Reprinted from the Alaska Airmen’s Association’s Transponder
A lot of attention is given to high-level issues in the national aviation media. Will User Fees be thrust upon us? or Is 100LL an endangered species? The headlines frequently overshadow a lot of good work that is done at the local level, often one airport at a time. AOPA recognized the need for grass-roots efforts at a time when general aviation airports were disappearing at a frightening rate, mostly due to land-use conflicts and economic pressures. Since airports are typically owned by local municipal governments in most of the country, it was clear that early warning of an impending threat was critical to their survival. (Alaska is an exception here, where the state directly operates 254 airports.) To address this need, in 1997 AOPA established the Airport Support Network (ASN) Program.
Volunteers were solicited to be eyes and ears at public-use airports, to sound the alarm if a threat loomed that might harm or close the airport. Presently AOPA has over 2,000 ASN Volunteers nationwide. Over the years the program has progressed from just “sounding the alarm” to a much more proactive set of activities. Alaska has twenty seven ASN Volunteers, who perform a wide range of activities that are supporting our airports. I’ll highlight a few of those individuals, and some of the activities they are engaged in to illustrate how the program works.
Organizing a local airport group Fairbanks International Airport (FAI) is home to over 300 airplanes tied down on the GA side of the airport, and an additional 175 planes at the float pond. In the past, tie down holders didn’t have a good way to provide input to airport management concerning issues at the field. Early in his tenure as the ASN at Fairbanks, Ron Dearborn sat down with other GA stakeholders and, aided with some of AOPA’s materials on organizing an airport group, established the General Aviation Association (GAA) at FAI in 2005. He chaired the group for its first couple years. By attending regular airport meetings and getting to know the airport management and control tower staff, he established the GAA as a positive voice with these stakeholders.
Today, others have taken over the officer positions in the association, freeing Ron to work on special projects and plan future activities. Some of his current projects include serving on the airport’s Master Plan technical committee, and coordinating volunteers to help paint the “practice runway” markings on the Ski Strip. He also helped organize an airport open house that brought approximately 2,000 members of the public to an “aviation day” last spring. Ron is justifiably proud that the group, although not large in size, has today become an organization that the airport seeks out when looking for issues that impact general aviation.
Subtle hint to FAI based pilots: The $10/year dues to belong to this local group is a cheap price to have GA represented on airport issues. That is less than the cost of two gallons of avgas. In addition to current information, you get really good cookies at the association meetings, held several times a year. Please consider joining, to lend your support to this effort!
Protecting Land Use Around Airports In 2009 Nenana’s ASN Volunteer, Adam White, learned that a community group was looking to improve the “wellness and quality of life” for their residents. The project they wanted to undertake was certainly a worthy cause—to expand the size of their community garden from ½ to 10 acres in size. This group, which Adam is a part of, approached the city looking for some land to cultivate. A city official recommended looking at “the area off the end of the runway” as they “couldn’t do anything else with it.” Adam contacted AOPA for help in researching the issue. He eventually located the advisory circular on airport design, defining the different zones around a runway, and AC 150/5200-33B, Hazardous Wildlife Attractants on or Near Airports. Armed with this information, he attended the next community group meeting, and was able to explain why this was not a good use of the land off the end of the runway. Captain Sullenberger, having recently made the dramatic splashdown in the Hudson River after losing his engines due to bird strikes, certainly helped illustrate the potential of this threat. An alternate location was found for the garden spot expansion. Today, the airport safety zone is used to harvest hay, as opposed to incurring the ongoing cost for continued brush mowing.
An aspect of Adam’s work transcended the Nenana airport. One of the community partners in the group was an extension agent who travels around the state setting up similar gardens. Following the meeting, Adam was able to provide the agent with copies of the FAA Advisory Circulars. The agent stated that she would make sure that none of their other projects encroached on village airports. Adam and his family planted and harvested produce from the community garden for a number of years in Nenana, safely away from the approach path he uses at the airport.
Monitoring Merrill Field The busiest GA airport in Alaska, Merrill Field is one of only a couple dozen municipally operated airports in the state. Surrounded by neighborhoods that are sensitive to aircraft noise, and sometimes in the path of road projects wanting to nibble away at airport property, there are many issues to track. Jim Cieplak keeps his Cessna 182 tied down at Merrill, and has served as the ASN Volunteer since 2005.
Along with many local governments looking for increased revenue, the Municipality of Anchorage in 2010 proposed doubling the aircraft registration tax. If successful this action would have applied not just to aircraft at Merrill Field, but to all the aircraft in the municipality. Jim worked with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, EAA, the Municipal Airports Aviation Advisory Commission (MAAAC) and other stakeholders to successfully oppose the tax hike. Upon seeing the benefit of more directly influencing airport decisions, in 2011 Jim applied for and was appointed to a seat on the MAAAC, the body that advises the municipality on rules, regulations and administrative guidelines concerning Merrill Field.
Merrill Field is one of fifteen airports in the nation that was selected for air quality monitoring to quantify the amount of lead that aircraft contribute to the atmosphere. For the past year, a sampler has been filtering the air off the south east corner of Runway 25. Jim was tracking this effort, and when the initial results were distributed at a Commission meeting, he forwarded them to AOPA headquarters to the national team that is working the 100LL avgas issue. The preliminary results show that aircraft on Merrill Field are coming nowhere near reaching the limits defined by the national air quality standard for lead. This helps the national team to keep on top of the situation as they work to protect our access to 100LL, vital to much of the aviation fleet in Alaska.
Jim will continue follow the lead monitoring program, and many other issues at Merrill. He also serves on the Airport Support Network Board of Advisers, providing input to the program at the national level.
More volunteers needed These have been just a few examples of ASN Volunteer activities to protect or improve Alaskan airports. There are many more accomplishments, and plenty of challenges. The program was grown from a defensive “save the airport” stance, to a more proactive, “let’s promote the airport” effort. Instead of waiting for trouble, investing the time to help a community understand the value of its local airport is an important activity we all need to support. AOPA has created tools to help, such as the guide, Holding an Airport Open House. Population pressures that bring development closer to the boundary of an airport are a problem in Alaska. Getting our city, borough and state government to engage in compatible land use planning, to avoid putting schools and residential areas under the runway approach path, is critical to the long term survival of our airports. To address this problem, AOPA has recently published a guide on how to participate in the planning process.
But it starts with one person—woman or man—who will step up and become involved with their local airport. If you are willing to consider helping in this way, look at the ASN website for details on what you can do: www.aopa.org/asn Find out if your airport has already has an ASN. If so, look that person up and offer your assistance. If there is no ASN Volunteer, consider signing up to fill that role, and become engaged in improving your airport. If you need more information, please contact me directly www.aopa.org/region/ak. The airport you save just may be your own!