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Category: Alaska (page 1 of 13)

State of Alaska Capstone Aviation Loan Program to Sunset

Alaska may be the only state in the nation to make financial loans available to encourage aviation safety.  This unique Capstone Program helps individual aircraft owners and aviation businesses finance avionics upgrades to take advantage of ADS-B and the WAAS GPS instrument approaches that have become key elements of the NextGen air transportation system.   After being available for a dozen years, however, only 20 loans have been approved, and the program will sunset on July 1st 2020.  It may still be worth considering, if you are planning upgrades that meet the program criteria.

Information on the loan program is available at: https://www.commerce.alaska.gov/web/ded/FIN/LoanPrograms/CapstoneAvionics.aspx or google “Alaska Capstone Loan”

Background
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Capstone Program pioneered the use of ADS-B and other technologies to improve aviation safety.  From the time the demonstration project became operational in 2000 until 2006, the program demonstrated a 47% reduction in the accident rate for aircraft operating in southwest Alaska that were equipped with ADS-B, WAAS GPS navigators, and moving map displays compared to the non-equipped aircraft.  Those technologies along with the installation of additional weather stations to support instrument approaches in the area contributed to this change.  But it was recognized early on that the cost of equipping aircraft would be an issue. While the demonstration equipment had been funded by the FAA, subsequent equipage would be a financial burden on aircraft owners and operators.

On the strength of these results in accident reduction, to encourage use of this safety equipment in the state, the Alaska Legislature established the Capstone Avionics Loan Program in 2008.  For the past 12 years, the program has made it possible for Alaskans to obtain a 4% fixed rate loan that will pay for 80% of the cost of installing ADS-B, GPS/WAAS navigation equipment and a multifunction display in aircraft that are principally operated in Alaska.

Not Many Takers
During the life of the program, only 20 loans have been approved. Seven of those went to private individuals and the remaining were taken out by businesses.  I was one of the individuals that used this program to install ADS-B, and a WAAS GPS in my aircraft.  The loan application process was straight forward. It required filling out a financial statement, information about the aircraft, providing a copy of my preceding year’s tax return and a $50 application fee.  One detail that is worth noting–many people that are making upgrades choose to change out other components of their panel at the same time. In my case, I installed a Garmin G5 attitude indicator and directional gyro so I could ditch my vacuum system.  It was no problem to have the avionics installer split the items that were eligible on a separate invoice from those that were outside the scope of the loan program.  Once approved, the check was sent directly to the installer, and I only had to come up the remaining 20% at the time the bill was due.

Loan Program Sunsets Next July
The legislation that established the program has a sunset clause, and unless further action is taken it will be terminated on July 1st 2020.  There are two important details related to that deadline:

First, if you haven’t yet equipped with any of this suite of equipment, there is still time.  But don’t put it off much longer, as it does take time to have a loan application reviewed and approved.  I would recommend calling the folks that run the program at the Division of Economic Development and review what you are planning, to figure if it fits your circumstances.  They have offices and staff in Anchorage and Juneau that are a phone call away.  They can be reached at (800) 478 5626 (toll free in Alaska) or (907) 465-2510 and ask to speak with one of their loan officers.  Their office hours are 7:30am – 4:30pm,  Monday – Friday.

Second, the low use of the program makes it hard to justify an extension.  Please take the one-question survey to express your needs regarding this program:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/323WWR2

If you are considering purchasing ADS-B or WAAS GPS navigation equipment for your aircraft, this opportunity may be worth exploring.  Don’t let a lack of current funds stop you from making technology upgrades that can help keep you and your passengers safe.

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This article was initially published in the Alaska Airmen Association’s Transponder

Experimental Alaska weather product predicts clouds along routes

Update: October 10, 2019–This experimental period has been extended another 30 days, and will be available through November 8th.

