PNA Connie Tales: Pacific Northern Airlines and the Lockheed Constellation

By Timothy Smith, Originally posted in 1999, latest revision in 2020

PNA “Connie” Tales

Part of the “How to Get to Kodiak” series of articles

(One of the first five articles posted in 1999!)

Top: the original PNA logo from a baggage sticker, and artwork from a PNA post card, bot from the early 1950’s. Bottom: a “Connie” in a later paint scheme from an airline photo collector on eBay, and the last PNA logo, from the late 1950’s until its demise.

Pacific Northern Airlines and the Lockheed Constellation

This article was first posted in 1999, when began. Much of the text is the same, but I have greatly expanded the photos and included airline memorabilia where available. The article, “Runways to Remember 1” from 2011 has even more photos and memorabilia, commemorating the old NHB designation for the main Kodiak airport.

Pacific Northern Airlines had been serving Alaska since the 1930’s when they began using Lockheed Constellations in the mid-1950’s.  I flew on those old “Connies” multiple times from the late 1950’s until they were discontinued and the airline was absorbed into Western Airlines in the late 1960’s, and that timeframe is the subject of this story. Many thanks to the pilots and ground crew of Pacific Northern Airlines who contacted me and contributed anecdotes to this article.

The original text relates a simulated Connie flight, as well as stories from former PNA employees, interspersed with photos and memorabilia.  –Timothy Smith, 2/2020

Above: A photo from the Chaffin and Ameigh book Alaska’s Kodiak Island, published in 1962, shows a lovely Constellation with Barometer Mountain in the background at NHB (“Nice Hungry Bears”) in Kodiak. Used with permission of the Chaffin Estate.

Below: a poem I wrote shortly after my very last flight on a Connie, in May of 1967.


Connie’s the queen of old Flight Sixteen,

Though we fear this is oft a misnomer,

For whenever we spy a cloud in the sky,

Where is she? —She’s “Holding in Homer!”

From wing tip to tip, this beautiful ship

In design is most clean and pure.

We give it the gun and rise toward the sun.

Will we make it? We’re never quite sure!

With billows of smoke the silence is broke

As the plane begins to vibrate.

As the props blast a gale

Thru the tri-ruddered tail,

And we’re only a half-a-day late!

—T. L. Smith, 1967

Introduction:  Miles of Water!

When you live on an island separated by miles of water from the nearest mainland port, and when the water that surrounds your home can be some of the roughest in the world, you develop a hearty appreciation for long-range aircraft. As anyone who traveled the fifteen hundred miles between Seattle and Kodiak on a steamer could testify, a few hours in a rickety plane is far preferable to a week or so of heaving and being heaved through every wave on the Gulf of Alaska. In the postwar years, technology and increasing demand met to provide Kodiak with regular direct flights from Anchorage and Seattle. A new and relatively painless alternative to arduous sea travel was made possible by the utilization of the long runways constructed during the war on the Kodiak Naval Base. Soon, airlines sprang up to serve the needs of Alaska’s booming economy, and Kodiak began to receive regular, scheduled direct flights from Seattle. Kodiak moved about a million miles closer to the rest of the planet. (Continued below…)

A Constellation graphic and a PNA route map from the late 1950’s.  

The cities listed (roughly south to north) are Portland, Seattle, Annette, Ketchican, Juneau, Kodiak, Yakutat, Cordova, King Salmon, Illiamna, Homer, Kenai, and Anchorage.  In the heyday of Kodiak Island salmon canneries, there were direct flights from Seattle spring through fall.

The “Connie”  – Here and Gone

By the late 1950’s (when I first experienced airline flight) the Lockheed Constellation was the mainstay of a remarkable company known as Pacific Northern Airlines. The “Connie” and PNA were Kodiak’s bridge to Outside — the “Lower 48.” The memorable aircraft were an essential  element of the culture of Alaska from the early 1950’s until the late 60’s. By then business decisions merged PNA with Western Airlines. Pacific Northern Airlines, “The Alaska Flag Line”, was absorbed into Western Airlines, “The Only Way to Fly.” Local wags, who had affectionately christened PNA as “Practically No Airline” and (due to Kodiak’s notorious weather) “Practically Never Arrives,” were left with “Worster Nowlines.” These jokes hid a deep affection for PNA which continues to this day, and former employees still refer to the firm as being more like a family than an employer. Western Airlines swiftly replaced the venerable “Connies” with Lockheed Electra turboprops, which had their own fan club among some pilots and fliers. Pilots said it handled almost like a fighter, reports Phil Smith, Jr., who adds that pilots called it “the last fun airliner.” Alas, Electras did not remain on the scene long enough to enter local lore like the “Connies” had done.  After a few months, the Electras were phased out, replaced by Boeing 720-B’s and other jet-age marvels. The “only way to fly” ad line became a cruel joke as Western Airlines dropped the Seattle to Kodiak run en route to its absorption by Delta. (Continued below…)

