If you fly into Gold King (PAAN), look for the new windsock on the north east corner of the field. The old windsock remains at the other end of the airport, giving pilots an additional “tool” to evaluate the wind before landing on this backcountry strip, on the northern flank of the Alaska Range. While it might not seem like a big deal, this represents a collaborative effort between a small group of stakeholders that rely on the airstrip and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), who owns the facility. AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Dave Pott helped coordinate between DOT and the locals, to accomplish this upgrade to the airfield. While it took over a year and two work parties to complete, this is a success story about improving a backcountry airstrip.
Gold King is not a typical “community airport” operated by DOT&PF. It fits into the realm of backcountry airstrips, generally located off the road system that provide access to public lands across the state. Each backcountry airstrip has its own story, and Gold King is no exception. Established in 1959 as the Gold King Creek Radio Relay Station, it housed a microwave radio relay tower, equipment building and ~2,000 foot airstrip. The station connected the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at Clear Air Force Base (35 n miles west) with a chain of stations that linked defense radar stations, known as the White Alice Communication System. These radio relay stations stretched across Canada ultimately providing communication to the NORAD headquarters in Colorado. The unattended facility was powered by diesel generators with fuel flown in to the airstrip. Satellite communications eventually replaced the need for the ground-based system, and the facility was closed in 1988. When the Air Force returned the land to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources made some of the surrounding property available to the public, which resulted in construction of a number of summer or year around homes in the area, with the airstrip serving as the principal source of access.
Beyond meeting the needs of local property owners, Gold King serves a much larger role in the north central Alaska Range. Today listed as a 2,500’ airstrip, Gold King satisfies a number of needs. Due to the access provided by the airstrip, the University of Alaska utilized it as a location to locate a seismic sensor. The Bureau of Land Management has established a Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) there, to help monitor fire danger. Because it is situated on gravel deposits underlain by bedrock, the airstrip is quite stable, making it a good staging area for aircraft hauling gear or supplies into mines, cabins or recreation sites with smaller airstrips or off-field landing areas. It becomes a popular staging area during hunting season in the fall. Finally, the airstrip serves as an alternate place to land and wait when weather keeps aircraft from getting to their planned destinations.
Almost lost as an Airport
After the Air Force suspended its use of the relay station, the federal government transferred the land to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). While they made the land around the airstrip available to the public for homesites or recreational cabins, keeping the documents current for the airport was not a priority. When the Fairbanks Sectional Chart was published in 1998, Gold King had completely disappeared from the map! Fortunately, in response to aviation industry requests, the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, and slowly re-appeared—initially in 2003 as a “closed” airport, with unknown runway length or condition. Today the chart and entry in the Alaska Supplement, reflect more complete information, including a CTAF to use when operating in the area.
Dave Pott is the Airport Support Network Volunteer at Gold King. He is retired and spends the majority of the year living just off the airport. Working with other land owners, a volunteer group keeps an eye on the airport, and has banded together to do limited maintenance on the field. Last year, he reached out to DOT and requested their assistance to replace the windsock, which was in a state of disrepair. DOT responded by supplying a new windsock assembly. They had it delivered to the airport in the fall of 2017, along with bags of cement to properly anchor it, deep in the ground.
In early June, the locals held a work party to start the installation. The volunteers provided a back hoe to excavate a hole for the base and flew in a cement mixer to support the project. On July 5th, a second work party took place to put the stand on the base and raise the windsock.
We owe both DOT and the Gold King volunteers a big THANK YOU for working together to keep this
airstrip in good condition. In these times of tight budgets, collaborative efforts between stakeholders will be essential to keep our backcountry airports across Alaska in good working order. Look for projects in your part of the state, and if possible, lend a hand!