While still a territory, and well before achieving statehood, Alaska had a dedicated aviation department. Acknowledging the Alaska pioneers’ foresight in creating a dedicated department speaks to the importance of aviation in Alaska’s past. And with regards to Alaska’s future, the question most importantly asked is—what happened to it? After some digging in the shelves at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the answers to these and other questions are starting to see the light of day. Along with some hopeful thoughts about the future.
Communications and weather came first
Going back to the 1920’s, airfields developed organically as individuals or companies acquired airplanes, and needed a place for them to take off and land. Often a ball park or agricultural field was pressed into service for early day aircraft operations, which eventually turned into a dedicated “airfield.” While considered a luxury in some parts of the country, in Alaska airplanes were appreciated from the beginning for their potential to reach remote locations quickly—places previously only serviced by water ways, or trails. The Territory of Alaska first invested in aviation infrastructure in 1929, when it appropriated funds to “…purchase, install and maintain radio-telephone station equipment for the larger towns.” This task was conducted under the direction of the Territorial Highway Engineer, who was soon overwhelmed, given the existing responsibilities to develop roads and harbors. At the time, this was a one-person operation, responsible for an area a fifth the size of the lower 48 states.
The Alaska Aeronautics & Communications Commission was established in 1937 to oversee installation of weather stations and radio equipment. This allowed weather reports and other information to be transmitted between communities, and to weather forecasters. In its first few years, recognizing the importance of communications, the commission also adopted regulations requiring airplanes to install radios, and to carry survival gear. https://blog.aopa.org/aopa/2018/03/14/alaska-aviation-infrastructure-history-p1/
Funding to build Alaska airports—almost
In 1946 Congress approved 10 million dollars to build or expand airports in Alaska over a seven-year period. The funding formula provided 75% of the cost of construction, requiring a 25% match by the territory or municipality that owned the airport. While that sounds like a lot of money, it was recognized by the Aeronautics Commission as “a drop in the proverbial bucket to properly expand our airfield program in a new, undeveloped country having an area equal to six western states…”. But there was a catch.
The territory had to adopt new enabling legislation to allow the money to be accepted, either by the territorial government, or individual municipal airport owners. This legislation was introduced but not passed in 1948. At the time municipalities could own and operate airports, but their authority did not extend from year to year, which was a requirement to enter into an agreement with the federal government for airport funding. Frustration in the Aeronautics Commission report from 1947-48 clearly expresses this sentiment, “…the foregoing explains why Alaska has not received five cents of the ten million dollars allotted to the Territory under the Federal Airport Expansion Program…”.
Federal Funding for Alaska Airport: then and now
$10 million dollars was a significant resource for the Territory in 1946. In today’s dollars, that is about $127 million, spread over 7 years, or an average of $18 million/year.
In comparison, presently Alaska receives over $220 million/year from FAA’s Airport Improvement Program to improve airports across the state.
Territorial Department of Aviation established
The Alaska Aeronautics Act, passed by the Territorial Legislature in February 1949, finally solved this problem and established the Alaska Department of Aviation, a peer organization to the Department of Highways, effective June 1st of that year. Revenue for the department came from allocating one third of the 2 cent tax on motor fuels then in effect. The first report from the department, covering just six months of operation, reported 73 projects started “improving existing airports and seaplane bases, and building new air facilities.” Having lost three of the seven years to invest the federal funding, the department was ramping up to develop airports that would support transport category aircraft operations, which were typically DC-3s at that time.
Golden Age for Aviation
By 1953, fifty years since the Wright Brothers demonstrated powered flight, the Alaska Department of Aviation was in full swing, developing the airport system across the Territory. In the biennial report for 1951-52, the Department had a hand in building many of the 360 airports and 73 seaplane facilities existing then. The report summarizes the accomplishments of the department over the first 3½ years of operation.
Having grown from a short, type-written report to a type-set 65 page document, it contains descriptions and pictures of many of these facilities. This document (link above) provides a flavor, not only of the range of projects, but the enthusiasm shown by the department for expanding Alaska’s airport network. In addition to significant work on “air carriers” runways, they were building seaplane bases, emergency airstrips, and installing radio beacons. Provisions were also made for snow removal and general maintenance at the airports and seaplane bases in the Territory.
Alaska was well on its way to expanding the network of aviation facilities needed to provide access across the Territory. Alaska was on the path to become a state by the end of the decade.
Aviation under the State of Alaska
Alaska became the 49th state on January 3rd of 1959, and with that, transitioned from territorial to state government. The territorial Alaska Department of Aviation now became the Division of Aviation under the State of Alaska, Department of Public Works. It continued to plan, design, build and operate airports across the new state.
By 1973, the division reported operating 235 airports, and had recently taken over operation of the Kodiak airport from the Navy. This unit of state government continued to improve the aviation infrastructure across the state, until a major re-organization in state government lead to the structure more familiar to us today.
After eighteen years, the Division of Aviation was re-organized when the Department of Public Works and the Department of Highways were combined. Executive Order No. 39, signed by Governor Jay Hammond, created the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF), effective July 1, 1977. The aviation functions previously managed under a single division were now spread across many of the seventeen divisions in the new organization. In addition, more emphasis was given to regional geographic divisions. There were five regions at the time, which have been consolidated down to only three today; Northern, Central and South Coast Regions. Each region is managed by a Regional Director, and has separate staff who perform planning, design, construction, maintenance and operations functions.
Needs for the Future
Today aviation roles are largely spread across the structure of the three regions that dominate our modern DOT&PF (often pronounced dot-puff). The functions of planning, airport design, construction, and maintenance and operations are managed jointly for highways and airports—separately in each region. As an aviation advocate, it is challenging at times for a community member served by an airport to figure out where to go to address an issue. Entirely different teams from DOT&PF typically interact with a local community during the life-cycle of a project. This is not to in any way fault the employees of the department—but is a consequence of the organizational structure. Another difficulty with this structure is that each transportation mode has its own highly technical set of rules, regulations, and standards—defined largely by the FAA for airports. Expecting the professional staff of the department to keep up to date on both airport regs and rules as well as highway requirements and standards is a tall order.
AOPA, along with the Alaska Airmen and other aviation organizations, has long advocated for a true division of aviation within the DOT&PF. During the past few years, the department has taken some steps in this direction. The oversight of leasing and safety functions for the rural airport system has moved from the regions into the Statewide Aviation Division. Lead by the Deputy Commissioner for Aviation, this group also conducts aviation system plans, and develops spending plans for the federal funding that builds and improves airports. Headquartered in Anchorage, it has staff that are based in each of the regions. Also, under the current administration, DOT&PF is prototyping the use of cross-functional teams to work on projects in specific geographic regions, which may improve communications both within the department and for local stakeholders.
AOPA would like to see other functions become specific to transportation mode, allowing staff interested in airports to pursue that career path. There will probably always be staff shared between highways and airports in the field, however, having the planning, design and operations performed by employees focused and trained on airport rules, regulations, and standards should help the aviation users, as well as the local communities served by each airport.
Look for more advocacy on this front in the months and years ahead!