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).
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.)
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?
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!