Earlier this spring, Alaska pilots were invited to take part in a survey regarding backcountry airstrips. I am pleased to report that 245 of you took the time to respond – thank you to those of you that responded. This information helps provide some measure of the importance of these airstrips to Alaska’s transportation system. The people who participated also shed some light on their concerns regarding these assets, and many reported that they are willing to help maintain them. Before digging into the survey results, let’s define what a backcountry airstrip is and what it isn’t.

What is a backcountry airstrip?
Conventional public airports are typically developed with FAA funding, and operated either by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF), a municipal government or the military. Alaska also has quite a few airparks and private use airports, developed and owned privately.  However, there is another type of aviation infrastructure that is important to many Alaskans. These are often just a runway, with no other facilities, defined as backcountry airstrips or landing areas, rather than airports. These may or may not be charted, or listed in the Alaska Supplement, but they were developed for use by aircraft, and represent an important component of our aviation transportation system.

Tolovana Hot Springs: A landing strip that has been improved for aircraft operations, and would be considered a backcountry airstrip for purposes of this survey.

To go one step further, we need to distinguish between backcountry airstrips and off-field operations that use landing areas that are not recognized as airstrips. Beyond the established backcountry airstrips, people often land on gravel bars, ridge tops, tundra benches or other locations which are not otherwise improved or modified specifically for purposes of landing or take off.  This survey did not cover true off-field operations.

A spike camp on a gravel bar on the North Slope. This would be considered an off-field landing location and NOT a backcountry airstrip.

Backcountry airstrips may be the destination themselves, especially in cases where people have cabins or camps nearby. In other cases, the backcountry airstrip is the gateway to off-field operations, and serves as a staging area, or an emergency refuge when weather moves in.

Backcountry working group
In 2006, the Governor’s Aviation Advisory Board passed a resolution that called attention to the value of backcountry airstrips, and called for DOT&PF to take action to recognize and protect this component of our aviation infrastructure. Late in 2014, as part of the FAA-funded Alaska Aviation System Plan, the department established a working group to explore this subject. The group created a definition for backcountry airstrips and conducted this survey. Other planned activities include creating a partial inventory of backcountry airstrips, and identifying potential future strategies to preserve and maintain them. Look for more on these topics in the future, but for now, back to the survey.

Survey Results
A survey was conducted online and by hard-copy from early April to mid-May 2017, and was publicized by DOT&PF, AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF), and Alaska Air Carriers Association. Here are some of the results:

  • Of the 245 pilots responding, 91 percent said they used backcountry airstrips in Alaska.
  • The frequency of use was very evenly distributed among those that used them just a few times per year, on a seasonal basis, or regularly year-round.
  • When asked about concerns regarding backcountry airstrips, the leading issue was loss or closure (42%), followed by physical condition, maintenance and safety issues (35%).

Just over half of the respondents said that the airstrips they generally visit are in need of repairs or maintenance. Some of the comments included “Growth of brush and trees that hinder approaches and ground taxi operations” and “Lack of maintenance. Overgrown approach and departure.”  I was most encouraged to see that almost 80% of these pilots said they would be willing to volunteer to help maintain these facilities. One respondent summarized this issue as follows, “Backcountry airstrips are some of our only access point[s] in a state that sports a vast amount of land with no roads.”

Recreation, emergency use, hunting and general access were the most frequently cited uses of backcountry airstrips in this survey.

Word of mouth from other pilots was the most frequent method of collecting information on backcountry airstrips.

Where do we go from here?
There is clearly more to do regarding identifying, preserving and maintaining backcountry airstrips.  On June 3rd, RAF Alaska State Liaison Al Clayton organized a work party at Jake’s Bar, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Nine volunteers flew from Clayton’s airstrip near McCarthy to the 1,000 foot airstrip along the Chitina River and trimmed or removed trees along the airstrip. This work was coordinated with the National Park Service in advance–working with the land-owners on efforts like this is one of the ways we can continue to protect and maintain these valuable facilities. Kudos to the RAF for undertaking this effort. I invite you to check them out and see how you can become involved http://theraf.org/.

Stay tuned for more on this topic in the months and years ahead as we promote and support pilots’ access to backcountry Alaska.

Note: This article was originally published in the July-September Issue #105 of The Transponder, the Alaska Airmens Association’s newsletter.