Right: Two of the last PNA brochures, featuring Boeing jets, both from the mid-1960’s.

Below: A Lockheed “Electra” parked at the Kodiak terminal in 1969.

The plane never grabbed my imagination like the old “Connies” did, but was by all accounts a remarkable craft, remaining in military service for decades as the P3 Orion sub chaser. It was soon replaced by 720-B’s and other jets, none of whom had the charm of those old Constellations.

Loyd “Woody” Woodward, Former PNA Pilot, Remembers:

The Connie was one of the safest aircraft to ever fly over Alaskan airspace. In all the years Pacific Northern Airlines flew them across Alaska, no fatal crashes occurred due to mechanical or structural failure, and the one fatal crash on Mount Gilbert was later thought to be caused by navigational error in bad weather. The Connie was deserving of its legendary status; both documented and apocryphal tales of its awesome resilience abounded. Loyd “Woody” Woodward, a retired PNA and Western Airlines pilot from Seattle, served graciously as technical consultant to this article. He stated, “the Connies always took care of me. We had a mechanic on duty in Kodiak and Juneau, but depended on the reliability of the old Connie at the smaller stops along the route (King Salmon, Homer, Cordova, etc.).”

Right: “Woody” Woodward, former PNA Constellation pilot, among his World War II memorabilia in this 1992 photo.  

Mr. Woodward contributed stories and memorabilia, and served as fact-checker for this article.

“Woody” Woodward’s  Story Continues

Woody Woodward began his commercial airline career after World War II. He was a PNA pilot, flying mostly the DC-3 and DC-4, when PNA purchased its first three L-649 Constellations  from another airline. He notes, “Flying the Connie was a real step forward. We were introduced to pressurized cabins, reversing propellers and 250 mph cruising speeds (with a tailwind). Those reversing props were really a godsend on icy winter runways!” He shared two incidents that might be of interest to fans of the old plane and PNA.

Mr. Woodward described one unfortunate incident aboard a PNA Connie: “In the late winter of 1960 we were flying a night trip from Anchorage to Seattle. We had reached our cruising altitude of 21,000 feet and were reporting over our checkpoint at Middleton Island when a slightly agitated stewardess reported a possible tragedy in the making at the rear of the plane. A passenger had shot himself while in the men’s lavatory. I directed the co-pilot to radio for (emergency) clearance to return to Anchorage, and reluctantly proceeded to the scene of the shooting, dreading the anticipated outcome. The suicidal passenger was lying on his side between the men’s (lavatory) and the passenger cabin.

As I was taking his pulse, and trying to look very professional, he handed me a suicide note and mumbled an apology for disrupting the flight! Guess the Good Lord was looking out for our sick passenger. The chief Flight Surgeon for the (Elmendorf) Air Force base at Anchorage was on board and he had his medical bag with him. I returned to the cockpit and spent the next thirty minutes of the flight back to Anchorage relaying messages between the Flight Surgeon and medical personnel on the ground. This story did have a happy ending. The medics had the patient in the operating room for twelve hours. He spent the next six weeks recuperating and, believe it or not, flew south to Seattle on a PNA Connie a few days after he got out of the hospital!”

The changes in airline regulations (indeed, the whole aviation industry) have been drastic since the Connie graced Alaskan airspace. Woody notes that “In those days there were no restrictions as to carrying firearms on board an aircraft. During hunting season we often had enough weapons on board to outfit a small army. Times do change!” In reality the above shooting incident was more serious than his narrative would indicate. The suicidal passenger had used a .357 magnum pistol with deadly firepower, but had only loaded it with .38 wad cutter loads. When the bullet exited the victim’s body, it had lost enough velocity that it didn’t penetrate the skin of the aircraft, where it might have caused a sudden loss of cabin pressure, precipitating an even worse tragedy. Or maybe the old Connie was too tough to shoot? (Continued below…)

A memo and a letter from the Woodward collection document the story he relates below.

