When a Medevac Plane Couldn’t Land Because the Runway Lights Were Out an Entire Village Used Their Headlights to Help it Touch Down Safely

Updated: Jun. 07, 2021

“Any time a plane flies over that late, you know something is wrong.”

 Igiugig Village airportCourtesy Sandra Alvarez with the Igiugig Tribal Village Council
This landing strip was pitch-black when a medevac pilot tried to land at night.

Ida Nelson was luxuriating in her sister’s sauna when she heard the rumble of a small airplane circling the nearby airport.

It was 11:30 at night in the Alaskan village of Igiugig, population 70, and, as she told the New York Times, “Any time a plane flies over that late, you know something is wrong.”

Nelson and her sister leaped out of the sauna, ran to the window, and saw the problem: The airport’s runway lights were out.

Nelson threw on some clothes, jumped into her ATV, and floored it to the airport, where she found a local pilot trying to turn on the lights manually.

“Normally, if you push the button 10 or 15 times, the lights will just light up,” Nelson told KTOO out of Juneau. Not this time. Meanwhile, she and the pilot learned of the plane’s urgent mission: It was a medevac, there to transport a seriously ill local girl to the nearest hospital, 280 miles away in Anchorage.

Igiugig Village airportCourtesy Ida Nelson
Igiugig Village airport lit up by locals who came to the rescue.

Nelson had a plan. Driving her ATV to the end of the runway, she shone her headlights on the tarmac for the plane to follow. Great idea, but it wasn’t enough. More light was needed, so a neighbor called nearly every home in the village—32 of them.

Within 20 minutes, 20 vehicles arrived at the airport, many of the drivers still in pajamas. Following directions from the medevac pilot, the cars lined up on one side of the runway.

The medevac made its final approach and, guided by the headlights, landed safely. The young patient was loaded onto the aircraft, and the plane immediately took off again. Her illness was never publicly revealed, but she has since been released from the hospital.

In a world filled with uncertainty, the little community’s positive activism was a big deal. Not so much for Nelson. As she told CNN, in Igiugig, coming together “is kind of a normal deal.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest