Arctic Winter Games: An International Fly-In to Fairbanks

Fairbanks is undergoing an international invasion—of a good sort.  Almost 2,000 athletes ages 13-23, from eight Arctic nation teams (nine, if you include the Alaska kids) have arrived to participate in the Arctic Winter Games 2014.  Think Olympics (on a smaller scale), to compete in games with others from across the circumpolar north.

What caught my attention was how the international participants got to Fairbanks.  Not exactly general aviation—but by a series of charter flights from all over the Arctic.  The aircraft are one or another model of the Boeing 737, with a couple Airbus 320 or 330’s thrown in for good measure.  After studying the planned schedules, I decided to try and figure out where these planes were coming from, so turned to Google Earth, and below is my best approximation of where the flights came from, and roughly how they got to Fairbanks International Airport.

Approximate map of routes bringing almost 2,000 athletes to Fairbanks for Arctic Winter Games 2014

Approximate map of routes bringing almost 2,000 athletes to Fairbanks for Arctic Winter Games 2014

For the past three days, these aircraft have converged on Fairbanks to bring the participants together for a week-long set of games, ranging from snowshoe based biathlon’s, skiing, and dog mushing to indoor events like curling, soccer and traditional native games.  Much more than an athletic event, Arctic Winter Games has brought people across the arctic together since 1970, when the first games were held in Yellowknife. A total of 500 people participated in that event, which included athletes, coaches and supporters.

Fairbanks will see another flurry of air traffic on March 21, when the return migration occurs.  Airplane watchers will have an opportunity to see aircraft with paint jobs seldom seen in these parts (Air Greenland, Flair Air, Air Yamal, etc.) as they arrive to take the AWG participants home.  Hopefully taking with them new insights and inspiration after a week of rubbing shoulders with people from other circumpolar countries!

Customs increases access for GA at Fairbanks

dhs logoCustoms and Border Protection (CBP) is making changes that will increase access into Alaska for general aviation aircraft headed to Fairbanks. In the past, limited staffing has impacted the ability of the port of entry at Fairbanks International Airport to accommodate arrivals at any hour of the night or day, which had been the practice for many years.  Thanks to changes primarily to accommodate the summer tourist industry, GA pilots can expect much more flexible arrival times.

The problem

Whitehorse and Dawson are two popular departure points for flights to Fairbanks. Both require clearing Customs on arrival.

Whitehorse and Dawson are two popular departure points for flights to Fairbanks. Both require clearing Customs on arrival.

A popular GA flight route between Canada or the “lower 48” states and mainland Alaska is to follow the Alaska Highway. The last segment, entering Alaska, can be a challenging experience.  In addition to normal cross-country flight planning, evaluating alternates and checking the weather, one has to arrange to clear Customs.  Typical departure points along the route are Whitehorse (CYXY) or Dawson City (CYDA).  While I personally try to clear customs at Northway (PAOR) to remove the pressure of meeting a pre-determined ETA in Fairbanks (PAFA) or Anchorage (PANC), that isn’t always an option.  Customs is only available during limited hours at Northway, and the airport presently lacks the availability of fuel or facilities (other than the Flight Service Station, open in the summer).  Flying directly to Fairbanks, if you have the range, is often the most viable option.  But don’t forget about Customs.  Until recently, Customs processing at Fairbanks for general aviation aircraft was limited to normal duty hours five days a week–or weekends if you called during the week to make advance arrangements.  These hours sometimes stranded pilots in Whitehorse for the weekend, or longer when weather was a factor.  Fortunately, that has changed, and should get even better.

Customs procedures today
To review, there are two requirements pilots need to meet before flying into the United States.

Step One: File an electronic notification, using the eAPIS system.  This requires internet access, must be filed a minimum of one hour before departure—but could be submitted several days in advance, estimating your arrival and border crossing times. After you file, the system will send you an email acknowledging your submission. SAVE A COPY OF THIS EMAIL.

Step Two: At least two hours prior to your arrival at a Customs Port of Entry, call the port on the phone and advise them of your ETA. This allows Customs to have staff available when you arrive, which helps pilots and passengers avoid lengthy wait times to obtain service.  This call should be made during the hours of operation of the port you plan to utilize.

To find out operational hours and other details for Alaskan ports of entry see: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/toolbox/contacts/ports/ak/.   Until recently, hours of operation at Fairbanks International Airport were Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and if you hadn’t contacted Customs during those hours, a weekend arrival wasn’t in the cards.  With the port getting an additional staff member, they have expanded operational hours to seven days a week. But you still need to call within normal operational hours to arrange for an after-hours arrival.