Mr. Woodward Relates the Story from the Above Letters

On another flight, in 1967, at the twilight of the Connie’s illustrious career in Alaska, Woody Woodward was in command of Flight 16, Anchorage to Kodiak. As they passed over Ushagat Island, he spotted four fires (in that rain-soaked region, such an event means only one thing: they were signal fires indicating distress). He contacted the Coast Guard, who sent out a Search and Rescue aircraft to investigate. As it happened, two fishermen had set the fires after their vessel had run aground and swamped in a storm two days earlier. The men had set the fires as a desperate effort to attract attention after all attempts at radio communication failed. Mr. Woodward’s effort may have saved some lives. As Coast Guard Rear Admiral F. V. Helmer noted, “The distress calls of the stricken fishermen had not been heard by anyone. The pilot’s alertness and promptness in reporting this sighting made it possible to effect the rescue of these men while they were still in a good state of health and able to survive their ordeal.” Or maybe the old Connie thought it was an angel?

The original 1999 version of this article began with a graphic asking for people to share their stories. This new logo features a 1966 photo that my Dad took as a “Connie” took off from Anchorage, and a shot taken through the tiny restroom porthole of a “Connie,” taken by bush pilot Steve Harvey. To share your “Connie” tales, please email me at

Recollections of Other PNA Employees and Passengers

Norm Israelson

In the twenty-plus years since this article first appeared on, I have heard from many others regarding their experiences with PNA and the “Connie.”  Many also sent me photos, and this section includes a few of them. I can’t say I am surprised that the contributors remember the Lockheed Constellation as fondly as I do. History has shown Pacific Northern Airlines to have been a (usually) well-run outfit with a family atmosphere. However, given the challenges of staffing remote locations, some amusing stories have come to light.  

Norm Israelson, of Anchorage, wrote me with several interesting stories, and I have included two of them here. His way of storytelling prevents me from attempting any editing.  I just couldn’t improve on them. Here he shares one incident from his first day as ground crew in Yakutat:

My first day on the job at Pacific Northern Airlines at Yakutat, Alaska I received my briefing on do's and don’ts.  The staff consisted of the station manager and me and a part time ramper (if he showed up sober).  All three of us had to unload and load the L749 Connie and its “speed pak.”  My briefing was “Don't walk into the props, and if you hear the teletype dinging, its important, bring the message to me right away!”  I brought a farm wagon of baggage and freight into the terminal and was returning to the aircraft when I heard the teletype “dinging.”  I was really upset at the message on the printer and took it right to the manager who was busy unloading the speed pak.  He looked at it and crumbled it up and tossed it.  I couldn't believe he could be so callous and had about made up my mind to seek other employment.  The message read:


To old hands that meant: “PNA flight 720 reservations are closed on arrival at Juneau, plan scheduled arrival at Seattle.” To me with one day experience under my belt it said:  “PNA flight 720 crashed on arrival in Juneau and plane skidded into the sea.” Fortunately, the manager caught me after the flight and explained some codes and other airline lingo, so I stayed another 28 years!

The “speed pak” described above is the boat-like appendage hanging below this “Connie.” Constellations equipped with speed paks could greatly increase their freight capacity, which was useful for remote locations with few scheduled flights. (photographer unknown)

Above: Two Norm Israelson photos. Top: a rare color photo of a “Connie” on approach with wheels down, and below: a “Connie” on the snowy tarmac at Kenai airport.

Another incident related by Norm Israelson involved training (or lack thereof) of the ground crew, this time at Kenai. Once again, I found it unnecessary to edit or condense:

While working at Kenai for PNA it was a constant ordeal keeping ramp employees at the lousy wages we paid.  Consequently,  we didn't waste a whole lot of time on non essential training.  I recall one such employee,  his first name was Milton but I forget his last.  He said he was from Iowa and he was in Alaska to make his fortune.  It was one of those days where no one showed up and it was just him and I on the ramp.  Things went sort of OK until it became time to start up the L749 Connie.  I told him to stand by the nose wheel and in, sequence, do the following as I hand signaled him:  1.  Shut down the GPU (Ground Power Unit) 2.  Pull the nose wheel chocks.  3:  Unplug the power cord to the aircraft and coil it on the GPU cart. 4.  Get on the tug and pull the GPU clear of aircraft.  5. Remove the main gear wheel chocks.  6.  Stand by for further signals from me.

