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It’s a bird! It’s a fish? Alaska’s history of collisions between planes and animals.

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaskan history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

On April 1, 1987, the Anchorage Daily News front page featured an article titled “Jetliner Collides with Fish.” The story itself was straightforward. As they had hundreds of times before, pilots Bill Morin and Bill Johnson lifted off from Juneau in an Alaska Airlines 737-200. Through the windows, they spied an eagle crossing in front of the plane. As the eagle judiciously veered away, it dropped a fish it was holding. The pilots watched the fish topple through the air directly towards them until it hit a small window above the cockpit, a midair fish and airliner collision.

Someone at the Daily News appreciated the humor of it all. Next to the article was a photograph of the West High eagle mural, composed as if the bird was attacking students. The next day, the Daily News’ longtime and legendary editorial cartoonist, Peter Dunlap-Shohl, took his shot with a Far Side-esque “When Eagles Go Bad” cartoon.

Plans in Alaska have hit more kinds of animals than might be assumed at first thought. Bird strikes are obviously the most common type of wildlife strike and that which constitute the most consistent threat to flights. As of July 27, there have been 18 apparent bird strikes in Alaska this year, per the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wildlife Strike Database. In collisions of larger planes and smaller birds, pilots are sometimes unaware that a strike happened, and the only evidence is often carcasses found on airport grounds.

Bird strike records in Alaska reads like a birder’s checklist, from ravens to owls to pipits to killdeer. When such information is available, the FAA database is specific. If someone wants to search for documented incidents of yellow-crested warbler strikes in America, they can. In the same way, the database also includes two confirmed bat strikes in Alaska over the past 21 years, both at Juneau, in 2002 and 2011.

Apart from birds, planes in Alaska have also collided with many different animals on the ground, including bears, caribou, coyotes, deer, dogs, foxes, mink, moose, muskrats and porcupines. As with birds, sometimes there was only evidence of a strike, as when mechanics pulled porcupine quills from the wheels of a jetliner at Ted Stevens International Airport in 2013. Within the past 21 years, there have been no documented instances of feline strikes, whether a wild lynx or a housecat. Make of that what you will.

While not hit by a plane, a bearded seal delayed an outgoing and incoming flight at Utqiaġvik’s Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in 2017. The FAA report notes that the seal “was loafing at about the midpoint of the runway.” As it was a marine mammal, the flights had to wait until the appropriate authorities could be fetched to move the recalcitrant seal.

[In Utqiaġvik, ‘low sealings’ bring a unique runway hazard]

The most notorious Alaska wildlife strike in recent years was an Alaska Airlines 737-300 that hit a brown bear while landing at Yakutat in 2020. A sow and its cub were lying in the center of the runway. The strike killed the mother, but the cub was uninjured. No one onboard was injured either, though it took a few days to repair the plane itself.

However, there has been only one fish strike in recorded history. The Juneau fish versus Alaska Airlines jetliner collision took place on March 30, 1987. A clearly amused Juneau airport manager Paul Bowers told the Associated Press, “The law of the jungle prevailed. As the larger bird approached, the smaller bird dropped its prey.”

After the plane collided with the fish, pilot Morin said over the radio, “Did we just hit what I think we hit?” A mechanic cautiously checked over the plane at their next stop in Yakutat. There was no damage and only minimal evidence of the fish’s last moments. Per the quotable Bowers again, “They found a greasy spot with some scales, but no damage.”

The story’s details have, on occasion, prompted some understandable skepticism. News of the incident broke on April 1, which meant the colorful anecdote landed on the front pages of newspapers on April Fools’ Day. A reasonable person might be suspicious about an improbable — if possible — story that just happened to come out on that day of all days. To be completely explicit, an eagle really did drop a fish into the path of an airborne Alaska Airlines plane.

The story has been stretched slightly when it comes to the species of fish involved. When I first heard the tale, I was told with absolute certainty that it was a salmon. Pilot Morin guessed the fish was about 12-18 inches long and may have been a Dolly Varden, appropriate given the season. Alaska Airlines customer service manager Jerry Kvasnikoff said, “This time of year, if I had to guess, it might have been a cod. You never know what an eagle will get into.” As the pilots, the only eyewitnesses, are unsure, then we will never know.

Alaskans have been prone to wild tales for the entirety of Alaskan history. However, sometimes the stories are true, reflecting the broad range of possible experiences here. Sometimes, an Alaskan indeed drives through the doors of a pool hall to win a bet, like Joe Spenard in early Anchorage. Sometimes, an Alaskan indeed fakes a volcano eruption, like Oliver “Porky” Bickar in Sitka in 1974. And sometimes a plane collides with a fish in midair.

Key sources:

Federal Aviation Administration, FAA Wildlife Strike Database.

Halpin, James. “Unwelcome Matt.” Anchorage Daily News, May 25, 2009, A-1, A-14.

“Jetliner Collides with Fish.” Anchorage Daily News, April 1, 1987, A-1, A-16.

Lindsay, Marianne. “Throwback Thursday: Windshield Sushi—Alaska Airlines Jet Really Did Hit a Fish in Midair.” Alaska Airlines, February 5, 2015.

Williams, Tess. “Jetliner Hits Bear on Runway in Southeast Alaska.” Anchorage Daily News, November 15, 2020.

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