A new generation of weather satellites is making it possible to help Alaska pilots anticipate weather along their route of flight.  An experimental Cloud Vertical Cross-Section (CVC) Product shows the estimated extent of cloud cover along a route, as well as whether the clouds contain ice, liquid or supercooled water.  These products are available on an experimental basis from September 11th to November 8th.  Check them out, and help provide feedback!

Background
Imaging sensors on new NOAA weather satellites are supporting R&D activities by NOAA and Colorado State University’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere to create a number of new weather products for Alaska.  While the rest of the country relies primarily on geostationary satellites, parked some 22,000 miles above the equator, they don’t provide very detailed information as you go toward the poles. At Alaska’s latitudes, we are better served with polar-orbiting satellites that make multiple passes per day sweeping over the state a little more than 500 miles overhead, capturing swathes of imagery as they fly by.  Image data from these passes are extracted, processed and used to create a new generation of weather products for Alaska.  Starting in mid-September, one set of these products is available to users for evaluation.

Entry page to the Experimental Cloud Vertical Cross-Section Product. Click on the highlighted link on this page to see what satellite passes covered Alaska.

Cloud Vertical Cross-Section (CVC)Product
Shortly after a satellite passes over a portion of the state, data from the sensors is extracted and processed to created a cross-section product.  Four routes that have been defined, to estimate cloud conditions between the cities of Anchorage and Bethel, Fairbanks and Juneau, plus a route from Fairbanks to Barrow (Utqiagvik).  With each satellite pass that covers some or all of these routes, a cross-section product is generated and made available through a website:

http://rammb.cira.colostate.edu/ramsdis/online/npp_viirs_arctic_aviation.asp

This window shows an animation of satellite passes over Alaska, used to create the CVC Product. It also provides an overview of synoptic weather pattern motion.

Navigating the CVC Product
To get a sense of how these products work, click on Pop-up Loop on the Overview with Flight Routes panel.  This animated loop will show the progression of satellite passes that covered the state, and which passes cover the defined routes.  It also provides a good depiction of the cloud cover over the last day or so. Use the controls on this window to change the animation speed, or to step through individual frames for an overview of weather system motion across the state. Times are listed in both UT and Alaska Daylight Time for your convenience.

A sample product from Anchorage to Fairbanks, depicting cloud conditions expected along the route.

Using the Route Product
After pursuing the overview, select a route of interest.  Either the HTML5 Loop or the Pop-up Loop launches an animation that steps through the products available for the route you picked.  Here too, the animation speed can be adjusted.  Or one can hit STOP and step through each frame individually.  This product is highly derived and is pulling data from several intermediate products that estimate cloud height, the cloud base, as well as the type of cloud they think will be present (water, ice or supercooled liquid).  Notice that at times there is missing data, color coded as light gray. In this case the product is not able to make a prediction.  The cross sections also have a backdrop of the terrain along each routes, and an estimate of the freezing level.

How you can help
As described, these are experimental products, and your help is needed to validate them.  First and foremost, please file Pilot Reports when you are flying anywhere within 50 miles of these routes.  During this experimental period, PIREPs are needed to help the science team learn about their accuracy.  Since they forecast the cloud base, as well as top, PIREPs for better than forecast conditions are needed, as well as those associated with icing, and cloud tops.  In addition, if you have questions or specific feedback, there is a Feedback link on the site which will put you directly in touch with the researchers involved in this effort.

This is an exciting step forward in providing weather information for aviation.  Please try out these new products during the 30 day experiment, and do all you can to help the science team understand how their products are working!

Alaska’s Fire Season isn’t over yet: Check for TFRs

With the unusually dry weather in south central Alaska, and rash of late season wildfires, Temporary Flight Restrictions are again popping up in different areas.  DNR has observed numerous light aircraft flying thorough TFR’s along the Parks Highway.

Please check TFR’s and stay clear when they are active.  While sources like SkyVector.com and tfr.faa.gov make it easy to see a visual representation of TFR’s and the scheduled active times, give a call to Flight Service for the current status.

The mid-air collision (or FAA infraction) you avoid, may be your own!

