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Improving Backcountry Airstrips: New Windsock at Gold King

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.


New windsock flys on the north east corner of the Gold King Creek airstrip.

Background
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.

Under Air Force management, Gold King was charted as a private airstrip. After the Air Force shut down the facility and transferred it to the State of Alaska, it briefly disappeared from the charts. After the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, it has been more completely described.

 


Local equipment was used to excavate a spot for the new windsock at Gold King.

New windsock
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.

Volunteer crew placing the form for the base.

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

Work party two: mounting the windsock stand on the base.

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!

Small cuts account for big gains

Two months after Maine’s legislature cements a sales tax exemption on aircraft, parts, and services, the quaint New England state is already seeing expansive growth from its modest aviation industry.  From the production of jobs and boost in revenues to increased spending on airport infrastructure, Maine’s aviation industry finds success at all levels.    

For aviation advocates like me, I often reflect on how fortunate I am to represent an industry that clearly speaks for itself as these targeted and proven tax exemptions are the envy of state aviation industries everywhere.  I am delighted to report that Maine now joins five other New England states that offer similar industry exemptions, leveling a playing field that has historically seen a—slow climb through rising terrain—for the region’s largest and most northern state.

As Regional Managers, my colleagues and I focus on engaging any alternatively focused entities who prefer to turn a deaf ear to a growing industry’s chimes.  We seek those who seek to paint yellow X’s on our legislative runways and who are quick to harangue these industry exemptions as corporate tax breaks that serve only to boost a bottom line and return nothing for public benefit.  To use the words of a character from a popular television series, “While I accept your premise (tax breaks improve revenues), I reject your conclusion (serve no public benefit).”  I simply need to point to the families in Maine of the more than 100 new jobs created since 2011, offering both good-wages and benefits. 

As demand increases, so does the cost of doing business: new workers, capital investments, and material consumption—each producing exponential values of direct and indirect economic benefit.  Capital investments in airport infrastructure generate demand for consulting and construction crews, while the accelerated use of materials generates revenue for wholesalers and other service providers.  In this example one action, facility investment, carries the potential to spur a series of additional (taxable) actions—a picture perfect illustration of how airports can serve communities as economic engines. 

For an industry that clearly speaks for itself, the real challenge is getting policymakers to listen—this is where you and I come in.  As a citizen in a democracy and resident of your state, you have a voice.  The truth is your elected-officials would much rather hear from you, Joe Constituent Smith, than me—alphabet group.  The difference is your membership in our organization lends me your voice.  With this in mind, special thanks is owed to the nearly 400,000 members across our nation—so THANK YOU to each of you for lending your voice as your Regional Managers carry your message into the 2014 legislative sessions.  Keep our voice strong and JOIN  or  RENEW online today! Use priority Code: M13XXFSCE

Supporting Alaskan Airports—One at a Time

Reprinted from the Alaska Airmen’s Association’s Transponder

A lot of attention is given to high-level issues in the national aviation media. Will User Fees be thrust upon us? or Is 100LL an endangered species? The headlines frequently overshadow a lot of good work that is done at the local level, often one airport at a time.  AOPA recognized the need for grass-roots efforts at a time when general aviation airports were disappearing at a frightening rate, mostly due to land-use conflicts and economic pressures.  Since airports are typically owned by local municipal governments in most of the country, it was clear that early warning of an impending threat was critical to their survival. (Alaska is an exception here, where the state directly operates 254 airports.)  To address this need, in 1997 AOPA established the Airport Support Network (ASN) Program.

Volunteers were solicited to be eyes and ears at public-use airports, to sound the alarm if a threat loomed that might harm or close the airport.  Presently AOPA has over 2,000 ASN Volunteers nationwide.  Over the years the program has progressed from just “sounding the alarm” to a much more proactive set of activities.  Alaska has twenty seven ASN Volunteers, who perform a wide range of activities that are supporting our airports.  I’ll highlight a few of those individuals, and some of the activities they are engaged in to illustrate how the program works.

Organizing a local airport group  Fairbanks International Airport (FAI) is home to over 300 airplanes tied down on the GA side of the airport, and an additional 175 planes at the float pond.  In the past, tie down holders didn’t have a good way to provide input to airport management concerning issues at the field.  Early in his tenure as the ASN at Fairbanks, Ron Dearborn sat down with other GA stakeholders and, aided with some of AOPA’s materials on organizing an airport group, established the General Aviation Association (GAA) at FAI in 2005.  He chaired the group for its first couple years. By attending regular airport meetings and getting to know the airport management and control tower staff, he established the GAA as a positive voice with these stakeholders.

Ron Dearborn (left) holds the tape while Kevin Alexander marks where to paint a runway marker on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Today, others have taken over the officer positions in the association, freeing Ron to work on special projects and plan future activities. Some of his current projects include serving on the airport’s Master Plan technical committee, and coordinating volunteers to help paint the “practice runway” markings on the Ski Strip.  He also helped organize an airport open house that brought approximately 2,000 members of the public to an “aviation day” last spring.  Ron is justifiably proud that the group, although not large in size, has today become an organization that the airport seeks out when looking for issues that impact general aviation.