Presently, Customs asks that we try to arrive at Fairbanks during their normal duty hours, however if weather or other factors interfere, call and they will do their best to accommodate you.  Over the coming months, we should see a further improvement in service.

Why the change?
Holland America recently changed some of their Alaska tour packages.  Instead of busing summer visitors from Dawson City to Fairbanks (enroute to Denali National Park and parts south), they plan to fly their guests to Fairbanks, reducing travel time for that segment of the journey.  To make this change, Whitehorse based airline Air North applied for landing rights at Fairbanks International Airport.  This request was initially denied by CBP, due to its limited staffing at Fairbanks.  Many stakeholders, including aviation organizations, travel industry advocates, the Alaska Governor’s Office and the Alaska Congressional delegation became involved.  Letters, conference calls and other exchanges of information were made to help CBP better understand the request and it’s implications on the state’s economy.  After studying the issue and considering different options, Customs and Border Protection decided to re-assign three customs officers from Anchorage to the Fairbanks operation.  These positions, which have yet to be hired, will not only support the seasonal Holland America traffic, but will be able to better serve general aviation arrivals in Fairbanks.  During the course of these discussions, it was interesting to learn that the port in Fairbanks not only handles airport arrivals, but also clears civilian arrivals at nearby military bases, and handles arrivals by ship at Point Barrow and Kaktovik.

Alaska’s congressional delegation played a key role in working this issue.  AOPA appreciates the efforts of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senator Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young. Their staff in Washington DC facilitated the discussion with CBP, which allowed the Alaska stakeholders to more fully explain the situation.  We also appreciate CBP’s willingness to re-assess the needs for service, and for coming up with a solution that will improve access to Fairbanks, and Alaska, for multiple modes of travel—including general aviation—on a year-around basis.

Aerial photography: a time machine

Cameras and airplanes have been used together for many years.  The vantage point that an airplane provides—the ability to look down from above—is a powerful perspective when it comes to seeing patterns in the landscape.  One simply can’t get this view from standing on the ground.  While exciting to experience in flight, it is even more powerful to capture with a camera and bring this view back to earth.  Now one can examine the landscape in detail, take measurements, create maps and make all kinds of interpretations.  Geologists use them to help prospect for oil. Foresters determine the volume and location of wood resources. Biologists map animal habitat. The list goes on…

A fundamental property of a photograph is time.  The fraction of a second the shutter is open freezes a little slice of time, which turns a photograph into a record of the past from the instant the shutter closes.  So it was with much interest that I recently opened the August 25th edition of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner to discover an oblique aerial photograph taken over my home city (Fairbanks) some 70+ years ago.

A few days later, I was contacted by the Fairbanks metropolitan transportation planning organization, who had also seen the photograph, and wanted to locate a recent image from a similar vantage point for comparison.  A couple weeks later the weather cooperated, and I managed to bring camera and airplane together to orbit over Fairbanks and attempt to replicate the photo from the late 1940’s.  Then the real fun began, in comparing features from the two images.

Viewing 74 years of change

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1393.

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1939. Sources: Fairbanks Daily News Miner, Archive Source: Aerometric.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Fairbanks, Alaska in 1939.  Some research helped put a more precise date on the old aerial.  It was taken on June 17, 1939, and the negative of this image (frame 3224) is still in the archives at Aerometric in Anchorage.  [Coincidentally, this image was taken just a month after AOPA was incorporated. AOPA will be celebrating it’s 75th anniversary next year.]

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two images is the Chena River, which bisects down town Fairbanks. In the 1939 photo it much larger than today.  Even though the old image is black and white, the light tone of the river is because it was filled with water laden with glacial silt. At the time, this stretch of the river was a slough of the much larger Tanana River, whose main channel flows a few miles south of town (see map below).  Modern flood control structures upstream today (hopefully) keep the glacier fed Tanana river water out of the Chena, leaving it a smaller, but clearer river. And making the town to be less susceptible to flooding.

Then sporting a population of something over 3,000 people, Fairbanks has obviously grown with houses and buildings filling in where fields or undisturbed land once prevailed.  Today downtown Fairbanks has a population over 30,000 and the surrounding metro area is just shy of 100,000.  In the background of the 1939 picture, just on the southern edge of town is Weeks Field, the city airstrip.  As with airports at many communities then and now, the town grew up around the airport, eventually forcing it to move.  Today, the stretch of land that was Weeks Field is occupied by Lathrop High School and the Noel Wien Library on one end, extending to Growden Memorial Park, other ball fields, and the Carlson Community Activity Center on the other.