An example  TFR display on SkyVector.com showing the associated active times. Check with FSS for current status.

GA Safety in Alaska: A conversation with Robert Sumwalt and Richard McSpadden

Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is himself a pilot with extensive experience in the airline world.

The Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and Alaska Airmen Association are continuing their Hangar Talk seminar series with a conversation on general aviation safety in Alaska. Taking advantage of having NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and AOPA Air Safety Institute Executive Director Richard McSpadden in Alaska, you are invited to join us for a discussion on this topic. Moderated by the Airmen Government Affairs Liaison, Adam White, this session provides an opportunity to explore how Alaska aviation safety compares with the rest of the country, the unique challenges we face, and possible mitigations to help increase aviation safety in the state. It also provides a chance to understand how NTSB and the AOPA Air Safety Institute function and address aviation safety challenges. Bring your questions and join the conversation!

Richard McSpadden, Executive Director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, has a strong background in GA, corporate and military aviation.

The session will be held on Thursday, Sept. 5, 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Alaska Airmen Association Building on Lake Hood.   Refreshments will be served. The session will also be broadcast by the Airmen on Facebook Live.

This event precedes the NTSB Roundtable: Alaska Part 135 Flight Operations, which takes place the following day, Sept. 6.  For information on that event see the NTSB Notice.

Alaska pilots: Planning to fly to Canada in January? Test a new app to cross the border

January is not generally the month of choice to fly yourself from Alaska to Canada.  But if you are planning such a trip, why not help test an app to make filing your eAPIS notices easier?  AOPA is collaborating with Jeppesen and Airside Mobile to develop an app to use when filing eAPIS reports, required when you leave or enter the US.

A free beta version of the app, Jeppesen Mobile QuickClear will be tested in the next 5-6 weeks.  If you are planning a cross-border trip in this time period, and would like to provide feedback to the developers, contact Matt York at [email protected] for details.  And don’t forget that in addition to filing an eAPIS report when leaving or returning to the US, you must also contact the Canadian and US port of entry you plan to fly to, by phone, to arrange for arrival.  See AOPA’s website for details on flying to international destinations at http://aopa.org/travel#international_travel.

Sharing Aviation with the Public—over Pizza!

Pizza—always good. Pizza at the airport, even better. Pizza with a view of the runway—fantastic!

For years pilots, airport staff and employees of local aviation businesses have hungered for a restaurant on the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.  In September 2017, East Ramp Wood-Fired Pizza opened—and satisfied more than our hunger for food.  The establishment sits on the top floor of a hangar facility with a great view of the airfield.  In the background is the 11,800 foot air carrier runway, where heavy metal arrives and departs, interspersed with Beech 1900’s, the occasional  formation of military fighters making practice approaches. Every now and then the Antonov 225 drops in for a refueling stop.

Open just a little over a year, an airport restaurant is bringing a much-needed element of the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.

Closer to the diner’s view, the shorter, 6,500 ft GA runway and the 2,900 ft gravel “ski” strip provide a stream of smaller aircraft—from Navajos and Cessnas to Super Cubs, landing and taking off.  Between these two is a view of the south end of the float pond with a mix of seaplanes splashing down.  In the immediate foreground is a gas pump and transient parking area, which provides diners with the opportunity to watch planes load, fuel and do their preflight checks.  All from a warm, safe, comfortable vantage point—with food!

Inspired by a local pilot and CFI, Wendy Ehnert first considered building a restaurant on airport property, but after spotting an ad in the Alaska Airmens Assocation newsletter, the Transponder, she knew she had the perfect spot.  Her initial target audience was feeding the airport crowd, but with a little more than a year in operation, she estimates that three quarters of her business is from the larger community-and not just “airport people.”