Subtle hint to FAI based pilots: The $10/year dues to belong to this local group is a cheap price to have GA represented on airport issues. That is less than the cost of two gallons of avgas.  In addition to current information, you get really good cookies at the association meetings, held several times a year.  Please consider joining, to lend your support to this effort!

Protecting Land Use Around Airports  In 2009 Nenana’s ASN Volunteer, Adam White, learned that a community group was looking to improve the “wellness and quality of life” for their residents.  The project they wanted to undertake was certainly a worthy cause—to expand the size of their community garden from ½ to 10 acres in size. This group, which Adam is a part of, approached the city looking for some land to cultivate. A city official recommended looking at “the area off the end of the runway” as they “couldn’t do anything else with it.”  Adam contacted AOPA for help in researching the issue.  He eventually located the advisory circular on airport design, defining the different zones around a runway, and AC 150/5200-33B, Hazardous Wildlife Attractants on or Near Airports. Armed with this information, he attended the next community group meeting, and was able to explain why this was not a good use of the land off the end of the runway.  Captain Sullenberger, having recently made the dramatic splashdown in the Hudson River after losing his engines due to bird strikes, certainly helped illustrate the potential of this threat.  An alternate location was found for the garden spot expansion. Today, the airport safety zone is used to harvest hay, as opposed to incurring the ongoing cost for continued brush mowing.

Adam White, seen here working on a radio translator at Ruby, uses the Nenana Airport to access numerous remote locations around the state.

An aspect of Adam’s work transcended the Nenana airport. One of the community partners in the group was an extension agent who travels around the state setting up similar gardens.  Following the meeting, Adam was able to provide the agent with copies of the FAA Advisory Circulars. The agent stated that she would make sure that none of their other projects encroached on village airports.  Adam and his family planted and harvested produce from the community garden for a number of years in Nenana, safely away from the approach path he uses at the airport.

Monitoring Merrill Field The busiest GA airport in Alaska, Merrill Field is one of only a couple dozen municipally operated airports in the state.  Surrounded by neighborhoods that are sensitive to aircraft noise, and sometimes in the path of road projects wanting to nibble away at airport property, there are many issues to track.  Jim Cieplak keeps his Cessna 182 tied down at Merrill, and has served as the ASN Volunteer since 2005.

Jim Cieplak, commanding his Cessna 182 that he keeps tied down at Merrill Field.

Along with many local governments looking for increased revenue, the Municipality of Anchorage in 2010 proposed doubling the aircraft registration tax.  If successful this action would have applied not just to aircraft at Merrill Field, but to all the aircraft in the municipality.  Jim worked with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, EAA, the Municipal Airports Aviation Advisory Commission (MAAAC) and other stakeholders to successfully oppose the tax hike.  Upon seeing the benefit of more directly influencing airport decisions, in 2011 Jim applied for and was appointed to a seat on the MAAAC, the body that advises the municipality on rules, regulations and administrative guidelines concerning Merrill Field.

Merrill Field is one of fifteen airports in the nation that was selected for air quality monitoring to quantify the amount of lead that aircraft contribute to the atmosphere.  For the past year, a sampler has been filtering the air off the south east corner of Runway 25.  Jim was tracking this effort, and when the initial results were distributed at a Commission meeting, he forwarded them to AOPA headquarters to the national team that is working the 100LL avgas issue.  The preliminary results show that aircraft on Merrill Field are coming nowhere near reaching the limits defined by the national air quality standard for lead.  This helps the national team to keep on top of the situation as they work to protect our access to 100LL, vital to much of the aviation fleet in Alaska.

Jim will continue follow the lead monitoring program, and many other issues at Merrill.   He also serves on the Airport Support Network Board of Advisers, providing input to the program at the national level.

More volunteers needed   These have been just a few examples of ASN Volunteer activities to protect or improve Alaskan airports.  There are many more accomplishments, and plenty of challenges.  The program was grown from a defensive “save the airport” stance, to a more proactive, “let’s promote the airport” effort.  Instead of waiting for trouble, investing the time to help a community understand the value of its local airport is an important activity we all need to support.  AOPA has created tools to help, such as the guide, Holding an Airport Open House. Population pressures that bring development closer to the boundary of an airport are a problem in Alaska. Getting our city, borough and state government to engage in compatible land use planning, to avoid putting schools and residential areas under the runway approach path, is critical to the long term survival of our airports.  To address this problem, AOPA has recently published a guide on how to participate in the planning process.

But it starts with one person—woman or man—who will step up and become involved with their local airport.  If you are willing to consider helping in this way, look at the ASN website for details on what you can do: www.aopa.org/asn  Find out if your airport has already has an ASN. If so, look that person up and offer your assistance. If there is no ASN Volunteer, consider signing up to fill that role, and become engaged in improving your airport.  If you need more information, please contact me directly www.aopa.org/region/ak.  The airport you save just may be your own!