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Neither rain nor COVID defeats practice runway at Fairbanks

It took a little longer than normal, but despite setbacks with weather and equipment, the practice runway is set up at Fairbanks International Airport. Only five days before the start of sheep hunting season, pilots again have an 800 by 25-foot wide strip to brush up on short field operations before heading to the field.

Background
For the past nine years, a partnership between the Fairbanks General Aviation Association (the airport user group) and Fairbanks International Airport and other local aviation stakeholders including volunteers from the Ninety Nines, EAA, Alaska Airmen Association and the UAF Aviation Technology Program has provided an enhancement on the gravel runway. This gravel runway is referred to as the “ski strip” because during the snow-covered months it is used exclusively for ski equipped aircraft. During the summer, this 2,900-foot by 75-foot gravel runway sees a lot of use by tail draggers, especially those with big tires that have an aversion to pavement.  In 2011 the FAA Airports Division approved a Modification to Standards allowing the runway to be marked by painting two by four-foot rectangles on the gravel to outline a simulated much smaller “bush” runway.  The rectangles are spaced at 100-foot intervals, providing a convenient reference to estimate landing or take off distances.

Paint being applied to the runway, while other members of the crew move a second template to the next mark. With two templates, it only took an hour to mark practice runways on both ends of the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

This year was different
Not much of a surprise that with all the other changes associated with the COVID pandemic, it took a little longer this year to get the job done.  Painting doesn’t get scheduled until the runway is graded and packed for the summer, which took longer than normal.  Added to that, interior Alaska has experienced a rainy summer, and finding a weather window was a challenge. The final hurdle was a clogged paint sprayer causing further delays.  In spite of all these impediments, during the third attempt– on August 4th— a crew of eight volunteers appeared and completed the project.

Masked crew members admiring the threshold on Ski Strip 02, after painting was complete.

Value beyond safety
While the concept of creating practice runways of this nature was born out of a desire to reduce off-field accidents, a project of this nature has other benefits.  It provides an opportunity for airport stakeholders to work with each other and airport management on a project all see as a positive contribution to the community.  Having a local airport group to coordinate the project and bring the individuals and organizations together is very helpful.  In the course of these efforts, relationships are formed and reinforced, and can carry goodwill when working on other airport issues.  Getting to know each other in this relaxed setting can make it easier to tackle other potentially contentious airport issues, which has certainly been the case at Fairbanks.

Ski Strip 02 at Fairbanks after painting is complete. Both ends of the runway are marked in this fashion.

Practice at your airport?
Five other airports in Alaska already have the “paperwork” approved to put paint on their gravel runways.  I am sure the FAA would be willing to consider issuing similar approval at other airports, after looking at the details and weighing the benefits to pilots.  It might be too late this year to launch a project at your airport, but while we are still a little constrained by the pandemic, consider talking with others about a project for next year.  For more details on the mechanics of a project like this, see the article Practice Runways: A Low-cost Pilot Proficiency Tool or the Guide to Creating a Practice Runway. And if you have questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email for more information.

Meanwhile, pilots around Fairbanks—go sharpen your skills on the practice runway!

Volunteers re-paint practice runway

Last night saw a group of volunteers in action on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.  A dozen people assembled at 6:15 p.m., along with a pick-up with trailer, painting equipment, small Honda generator, a rake and a broom. The mission: to repaint the markings on the gravel runway.  The goal of the project is to improve aviation safety by providing a place to practice precision landings—before heading to the more challenging back-country strips.

Judging from the fact that a lot of the initial marks, painted in early June, had been completely obliterated, I would say the “practice runway” has been getting lots of use.  The volunteer paint crew waited just off the runway for a few minutes so a Champ could do some last minute touch-and-go’s before the NOTAM closing the runway went into effect.

Kathleen Fagre marks the spot for the paint crew to set their template.

Kathleen Fagre marks the spot for the paint crew to set their template.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Alexander admires the template he designed: hinged for storage and transport, with cords on each end making it easy to move without wearing too much paint.

Kevin Alexander admires the template he designed: hinged for storage and transport, with cords on each end making it easy to move without wearing too much paint.

 

 

 

 

 

Stan Halvarson applies paint to the 2' by 4 ' rectangle, while

Stan Halvarson applies paint to the 2′ by 4 ‘ rectangle, while Tim Berg looks on. In the background, Ron Dearborn and Janet Daley move the second template to the next mark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In an hour, two 800' by 24' practice runways (one at each end of the gravel runway) have been re-painted.

In an hour, two 800′ by 24′ practice runways (one at each end of the gravel runway) have been re-painted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since this crew had worked together previously,  painting progressed at a rapid pace. A small team armed with a tape measure, can of marking paint, the rake and broom led the way, to re-establish the locations for marks that were totally gone.  We learned that raking and sweeping the loose gravel away from the area to be painted gets the paint on the hard-pack surface of the strip, which lasts longer than just spray painting loose rocks.

The paint crew has two plywood templates (designed and build by Kevin Alexander, with UAF’s Aviation Program), which they leap-frog down the runway to mark the 800’ long by 25’ wide practice runway.

With a full crew working on the project, we only spent an hour on the runway.  It took a little longer to clean up, but still left time to enjoy some cold beverages and fresh baked goods at the Air Park before heading home, or on to the next evening project.

Other Practice Runways?

FAA has approved six airports in Alaska to paint markings on their ski-strips. So far this summer in addition to Fairbanks, runways at Wasilla (IYS), and Goose Bay (Z40) have been painted and Palmer (PAQ) plans to mark theirs soon. Soldotna (SXQ) markings survived the winter.  If you are within range of one of these airports, go check it out and see how precise your landings are…
[Update Aug 21: Palmer marked their runway last week, Soldotna is planning to repaint soon.]

Who does these projects, anyway??

What does it take to have a dozen people show up on a Monday evening and work for a couple hours? This project is absolutely a partnership between the airport staff and numerous pilot groups.  The airport files the NOTAM to close the runway, provides a safety plan and makes sure that we are putting the marks in the right places. The Fairbanks General Aviation Association (GAA,) a local airport group at FAI, has taken the lead to organize the work parties.  Ron Dearborn, a charter member of the GAA—who also serves as the AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN) Volunteer at FAI, sends an email to local stakeholders, inviting them to participate.  The individuals may belong to any of a number of organizations. At Monday night’s session the following groups were represented: the 99’s, Alaska Airmen’s Association, AOPA, Fairbanks Flight Service, the airport staff and UAF.  Who knows—these folks may find other ways to make improvements that enhance the airport’s value for the users, and to the community.

If your airport has a local airport support group, consider joining.  If it doesn’t, think about starting one (AOPA can help) .  Acting locally is often the best way to head off airport problems before they fester.  See if your airport has an ASN Volunteer.  If not, think about signing up for that program. It is people and groups like these that make it possible to have a practice runway at your airport!