Separating the public from aviation
The growth of fences and security at airports may well be one of the factors that hinders bringing the next generation of pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers into the fold. Just by making it difficult to observe aviation in operation.  As a kid, I recall standing at the rail in front of the airline terminal at this airport and getting blasted by the prop wash of the DC-6’s as they taxied away from the gate and turned toward the runway. I wondered what it must feel like to sit in the driver’s seat and apply power to those four big engines.  Ok, I still wonder—but that’s beside the point. It made me aware of the excitement and thrill of taking off, and going to distant, exotic places.  Today, minus the prop wash, sitting over a meal and watching airplanes of different shapes and sizes provides a connection that is important to make, both with future pilots and other practitioners of this craft.  It is also something we need to share with the interested public, who votes on bond issues, ordinances and other policy matters that impact the viability of our airports.

Gathering place for social events
Beyond allowing the public a great spot for aviation viewing, East Ramp Pizza also provides a venue

Binoculars are provided to let patrons…

for groups to meet.  The local 99’s Chapter, Aviation Explorer Post, and other groups hold meetings there. The restaurant has organized several hangar flying nights, and is currently hosting a photo contest—with plans to produce a calendar in the future.  These are all activities that help bring people together, and encourage engagement, which is important to the overall community.  The restaurant is decorated with historical artifacts and pictures, most of which have

…satisfy their appetite for aviation.  (Photo pair by Chef Shawn Kerr)

been loaned by local enthusiasts, that sets it apart from other eating establishments.  So how is the food?  In the short time they have been in business, the establishment won a spot in the local paper’s 2018 Readers Choice Awards for pizza!

We need more facilities like this at our airports, to feed as well as inspire. While it often isn’t included in the list of necessary airport general aviation infrastructure, it should be.

Alaska Governor’s Forum focused on Aviation

The three leading candidates in the Alaska Governor’s race addressed an Aviation Town Hall on Monday, Oct 1st and responded to questions on a variety of aviation topics. Hosted by the Alaska Airmens Association, the forum provided the three leading candidates; Incumbent Governor Bill Walker, former State Senator Mike Dunleavy and former US Senator Mark Begich, an opportunity to explain how they would address a variety of issues.  Questions covered topics ranging from funding of the 239 airports operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation and defending access rights, to how their administration would support training the next generation of pilots and mechanics.

Held at the Alaska Aviation Museum, on Lake Hood, the event drew a crowd of close to 200 people. Airmens Association Executive Director Corey Hester, and the Director of Government Affairs, Adam White, moderated the session. Audience questions, collected in advance, were delivered by members of the Airmens NextGen Group.  Partners in the event included AOPA, Alaska Air Carriers Association, EAA Chapter 42, Women in Aviation and the Lake Hood Pilots Association.

I encourage you to watch this session and see what the candidates had to say.  To view the session hour-long forum, go to: https://youtu.be/1-boHf8SVcI

From left to right, candidates Dunleavy, Begich and Governor Walker address an aviation crowd. The session was moderated by Airmens Exec. Dir. Corey Hester and Govt. Affairs Dir. Adam White.

Flight training is no place for self loathing

The following is a story about dealing with the ups and downs of learning to fly a bigger airplane. 

It was a chilly spring morning in Talkeetna, Alaska. An uncontrollable shiver racked me as I walked up to the gleaming Garrett Turbine Otter. Set against a pale sky populated by thin cirrus, the white airplane seemed huge, remote, and utterly imposing. This was to be my first session of flight training in the beast, with the intent of culminating in my first IFR 135 checkride. As a mountain guide on Denali, I’d been a passenger in the Garrett Otter before becoming a commercial pilot, and was well aware of their capabilities. To me they’d always seemed like the mightiest weapon in the off-airport kingdom: a fire-breathing steed that behaved like a Super Cub at 8,000 pounds…yet also was able to fly through the clouds, cruise fairly fast (for a STOL airplane), and ascend to the 20,000 foot summit of Denali with ease. It seemed like a big jump for a low-time pilot like myself. My shiver, I realized, was born of nervousness and not the cold.

The mighty mountain ship in its natural habitat. Denali Basecamp, Alaska. Photo by author. 