Looking ahead
In the upper right corner of the modern photograph—barely visible—is the northern edge of Fairbanks International Airport.   The map (below) is part of a 1952 USGS topographic map which at that time depicts Weeks Field as well as the newly constructed “Fairbanks Airport” that would grow to become a major transportation hub for Fairbanks and interior Alaska, responsible for over 2,000 jobs and a total economic impact of about $225 M annually to Fairbanks and the State of Alaska.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Comparing these two pictures certainly made me appreciate some of the changes that have taken place over time.  Photographs and images taken from the “aerial perspective” can be powerful tools to study the present and appreciate change through time.  In thinking about the next 75 years, we will need to remain vigilant to ensure that future growth at Fairbanks doesn’t threaten the viability of the airport, which fortunately has a good buffer of land around it today.  I hope someone acquiring an aerial image 75 years from now will be able to report that we were good stewards of our towns and airports for the generations to follow!

Volunteers re-paint practice runway

Last night saw a group of volunteers in action on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.  A dozen people assembled at 6:15 p.m., along with a pick-up with trailer, painting equipment, small Honda generator, a rake and a broom. The mission: to repaint the markings on the gravel runway.  The goal of the project is to improve aviation safety by providing a place to practice precision landings—before heading to the more challenging back-country strips.

Judging from the fact that a lot of the initial marks, painted in early June, had been completely obliterated, I would say the “practice runway” has been getting lots of use.  The volunteer paint crew waited just off the runway for a few minutes so a Champ could do some last minute touch-and-go’s before the NOTAM closing the runway went into effect.

Kathleen Fagre marks the spot for the paint crew to set their template.

Kathleen Fagre marks the spot for the paint crew to set their template.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Alexander admires the template he designed: hinged for storage and transport, with cords on each end making it easy to move without wearing too much paint.

Kevin Alexander admires the template he designed: hinged for storage and transport, with cords on each end making it easy to move without wearing too much paint.

 

 

 

 

 

Stan Halvarson applies paint to the 2' by 4 ' rectangle, while

Stan Halvarson applies paint to the 2′ by 4 ‘ rectangle, while Tim Berg looks on. In the background, Ron Dearborn and Janet Daley move the second template to the next mark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In an hour, two 800' by 24' practice runways (one at each end of the gravel runway) have been re-painted.

In an hour, two 800′ by 24′ practice runways (one at each end of the gravel runway) have been re-painted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since this crew had worked together previously,  painting progressed at a rapid pace. A small team armed with a tape measure, can of marking paint, the rake and broom led the way, to re-establish the locations for marks that were totally gone.  We learned that raking and sweeping the loose gravel away from the area to be painted gets the paint on the hard-pack surface of the strip, which lasts longer than just spray painting loose rocks.

The paint crew has two plywood templates (designed and build by Kevin Alexander, with UAF’s Aviation Program), which they leap-frog down the runway to mark the 800’ long by 25’ wide practice runway.

With a full crew working on the project, we only spent an hour on the runway.  It took a little longer to clean up, but still left time to enjoy some cold beverages and fresh baked goods at the Air Park before heading home, or on to the next evening project.

Other Practice Runways?

FAA has approved six airports in Alaska to paint markings on their ski-strips. So far this summer in addition to Fairbanks, runways at Wasilla (IYS), and Goose Bay (Z40) have been painted and Palmer (PAQ) plans to mark theirs soon. Soldotna (SXQ) markings survived the winter.  If you are within range of one of these airports, go check it out and see how precise your landings are…
[Update Aug 21: Palmer marked their runway last week, Soldotna is planning to repaint soon.]

Who does these projects, anyway??

What does it take to have a dozen people show up on a Monday evening and work for a couple hours? This project is absolutely a partnership between the airport staff and numerous pilot groups.  The airport files the NOTAM to close the runway, provides a safety plan and makes sure that we are putting the marks in the right places. The Fairbanks General Aviation Association (GAA,) a local airport group at FAI, has taken the lead to organize the work parties.  Ron Dearborn, a charter member of the GAA—who also serves as the AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN) Volunteer at FAI, sends an email to local stakeholders, inviting them to participate.  The individuals may belong to any of a number of organizations. At Monday night’s session the following groups were represented: the 99’s, Alaska Airmen’s Association, AOPA, Fairbanks Flight Service, the airport staff and UAF.  Who knows—these folks may find other ways to make improvements that enhance the airport’s value for the users, and to the community.

If your airport has a local airport support group, consider joining.  If it doesn’t, think about starting one (AOPA can help) .  Acting locally is often the best way to head off airport problems before they fester.  See if your airport has an ASN Volunteer.  If not, think about signing up for that program. It is people and groups like these that make it possible to have a practice runway at your airport!

