A Landing a Day

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Shemya Island, Alaska

Posted by graywacke on December 28, 2018

First timer?  In this formerly once-a-day blog (and now pretty much a once-a-week blog), I use an app that provides a random latitude and longitude that puts me somewhere in the continental United States (the lower 48).  I call this “landing.”

I keep track of the watersheds I land in, as well as the town or towns I land near.  I do some internet research to hopefully find something of interest about my landing location. 

To find out more about A Landing A Day (like who “Dan” is) please see “About Landing” above.  To check out some relatively recent changes in how I do things, check out “About Landing (Revisited).”

A Landing A Day blog post number 860.

Dan:  Rules are made to be broken, right?  The exception makes the rule, right?

As you know, I have had a hard-and-fast rule since I began my blog:  I always, always allow my random lat/long generator to select a location for each and every landing and each and every landing post.

Well, this is the Christmas season, and I have been extra busy.  Even though this is not like me, I just couldn’t find time for my landing.  I try to post every week, and I’m already about a week late. 

Of course, I did some research on my legitimate landing location (which I will dutifully write about for my next post), but found the area around my landing to be pretty much

It’s Christmas day as I sit at my computer writing this.  Christmas Eve night was (and how can I put this delicately) a bit of a hassle.  I was agitated, made all the more so because our indoor cat Lorenzo was outside and in no mood to come back in.

At 1:00 (Christmas Day!) I was lying in bed unable to get to sleep.  As is my wont, I reached over to my bedside table and picked up my iPhone.  I started to idly look at the news (as if that will put me to sleep), when I saw that a Christmas Eve Delta flight from Beijing to Seattle made an emergency landing at an isolated island at the western end of the Aleutian chain – about 1400 miles west of Anchorage.

The island wasn’t named in the article I read, but I have an app on my iPhone – FlightRadar24.  It is map-based, and you can scroll around and see all of the commercial flights in the air at any given time around the world.  You can also click on an airport, and get a list of all recent departures and arrivals.

I knew the flight was supposed to arrive in Seattle, so I clicked on the SEA airport, and hit “arrivals.”  After much scrolling, I saw this:

Hmmm. A Delta flight from Beijing to Seattle was supposed to land in Seattle at 7:36 am, but was diverted to “SYA.”  A quick Google search shows that SYA is Shemya Island, Alaska; more specifically Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island.

I pay a little extra to FlightRadar24, so I can get a simulation of the flight path.  Here’s a shot of the flight (DL128) a few hours after takeoff from Beijing, with the jet (a 767) flying happily along at 35,000 feet.

But several hours later, check this out:

See the altitude?  This baby’s going down!  Here’s a closer shot of where it landed.  (The jet is facing the wrong way, because it had already taxied and stopped):

And here’s a much closer view:

Here it is Christmas Eve, and a jet full of people (188) find themselves on an isolated island in the western Aleutians.  The plane could not be adequately repaired at Shemya Island, so Delta had to send a plane with an extra crew, repairmen, spare parts, and some customer relations type to make the best of a not-so-great situation for all of the customers and crew.

Here’s the FlightRadar24 info on the plane from Shemya to Seattle:

So let’s see.  The plane was supposed to land in Seattle at 7:36.  The plane that took them to Seattle departed Shemya at 3:00 in the afternoon got in at 10:10 pm (all Seattle time).  They were supposed to land at 7:36 am.  So it looks like they had something like 15 hours in Shemya.   

I really hope they enjoyed their stay.

From Wiki, about Shemya Island:

A United States Air Force radar, surveillance, weather station and aircraft refueling station, including a 10,000 ft runway, opened on Shemya in 1943 and is still in operation. The station, originally Shemya Air Force Base or Shemya Station, had 1,500 workers at its peak in the 1960s.

In 1956, Northwest Airlines leased Shemya Island from the U.S. government to use as a refueling station on their North Pacific route. According to Northwest’s website, that made them “the first airline to operate its own airport.”

The station still operates as a radar station and aircraft refueling station with a staff of about 180 people.

Under “Accidents and Incidents” is this:

On 24 December 2018 Delta flight Flight DL 128 from Beijing to Seattle carrying 194 passengers landed safely on Shemya Island due to engine issues. The diverted aircraft was a 767-300ER, registration number N1612T.

I wonder who updated the Wiki entry so quickly?

To watch a local Seattle TV clip about the situation, click HERE.

So, let’s start taking a closer look at Shemya Island by taking a very-long-distance Google Earth (GE) look at Shemya:

Wow.  Look at the Aleutian Island Arc.   Ready for some geology?  Here goes:

Island Arc systems are found around the world, but the Aleutian Arc is the longest and most pronounced. 

North of the arc is the North American Plate and south of the Arc is the Pacific Plate:

The Pacific Plate is headed north, and is diving under the North American Plate, like this:


So I can understand why there is a whole string of volcanic islands (of which Shemya is one).  But why the arcuate shape?  Not just here, but all around the world where a similar plate tectonic situation exists.

I’ve always been baffled about the arc, but no more!  After checking out at least a dozen articles about the formation of island arcs, no one seemed to tackle the issue head-on.  Until I found this (thank you Bill Kingsland!):


It’s that simple!

Heading back to Shemya, here’s a GE shot:

As a geologist, I was curious about why it is so flat.  I thought that island arcs were composed of a bunch of volcanoes – hardly a place to build a 2-mile long runway on a 4-mile long island. 

Yes, it’s flat, but it’s a flat surface that tilts from the high side (to the NE, at elevation 200 – 275), down to the southwest.  The runway is at elevation 85.

Here’s a low-angle shot of the island that highlights its topography:

Regardless, it hardly seems volcanic.  I found a USGS article:  “The Geology of the Near Islands, Alaska,” by Olcott Gates (I hope his friends and family called him “Ollie”); Howard A. Powers (“Howie”); and Ray E. Wilcox (OK, so Ray is just Ray). 

This article is part of a series entitled “Investigations of Alaskan Volcanoes.”

So anyway, Ollie and his pals determined that the island was volcanic in or about the Middle Tertiary (about 30 million years ago) – the age of the bedrock formations that make up the island.

Volcanism has been inactive since then.  So what happens to a smallish island out in the ocean that just sits there for millions and millions of years?  Well, after trillions and trillions of waves smash onto the rock of the island, it pretty much got leveled.

This leveling was completed in the late Tertiary or early Quaternary (about 3 million years ago).

Soon thereafter, tectonic forces were doing their thing, and the island was uplifted and tilted (remember — there are a high side and low side to this flat island).

And then, the island just waited around for some military types to realize that this island was perfectly suited to be a refueling stop (and a spy station).

It’s time to close out this post some Shemya photos.  From Wiki, here’s a wintry shot showing the cliff on the NE side of the island:

On the website “US Islands Awards Program” was an article about Shemya by John Reisenauer with this picture, showing a summertime version of the cliff:

I’ll close with this from Brandeis University:


That’ll do it . . .




© 2018 A Landing A Day






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