Our two check airmen are merciless in their flight training and testing. The FAA would be proud. The main instructor is a powerful CFI and one of those pilots that has that “touch.” It’s hard to argue with such talent. He typically employs the method of negative reinforcement. We have been good friends since far prior to my employment at the air taxi, but every spring we set aside our friendship until after the checkride. My hands were shaking as I climbed into the cockpit with him. He sat there in the co-pilot’s seat, clipboard and pen in lap, sunglasses on, his jaw set sternly. And then I began my very first engine start. As I was toggling the fuel enrichment switch, he remarked “…I don’t know how you’re getting it to do this, but you’re moving the whole instrument panel with the switch. Light touch, OK? Don’t white-knuckle it.” Get a hold of yourself, I thought.

The moment I’d been waiting for: takeoff. I’d seen it done many times. Now I was the driver. The whole ship shuddered and ripped into the sky after only a few hundred feet of takeoff roll. All of a sudden we were at 6,000 feet, maneuvering above a glistening scattered layer with the emerald valley below. The session went unbelievably well. My nervousness turned to sheer joy. I’ve got this.

Due to scheduling, a week passed before my next session. My hands still shook as I climbed into the cockpit with my fearsome friend, but I was more excited than nervous. However, things went poorly from the start. I couldn’t even taxi the thing. There were about a million people out on the ramp that day, and they were all watching me, the “girl pilot,” struggle. Everyone on the field has always been very accepting of me, but I do think that I get watched more closely. “You’re not inspiring confidence in anyone,” said my instructor as he looked over at the watchers. A harsh but apt observation. It took all I had just to get the thing to the runway. Inevitably, the distraction of the difficult taxi led to me making more mistakes. We sat in silence on the runway after I’d taken the active before completing the pretakeoff checklist. I listened to the powerful, rich hum of the turbine at high idle, ready to launch into the sky. “What do you think you should do?” he said. After a few seconds, I pulled the condition lever back. “I think we’re done for today,” I replied. He nodded silently. After a fight to get the airplane back to its parking spot, we shut down the engine. “What do you think you could have done better?” The classic CFI question. “I think something is broken on the plane,” said I. His thoughts were written on his face: excuses. I don’t get this.

I lay awake all night, contemplating my failure. A terrible voice played in my head: You think you’re a pilot? You want to fly like the best? Well, you’re nothing but a little girl, and you can’t even get the thing to the runway. And you’re a terrible instrument pilot. How are you ever going to take a checkride in this thing? But another, softer voice spoke through the murk: Maybe something really is broken on the airplane. Taking chances can lead to occasional failure. If you didn’t love the thrill, you wouldn’t have chosen this path. As fate would have it, a bushing in the tailwheel was the culprit. The thing steered beautifully after its replacement. It was time to rebuild my confidence.

When I began to write this, I had intended to share some advice on exactly how I managed to come back after such doubt. But in the process of writing, I realized I was joining the ranks of self-help articles. During my troubles, I read close to a million of those things on rebuilding confidence…and unanimously found them to be annoying and inapplicable to my situation/personality. So I’m not going to proffer any advice. All I can say is this: I simply decided that flight training is no place for self loathing. The line between confidence and arrogance is thin, and one that I’d probably taken too seriously. The doubt was degrading my performance. Standing in front of the airplane before my next session, I decided to let it go. It was an experiment in personality alteration…but what did I have to lose? And that’s when things started going really well for me.

A stiff crosswind was blowing the day of my checkride. The check airman was also the owner and director of operations, a fact that I found rather intimidating. Though an affable boss, he is every bit as stern with our flying as his henchman the instructor. With my new mantle of confidence, I managed to keep it together as I preflighted the dragon. “Just remember,” said one of my colleagues as I walked out the door, “…if you don’t pass this checkride, you won’t have a job and it’ll be really hard to find another one!” And, because I had chosen to be a confident pilot, I simply laughed.

Post-checkride and fully operational.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

What happened to Alaska’s Department of Aviation?