The Connie was a pretty intimidating monster at that close range, and as the first engine started I could see the blood drain from Milton’s face.  He cringed as the other three engines started and stood there staring at the huge Pratt & Whitney radials roaring in his face.  I think before that day he had never been around a bigger machine than a John Deere farm tractor.  When I got the all clear from the cockpit, I signaled Milton to pull the chocks. He turned around several times, forgot all I had told him,  jumped on the tug and pulled the still running,  still plugged in GPU away.  There was a huge flash of voltage as the cord tore loose, and a bunch of “What the hells going on?” from the cockpit.  

By then Milton was nowhere in sight.  I checked for damage,  found nothing serious, and told the cockpit to standby.  I pulled the nose wheel chocks,  ran around and removed the main gear chocks,  ran back to the nose gear and head phones,  unplugged them and signaled the flight out.  I then went looking for Milton with fire in my eye.  By the cargo shed I found the tug and Ground Power Unit.  They were both still running, and the aircraft cord was strung out behind them.  Milton was nowhere to be found.  He never did come back, even to collect his pay, but I am pretty sure he headed straight back to Iowa, and not by air either I’ll bet!

James Flood

James Flood of Anchorage relates some of the challenges of keeping the by then well-used Constellations flying :

Two incidents come to mind, both minor but interesting, one was on takeoff from Cordova. We had a false fire warning light on one of the engines that delayed us a few hours while it was fixed and the other was out of Cordova about halfway to Anchorage I had a window seat on the right side forward near the #3 engine (inboard starboard side). It was leaking oil, and I was watching oil ripple out of the nacelle and run back down the wing. I figured that was not good.  Pretty soon the engine was shut down and the prop was feathered, and we flew on to Anchorage.  All the fire trucks were out and positioned along side the runway, in case we crashed I guess.  

The pilot made a routine landing, and we left the aircraft on those rickety mobile air stairs that were used in those days. Interesting side to that story was that  PNA put us up at the Hilton for the evening, as I had missed the connection on to Homer. On the flight, I had befriended a young lady who was on her way to Homer as well.  The desk clerk at the Hilton asked if we wanted a king size bed or queen, because he thought we were married.  (However) she quickly pointed out that we were not married!  

Axel Anaruk

Axel Anaruk of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, remembers the advent of jet travel and the passing of the Constellations:

I remember as a boy flying Connies between SEA and ANC a couple of times,  and then recall the disappointment of having to fly jets after PNA first acquired the 720B models.  As a high school graduate in 1967, my dream graduation present was a round trip flight to Anchorage on a Connie in PNA colors before they were fully retired.  I got that wish, and recall the flight to this day. 

Somewhere around here, I still have a coated spark plug (can't recall what they were really called, but spark plug is the right idea) from one of the old “Connies,” that my Dad brought home for me after the final “Connie” was retired.

Below: My own experience was not quite as dramatic as Axel’s graduation gift, but I was also able to fly to Seattle on a Constellation in the summer of 1967 The little poem at the beginning of this article was my affectionate response to the passing of those venerable, memorable aircraft. Luckily, I stuffed my copy of the ticket in a box, which I uncovered almost 40 years later. After my Dad passed away, I discovered a canceled check covering my first flight on a Connie in 1957. So the the montages below document my first and last last “Connie” flight. The color photo source is unknown.

Right: my Dad’s shot of the last “Connie” flight we ever took, plus a scan of that last ticket, dated May, 1967.  

Round trip between  Kodiak (NHB, now ADQ) and SEA (“Sea-Tac” airport near Seattle) cost $186.50, which in modern inflated dollars is considerably more expensive than the deals and sales that can be scrounged up on the Internet these days.  Barely visible is the notification that each passenger was allowed 66 lb. of  luggage.  Today they charge for one suitcase, and limit it to 50 lb. In 1967, I was too old to get the children’s rate, and my parents flew on the “clergy discount” that PNA offered, so I was the most expensive passenger in our family!  N88524 was scrapped in 1973.

