A Delta Airlines flight from Beijing to Seattle made an unexpected stop at one of the more out of the way places on the globe in the early morning of Christmas Eve 2018.
The flight, carrying 194 passengers, was diverted for an emergency landing on Shemya Island. The island is home to Eareckson Air Station– a rugged 2×4 mile patch of rock with a 10,000 foot runway, a handful of dilapidated buildings and a radar…and little else. The island is 1200 miles from Anchorage at the far end of the Aleutian chain.
The island was first occupied by Aleut Natives as a seasonal hunting destination from the nearby permanent settlements on Attu and Aggatu, was turned into a Russian fur farm in the mid 1700s, and finally a U.S. military outpost in World War II remaining throughout the Cold War and present day.
Shemya Station opened it’s runway in 1943 and at it’s peak in the 1960s had 1500 military personnel occupying the island. It was renamed Earckson Air Station in 1993, just prior to being turned over to a small civilian caretaker staff.
The island is one of the very few emergency landing strips in the North Pacific capable of safely landing a full size civilian jet liner and is maintained, in part, for that very purpose. It has been utilized for emergency landings several times by flights transiting the Pacific and a couple of stricken fishing vessels still line its rocky shores.
While many folks who have spent time on the island would report landing there on Christmas Eve would only be slightly more appealing than crashing into the ocean- in a bad storm, any safe harbor is a good harbor. A Delta spokesman reported that a replacement aircraft arrived on the island midday along with a maintenance crew to repair the out of commission airliner.
For the 194 souls in route to Seattle, a gleaming 10,000′ runway stuck amid the endless black of the North Pacific would have been a most welcome sight and a wonderful early Christmas gift.