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.

Dedication of the new air-carrier runway at Seward in 1952, from the Alaska Department of Aviation Biennial Report.

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.

A new seaplane base at Juneau was one of several similar facilities constructed in southeast Alaska by the Alaska Department of Aviation with a combination of federal and territorial funding.

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.

Documented in the Territorial Department of Aviation 1951-52 Biennial Report, the Alaska Department of Aviation constructed aviation infrastructure needed to support the entire system. In this case constructing an emergency landing strip east of Fairbanks, in support of the Fortymile and Chicken mining districts.

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.

A relic of the Alaska Division of Aviation still exists at the Cold Bay Airport. Photo by Harold Kremer

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.

The regional divisions of the modern Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

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!

The Darkest Hour: A Recap of the Thunder Mountain SAR

 

The following is a story about what happens after the ELT goes off. It is written from the perspective of a fellow Alaska Range Pilot… who happens to be married to the incident commander of the search-and-rescue effort.

At 6 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time on Aug. 4, a de Havilland Beaver on a scenic flight impacted the side of a jagged ridge in Denali National Park. The aircraft’s ELT was the first indication that something was amiss. Shortly following the accident, the improbable occurred: A satellite phone call was made by the pilot. Though exact details remain mysterious, the pilot indicated that there were major injuries and/or fatalities, and that the occupants were trapped in the aircraft. One irrefutable fact was taken away from that call: There were survivors. 

Thus began the largest-scale SAR the Alaska Range has seen in decades. Other scenic aircraft continued to swirl about the mountains nearby, going about business as normal, while the occupants of the Beaver were passing through their darkest hour. Yet, across south-central Alaska, forces were marshaling. Military and civilian aircraft of an astounding mix were to become involved, syncing their combined talents in a battle against the odds.

A photo taken by glacier pilot Matt Bethke, depicting conditions near the crash site shortly before it’s occurrence. Though VFR, it reinforces the old adage “… treat every cloud as if there were a mountain behind it”

The odds were about as big as they come. The crash site was just under 11,000 feet on very steep, serac (ice cliff)-filled terrain below the ridge, one of an impressive peak called Thunder Mountain. Situated about 15 miles south of 20,310-foot Denali, it is actually a fierce arm of Mt. Hunter, the third highest peak in the Range. It is one of the more inaccessible areas in a mountain range known for its vertical nature, and an improbable place to survive a crash. Yet somehow they had. But for how long?

According to other pilots who had been in the area around the time of the accident, the weather was volatile on the high ridges. “Really swirling clouds with a lot of flow,” a colleague of mine remarked. However, there was good VFR in the main glacier corridors, including the large highway of the Kahiltna. A weather camera on this glacier confirmed this for the times before and after the crash.  “We’ve all worked with less… much less,” another pilot said.

A screenshot of the Kahiltna weather camera taken approximately one hour after the event. The summits in the background are just south of the crash site, and depict a ceiling of over 10,000 feet msl. The glacier sits at 6,500 feet in this view shed. Photo by the author.

However, things were about to change. The weather began deteriorating in earnest almost immediately. The National Park Service A-star B3 helicopter was able to get within a mile of the site about one hour after the ELT was detected, but it and all other aircraft were forced to return to Talkeetna ahead of the large storm that was to impact the area for the next few days. Overnight, the rain came down in sheets. I lay awake, listening to the roar of it on our cabin roof. At 1:15 a.m., my incident-commander husband finally made it home from the SAR room. At 5 a.m., he went back to work.

Denali National Park maintains an elite team of Mountaineering Rangers and a contract helicopter for SAR during the summer. This resource is usually  more than adequate to handle incidents. Because of the potential for survivors, the number of occupants, and the location of the aircraft, this was something much larger. It required the outside resources of the military.  The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center established a Unified Command between the military and the National Park Service. The title of Incident Command fell to District Ranger Tucker Chenoweth, head of the Mountaineering Rangers… and my husband. In trying to explain the situation to our five year old, he put it very aptly. “You know, it’s like daddy is in charge of a soccer team, and I’m trying to get them to play soccer… and they all come from different teams.”