Left: The canceled check documents the Smith family’s (NHB to SEA) flight from Larsen Bay on the south end of Kodiak Island to Mount Vernon Washington. The photo (source unknown) shows a “Connie” in the 1950’s paint scheme on the wet tarmac at SEA-TAC.

We spent the winter of 1957-58 “Outside” before moving to the village of Ouzinkie on the north end of the Kodiak archipelago.  It was my first flight out of state, and many of the memories in the flight re-creation at the end of this article are from that journey.

Charlie Feuchter

Like Axel Anaruk, I found myself deeply affected by the passing of the venerable “Connies”. But Charlie Feuchter, a commercial airlines pilot, relates that a “Connie” flight actually changed his life:

My father, originally a Chicago & Southern mechanic, went to Delta C&S in their merger.  The “Connies” which C&S brought to the merger were sold to PNA. I had the great pleasure of flying to Juneau on a delivery flight from Atlanta with my mother and sister to visit with my Dad, who had flown up on the original delivery to teach ground school to PNA mechanics.  That started my love affair with aviation, which led to a pilot career with Braniff, Modern Air, and Piedmont/USAir. 

I certainly can’t match Charlie’s life story, although my youthful experiences with the Grumman Goose, Lockheed Constellation, and a certain boat called the Evangel prompted me years later to start this web site and become a “web author.”

In spite of fascinating stories such as these, the era of PNA and the “Connies” was one of those times that do not seem all that memorable or remarkable until they have passed. When the Lockheed Constellations faded into history, much of the charm and personality of air travel in and out of Alaska went with them. The journey was a story in itself, unlike the frequently faceless sameness of today’s air travel. When a person embarked on a flight from Stateside to Kodiak in the 1950’s, there was still a distinct sense that you were going from the known to the unknown, from the citified and predictable to the wild and untamed. When the city lights of Seattle and Victoria passed from view, you might as well have been going to the moon. For those born and raised in Alaska, however, a “Connie” flight meant either a trip Outside (like Dorothy stepping into Oz) or a comforting flight back to the familiar surroundings of home. In either case, the plane flight could be as memorable an adventure as whatever awaited you when you landed.  My combined memories of Connie flights are recounted below the photo.

Right: Passengers boarding a “Connie” in Kodiak, 1962.

The author is the medium-sized kid with back to the camera, next to his older sister.  N6017C was last seen (with Western Airlines paint job) in the hands of a private airline in Las Vegas, Nevada in the early 1970’s, and is listed as “scrapped” on an aviation data web site.   

A Flight from Kodiak to Seattle in the 1950’s

To bring this article to a close, I will recreate as accurately as I can the experiences of a small boy on a Pacific Northern Airlines Constellation. Come along on a typical PNA flight from Kodiak to Seattle in the late 1950’s and we’ll see if we can catch some of the elusive ambiance, across the years and miles. As we board the Constellation, up long, shaky aluminum steps bolted to the bed of a pickup truck, the unmistakable smell of stale cigarette smoke, vague engine fumes and pungent germicide spray greets our noses. It reeks, but it beats the stench of the Greyhound that you once took to Portland.

We take our seats on faded, saggy upholstery, which still sports the TWA logo of the plane’s previous owner. We hope that PNA has saved that money and invested it in good mechanics. After we belt ourselves in, adjusting the knuckle-pinching aircraft-style lap harnesses which are thick enough to tow a station wagon, we attempt to look out the windows. We notice that the cracked, yellowing Plexiglas portholes usually, but not always, line up with the rows of seats. Our porthole lines up nicely with the right wing, just behind the engines. We can forget about having a quiet flight.

The Connie taxis away from the terminal and turns toward the end of the runway, at the foot of Barometer Mountain. Then, with its elegant triune tail practically across the base road, the captain revs up all four engines to fifty percent of max power, for a routine but unnerving magneto check. Besides, it’s always better to catch a problem before committing 107,000 pounds of gross weight to the sky. It is as though the Connie is a huge songbird that has to go through its scales a couple of times before taking flight.