FedEx donates two 727’s to University Aviation Programs in Alaska

The University of Alaska aviation programs at Anchorage and Fairbanks both offer maintenance training, and have airplanes to work on. But nothing like this…  In late February, FedEx donated two fully functional Boeing 727s that are being retired from their fleet – one to each program.  The aircraft will provide the students (our future mechanics) the opportunity to have hands-on training on a fully functional transport category airplane. These aircraft are part of a larger FedEx program that has distributed over sixty aircraft to schools, airports, museums or other organizations across the nation in the past couple years.  But the exciting part had to do with the arrival of the aircraft at the two Alaskan airports.

Merrill Field Arrival
The University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) aviation program is located at Merrill Field, the largest GA airport in Alaska.  It took an exemption from the Municipality of Anchorage to authorize the 727 to land at there, which normally limits aircraft landing weight to 12,500 pounds.  The delivery also had to occur during the winter while the ground was frozen to accommodate the landing weight without damaging the runway.  Quite a crowd was on hand to watch the much-stripped-down aircraft make two practice approaches and then put the wheels down “on the numbers” (see the photo).  Observers indicated that the aircraft was down to taxi speed by the time it reached the control tower which according to Google Earth is about 2,100 feet, using just over half of the 4,000 runway.  (News video of the landing).

Note the touchdown marks of the 727, "on the numbers."  Photo courtesy of UAA

Note the touchdown marks of the 727, “on the numbers.” (Photo courtesy of UAA)

Fairbanks International Airport Arrival
Fairbanks was a different story.  Fairbanks International Airport, where the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) aviation program is located, does it all—from the Russian Antonov An-225 freighter, to a Supercub on floats, the airport has runways that support jumbo jets, corporate, air taxi and general aviation with two paved runways, a gravel runway used by ski planes in the winter and a float pond.  The university recently acquired a hangar on the general aviation side of the airport, which provided the space to be able to accommodate the 727.  While the landing itself was not as exciting, given the 11,000 foot air carrier runway, it was the first time any jet that I am aware of was marshaled into the gate by a polar bear (See photo).  The Nanook is the mascot of UAF. No ordinary bear, this one is also a multi-talented UAF employee named Ted E. Bear, who had the credentials to perform this task. (OK, that is just the name he uses when in character.)

Nanook directing the FedEx 727 into the gate at Fairbanks International Airport. (Photo courtesy of UAF's Todd Paris).

Nanook directing the FedEx 727 into the gate at Fairbanks International Airport. (Photo courtesy of UAF’s Todd Paris).

Two records were set in Fairbanks: It was the first time any jet was marshaled by a polar bear, and the first time a FedEx jet had taxied up to a passenger jet bridge, according to David Sutton, FedEx Managing Director of Aircraft Acquisition.  The aircraft was subsequently towed across the airport, along the ski-strip to its current location on the GA side of the field.  I still do a brief double take when I drive onto the GA side of the airport, and look up to see a FedEx 727 pointed at me!

Benefits to the students
Other than having a big, shiny jet liner parked at the school, how will this help the program? The aircraft will provide hands-on training for the students on systems associated with transport category aircraft.  This is much better than only learning through computer-based training materials, according to UAF program coordinator Kevin Alexander.  Both UAA and UAF’s program have lacked large aircraft experience in the past.  UAA’s maintenance track is headed up by Paul Herrick, who indicated that their graduates have a 100 percent placement.  “They are all over the state and in high demand,” he said.

How did this happen?

Dee Hanson receiving a small token of appreciation from Kevin Alexander at an Alaska Aviation Coordination Council meeting. Signed by the students in the UAF aviation maintenance program.

Dee Hanson receiving a small token of appreciation from Kevin Alexander at an Alaska Aviation Coordination Council meeting. Signed by the students in the UAF aviation maintenance program.

We should realize this didn’t just happen.  The ball started rolling with Nicolas Yale, Senior Manager Northwest Region, FedEx Express, who serves on the UAA Aviation Advisory Board.  Dee Hanson, Executive Director of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, who also serves on the board, spoke up and asked if they didn’t have two aircraft available, so that both UAA and UAF programs could take advantage of this opportunity.  To thank her for her role in this effort, UAF presented Dee with a framed copy of a photo of the FedEx aircraft arriving in Fairbanks signed by the most important stakeholders of all—the students in the aviation technology program.  A big thank you to FedEx, and all the players that made this investment in our students, and the future of aviation!