The next day passed darkly, with no further contact from the downed Beaver. It’s tracking mechanism continued to give a signal, indicating the location of the aircraft. Forecast conditions aloft indicated high winds and snowfall at the crash elevation. The rainy calm of the morning was ripped asunder by the military helicopters, bravely making their way to Talkeetna through the murk. Two CH-47 Chinooks and two UH-60 Black Hawks journeyed south from Wainwright Army Base in Fairbanks, joined by two HH-60 Pave Hawks from Elmendorf. Additionally, the company of the downed plane sent out multiple aircraft.  But no one would reach the Beaver that day. My husband came home late again, with stooped shoulders. At 4 a.m. he sat straight up in bed, clutching his iPhone. The weather camera showed unexplainable, good VFR on the glacier. “It’s happening,” he said.

A marriage of NPS, Air Force, Army, and Pararescuers surged toward the site, while a military C-130 circled overhead. The downed beaver was in a precarious site, plastered to steep snow above a 4,500-foot cliff. A ranger friend  remarked that it was not the scene they were hoping for. “About the worst-case scenario,” he said. A debate ranged over which helicopter was best for initial response. In the end, the NPS ship, dubbed the “hummingbird” by the larger aircraft, was dispatched. Talented pilot Andreas Hermansky short-hauled NPS ranger Chris Erickson to the precarious site. Hermansky has been the SAR pilot for many years, and has saved lives from as high as 19,000 feet. Ranger Erickson, like all his team, is a light in the dark for those trapped on steep mountainsides. On Thunder Mountain, they battled a fierce wind and deteriorating weather as the military ships massed on the glacier below. The Chinooks had become mobile medical/refueling sites, equipped to handle multiple injured. The Pave Hawks and their attendant Pararescuers were prepared for extrication and paramedic duties. A wave of capability was breaking on the shores of Thunder Mountain. Radio silence fell as Erickson assessed the smashed aircraft. There were no survivors.

Below the aircraft is a 4,500-foot cliff. Photo courtesy NPS.

The belle of the ball: this ship and pilot Hermansky (along with all the mountaineering rangers) specialize in high-altitude, snowy, steep, glaciated rescue.

This incident will forever mystify us glacier pilots. A jagged, snowy ridge at 11,000 feet with swirling clouds is not an improbable place for CFIT. It is, however, an improbable place for a Beaver with other options. We regularly take Beavers past Thunder Mountain on scenic tours, but it seems an odd choice given that the glacier corridor below was so good. But this was not authored to pass judgement on the actions of the pilot. The description of the aircarft’s interior was grim. It is amazing that any occupants survived for any time. Even more amazing was the SAR effort put forth by the Unified Command. The NPS returned to the site a few days later, this time with my husband on the short haul line. He braved avalanche conditions, a crevasse underneath the aircraft, jagged metal, and (of course) a huge cliff below to assess the recoverability of the bodies. Hermansky hovered for nearly an hour as Chenoweth made his inspection. The enourmous hazards precluded removal.

If there had been survivors, they would have had an amazing array of rescuers at their aid. Mountain pilots, capable aircraft, paramedics, climbing experts, extrication experts, and SAR command came together to help the downed airplane. In it’s grief, the community may not have given this the attention it deserves. I encourage detractors of the decision not to remove the bodies to imagine themselves on the end of that short haul line. So I write to highlight this fact: There are a lot of brave, capable people coming to help you after your ELT goes off. If you can survive your darkest hour, there will be light.

The final statement was not directed at family members of the deceased. As the spouse of a glacier pilot, he understands the importance of bringing a loved one home. A local detractor with no connection to the deceased has unjustly criticized our brave public servants, and, through unclear motivations, has suggested that private contractors put themselves in harm’s way to attempt removal.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.
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