From the passengers’ perspective, we have all noise and no go, and everything shudders. The actual takeoff is smoother by far, with the exception of the massive thrust that shoves everyone back into their seat cushions. In the words of one former “Connie” mechanic, they take off like a “scared rat.” Snow-capped mountains and the shimmering waters of Old Woman’s Bay streak by, and the magnificent machine is on its way!

As the sleek, humpbacked fuselage and distinctive three-pronged tail of the Constellation strain toward the sky, you notice the wide, straight wings with rounded tips which bounce and jiggle, and continue to behave like a well-used diving board throughout the flight. The landing gear whines back into its place with a resounding but reassuring CLUNK. As the plane strains toward cruising altitude, the intercom cracks to life and pleasantries are exchanged about this island or that mountain, and three dozen cigarettes light up at once. The “Fasten Seat Belt” sign goes out. The pressurization system strains through all the cigarette smoke, and one soon notices that 21,000 feet is not nearly high enough to avoid the turbulence of the storms below.  (Continued below…)

It is finally dinnertime. We retrieve our heavy, solid tray tables from the pouch in front of us and struggle briefly to get the sharp prongs to line up with the small holes in the armrest. Thus prepared, we wait while the stewardesses (yes, that’s the operative word in the 1950’s) clatter and crash around for awhile in the constantly rattling closet of a galley. At last, trays with misshapen covered plates and metal silverware wrapped in genuine PNA linen napkins are laid before us, and although our nostrils can’t identify the aroma, we dig in; travel invariably makes one hungry.

Uncovering one of the plates reveals lettuce salad with cherry tomatoes and annoyingly orange French dressing. The larger lid hides a mysterious, meatlike creation smothered in viscous brown gravy. “Salisbury steak,” someone remarks, optimistically. A super hard dinner roll comes deluxe with a pat of real Washington Darigold butter. A final container reveals a too-dry spice cake with translucent white frosting, partly melted by the steam from the successfully heated entree. Airline cuisine is an inexact science, but considerably more advanced than what many of the weary fishermen on board have endured for months.

The rattle of silverware and trays and the smell of cool, wet, lemony Handi-Wipes indicates that the meal is over. A patch of turbulence and the fact that each magazine in the front rack has been read cover to cover prompts us to look out the window at the bobbing wings. We begin to analyze the engine sounds nervously as the sunset fades below. The distinctive pop-pop-pop sound of the propeller gears superimposes itself upon the throaty roar of four aging radial engines. But it is not until night falls outside that the real show begins, for at night the engines spew blue fire from ported exhausts, interspersed by frequent, random yellow-orange flames. Passengers unfamiliar with this phenomenon are glued to the portholes, hypnotized with intense curiosity, like the famous episode of the Twilight Zone.

Five and a half hours being what they are, the time comes when I must go and visit the lavatory. Sitting in the cramped, dimly-lit closet in the tail, one becomes acutely aware of every air molecule outside, for the tail section, like some sainted grandmother crossing herself, pitches and yaws up and down, side to side even in the calmest weather. The tail and wings continue their motion for the entire flight, like some patient mallard migrating south for the winter. On the trip back to our seats we resemble tightrope walkers in an earthquake, invariably grabbing the backs of the seats to regain our balance. Safely back in our seats we begin to suspect that our “Connie” is actually alive, and that the random pops and heaves are the respiration and digestion processes of some massive aerial beast.

As the plane circles above the bright lights of Seattle, we dismiss all such nonsense, settling snugly in our seats while the loud thud of the extending landing gear reminds us that we will soon be on land again. After the plane wearily groans to a stop, our carry-ons are collected and we are back on the solid runway asphalt, we stifle a desire to wave good bye to the old bird, and half suspect that it just might wave back. The roar of the engines and the bob and weave of the floorboards will linger in our senses for days. The subtle memories of our journeying will last a lifetime. — Timothy Smith

Original text written in 1999, stories and photos from PNA employees added in 2011, latest rebuild February, 2020

Above: A Lockheed Constellation with Pacific Northern Airlines markings flies over Seattle in the mid-1950’s. (Official PNA photo, courtesy of the Groh Gallery, Mansfield, TX. )

Thousands of people got to Alaska via PNA “Connies” that departed from Seattle between the years of 1955 and 1967. Our family made four round trips, NHB — SEA.

For more on Kodiak aviation, including much more information on the Goose and Widgeon, and many more historic photos, please follow the links  in the photos below.

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