The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, called “The Last Great Race,” has been held every year in Alaska since 1973. The race is the re-enactment of the dogsled freight route from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, covering a distance of 1,049 miles in harsh, cold winter conditions. Before the advent of aircraft, dog sled drivers, known as mushers, delivered goods to isolated villages, and the race follows their historic path.
Just like those early mushers, Northern Air Cargo (NAC), Alaska’s largest all-cargo airline, also delivers goods in support of the race that celebrates their arduous journey.
This year the ceremonial start was March 7 in downtown Anchorage, as usual, but the actual race started in Fairbanks March 9, for only the second time in the history of the race, due to lack of snow. NAC will be there in its 33rd year of ferrying about 75 tons of dog food, sleds, kennels, snow machines, chainsaws, camera equipment, plywood, heaters, propane tanks, perishables and general gear supplies to support the mushers and their dogs.
Dave Squier, the chief operating officer of Northern Aviation Services, NAC’s parent company, said weather and timing are the two main logistical challenges in staging the Iditarod. The duration of the race, for example, is a big variable. Winners have arrived in Nome after eight days, but the last musher might not come in for a month after starting, so it can be difficult to know how long NAC will have to have an aircraft ready to fly in new supplies.
The carrier uses a 737-200 freighter and a 737-300 freighter for the race, operating one flight a day, three or four days a week to drop supplies at three hub locations along the trail – the towns of McGrath, Unalakleet and Nome, where the race ends.
No stranger to flying in sub-zero conditions, NAC, founded in 1956, flies to 14 points in western and northern Alaska. One of NAC’s largest customers is the Red Dog Mine, a zinc-lead mine in Northwest Alaska near Kotzebue, which NAC has been servicing for 20 years. The oil companies that are active in Prudhoe Bay, at the origination of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, are also frequent customers.
NAC also provides flights for the Alaska Bypass, a federal mail delivery system for small, isolated villages. By avoiding the U.S. Postal Service, the bypass allows residents of those towns to ship and receive goods for far less than commercial rates. Squier said bypass mail is more than just letters; it must be a minimum of a thousand pounds and is often supplies for grocery stores and restaurants.
But NAC is also tied to freight routes in much warmer – even tropical – climes. When Hawaii’s Aloha Airlines went bankrupt in 2008, Saltchuk Resources, which bought NAC in 2006, bought the airfreight portion, Aloha Air Cargo, based in Honolulu. Squier said it is predominantly inter-island service, with one weekly frequency between Los Angeles and Hawaii.
NAC in Alaska and Aloha Cargo in Hawaii make up the vast majority of Northern Air Service’s business, Squier said, but the company also keeps a couple of aircraft in Laredo, Texas, for expedited on-demand charters, mostly carrying auto parts between the U.S. and Mexico. Approximately 68 percent of cargo on NAS carriers is freight and 32 percent is mail.
In recent years, NAC has experienced a growth spurt. The addition of Aloha and the L.A.-to-Honolulu route, ground handling services for Shell Oil’s passenger terminal and a four-year contract with the U.S. Postal Service to carry international mail are just a few of the new roles the company has taken on.
“Every piece of the company is growing,” Squier said. He said that MRO subsidiary Northern Air Maintenance Services (NAMS) has also taken on maintenance support for Conoco Phillips aircraft that service Anchorage, Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay.
Squier is new in his role, having previously served as vice president of cargo services for NAC and, before that, as manager of ground operations in Anchorage for Alaska Airlines.
The carrier currently has two 737-200Fs and two 737-300Fs in its fleet; Aloha has three 737-200Fs, two 737-300Fs, one 767-300F and three Saab 340 freighters. The 767 freighter is Aloha’s first wide-body freighter, but Aloha had previous experience with 767 passenger aircraft, Squier said.
This month, however, all eyes will be on Alaska, which is the heart of the Northern Air Cargo operation. NAC is one of the earliest sponsors of the upcoming Iditarod, said Stan Hooley, CEO of the Iditarod Trail Committee. Each year, at the annual “musher’s banquet,” the carrier gives away a brand-new ATV to one of the mushers who complete the formidable journey. NAC also awards the musher who displays the best sportsmanship and spirit with the Herbie Nayopuk award, named after an Iditarod legend, in addition to $1,049 in one-dollar bills stuffed in the pockets of a Carhartt jacket.