up in Albuquerque and earned his private pilot’s license at 15. He joined the Air Force, where he flew big tactical airlift planes, C130 Hercules Aircraft, which required landing short on remote runways. In 1992 he left the Air Force for the job with Alaska Airlines, starting as a flight engineer on 727s. He soon upgraded to the copilot’s seat and was working on 737s by the mid-90s. He also was an engineer for the airline and helped improve navigational support for the flights.
“I was part of a group of people in the mid-1990s that brought into Alaska Airlines and then eventually what became the global standard for the advanced navigation platforms that we use to get into airports like Petersburg that kind of fundamentally changed our ability to operate with vastly increased safety and efficiency,” he said.
Andersen was promoted to captain with the airline in 2000 and then instructor in 2003. In that job he was several layers removed from the line pilots who fly daily airlines routes. He was responsible for hiring and training some of the airline’s top level instructors. During his career Andersen estimates he’s probably been on tens of thousands of flights. His experience and that of countless commercial and local pilots before him is compiled in manuals for flying the milk run.
“For instance we know that if you’re going into Petersburg you don’t want to come down the (Wrangell) Narrows with a strong, you know on the approach to landing to the east because the turbulence is really bad down there,” he explained. “We have wind limitations in Wrangell and very extensive wind limitations in Juneau and even wind limitations in Petersburg based on the direction and velocity of the winds because of that very local micro climatology.”
The milk run route is well known for its short bumpy flights, hard landings and notoriously bad weather of the Southeast rainforest. But it was also Andersen’s choice for his last flights.
“A lot of folks, their final flight they’ll take the family to Maui and come back, one leg, into Maui or something like that,” he said adding, “And I always want to do the milk run. And so I had the great privilege on Monday and Tuesday, did five legs up to Anchorage and then Tuesday five legs back down to Seattle. And it was just the best day. It was pretty windy across Southeast, really windy in Ketchikan. It was a good workout. It was just fantastic. Flying our visual routes between Petersburg and Wrangell down. It’s just so beautiful and it was just such a wonderful capstone to my career.”
Andersen is excited to spend more time with his wife, a retired flight attendant and other family members. That’s something a flight instructor and pilot misses out on during a long career. But he also looks back fondly with the life it gave his family.
“There’s an opportunity to know a different world and see the world and travel,” he said. “My young daughter, she still tells as an adult, and it’s fun to watch her when I’m with her, she’s with her boyfriend and friends and she’ll start talking about being a little girl and flying with Daddy on the milk run, because in the summer she would fly the milk run with me and stay on the layover in Anchorage and come back. We’d get off in every station. I’d show her the big bear, or wolf or whatever’s in the lobby and take her out on the ramp and say OK here’s Wrangell, here’s Petersburg, here’s Ketchikan and it’s a great joy when your adult children tell their friend about their childhoods and that’s a theme of it.”
Flying isn’t all in the past for Andersen. He can still give tips to his grandson who is working to be a pilot. And he plans to return to Alaska. Officially Andersen’s last day on the job was flying from Seattle to Phoenix on April 29. From there he headed to his retirement home in Surprise, Arizona.