part of a sequel weekly series on Alaskan history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaskan history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On April 1, 1987, an article entitled “Jetliner Collides with Fish” made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. The story itself was straightforward. Like hundreds of times before, pilots Bill Morin and Bill Johnson took off from Juneau in an Alaska Airlines 737-200. Through the windows they spotted an eagle crossing in front of the plane. As the eagle made a cautious turn, he dropped a fish he was holding. The pilots watched as the fish plummeted through the air straight toward them until it struck a small window above the cockpit, a mid-air collision between the fish and airliner.
Someone at the Daily News appreciated the humor of it all. Alongside the article was a photo of the West High Eagle mural, composed as if the bird were attacking students. The next day, Peter Dunlap-Shohl, longtime and legendary Daily News cartoonist, began with a Far Side-esque cartoon “When Eagles Go Bad.”
Airplanes in Alaska have struck more species than meets the eye. Bird strikes are obviously the most common type of wildlife strike and the one that poses the most consistent threat to flights. As of July 27 this year, there have been 18 apparent bird strikes in Alaska, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wildlife Strike Database. In collisions between larger aircraft and smaller birds, pilots are sometimes unaware that a strike has occurred, and the only evidence is often carcasses found on airport premises.
Bird strike records in Alaska read like a bird watcher’s checklist, from ravens to owls and pipits to killdeer. When such information is available, the FAA database is specific. If anyone wants to search for documented incidents of sulphur-crested warblers in America, they can. Similarly, the database also includes two confirmed bat outbreaks in Alaska over the past 21 years, both in Juneau, in 2002 and 2011.
Aside from birds, planes in Alaska have also crashed into 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 when mechanics pulled porcupine quills from the wheels of a jet at Ted Stevens International Airport in 2013. There have been no documented cases of cat strikes, whether by a wild lynx or a domestic cat, in the last 21 years. Make what you want out of it.
Although not hit by an airplane, a bearded seal delayed a departing and arriving flight at Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiaġvik in 2017. The FAA report notes that the seal was “loitering about halfway down the runway.” Because it was a marine mammal, flights had to wait until the relevant authorities could be brought in to move the unruly seal.
[In Utqiaġvik, ‘low sealings’ bring a unique runway hazard]
The most notorious wildlife attack in Alaska in recent years was an Alaska Airlines 737-300 that struck a brown bear on landing in Yakutat in 2020. A sow and her young lay in the middle of the runway. The blow killed the mother, but the cub was unharmed. No one was injured on board either, although it took a few days to repair the plane itself.
However, there was only one fish strike in recorded history. The collision between the Juneau fish and the Alaska Airlines jet took place on March 30, 1987. A visibly amused Juneau airport manager, Paul Bowers, told the Associated Press: “The law of the jungle has 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 carefully checked the plane at the next stop in Yakutat. There was no damage and only minimal evidence of the fish’s final moments. According to the quotable Bowers again, “They found a smudge with some scales but no damage.”
The details of the story have occasionally prompted understandable skepticism. News of the incident broke on April 1st, meaning the colorful anecdote made the front pages of April 1st newspapers. A sane person might be suspicious of an unlikely – if possible – story that just happened to come out that day. To be perfectly clear, an eagle did throw a fish in the flight path of a flying Alaska Airlines plane.
The story has been stretched a bit when it comes to the fish species involved. When I first heard the story, I was told with absolute certainty that it was a salmon. Pilot Morin estimated the fish was about 12 to 18 inches long and may have been a Dolly Varden, appropriate for the time of year. Jerry Kvasnikoff, Alaska Airlines customer service manager, said: “If I had to guess, it could have been a cod at this time of year. You never know what an eagle is getting into.” Since the pilots, the only eyewitnesses, are unsure, we’ll never know.
Alaskans have been prone to wild stories throughout Alaskan history. Sometimes, however, the stories are true and reflect the wide range of possible experiences here. Sometimes an Alaskan actually drives through the doors of a pool hall to win a bet, like Joe Spenard did in early Anchorage. Sometimes an Alaskan actually fakes a volcanic eruption, like Oliver “Porky” Bickar did in Sitka in 1974. And sometimes a plane collides with a fish in midair.
Federal Aviation Administration, FAA Wildlife Strike Database.
Halpin, James. “Unwelcome Mat.” Anchorage Daily News, May 25, 2009, A-1, A-14.
“Jetliner collides with fish.” Anchorage Daily News, April 1, 1987, A-1, A-16.
Lindsey, Marianne. “Throwback Thursday: Windshield Sushi – Alaska Airlines jet really hit a fish in mid-air.” Alaska Airlines, February 5, 2015.
Williams, Tess. “Jetliner Meets Bear on Southeast Alaska Runway.” Anchorage Daily News, November 15, 2020.