Urban Aviation
Anchorage airstrips tie the city to the sky
By Katie Pesznecker

reas of Alaska accessible only by airplane have elevated Bush pilots into heroes and contributed to the state having the most aircraft per capita, by far. One in fifty-eight Alaskans holds a pilot’s license, practically a necessity when 82 percent of communities are isolated except by air. Rural Alaska’s dependence on aviation is well understood, yet air travel has also shaped the state’s biggest city. Downtown Anchorage is literally defined by the edge of Delaney Park, formerly the city’s first airstrip. Beyond its reputation as the Air Crossroads of the World, Anchorage also sits at the crossroads of general aviation.

“The Anchorage airspace is so complicated that the Federal Aviation Administration has come up with special rules and procedures just to operate inside the Anchorage airspace,” says Adam White, who manages government and legislative affairs for the Alaska Airmen’s Association. “We’ve got F-22s and Super Cubs in the same air space as 747s coming in. It’s crazy!”

Fighter jets zoom over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Merrill Field, the city’s first airport in 1930, is now the second busiest in the state. Alaska’s busiest, of course, is Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC), adjacent to Lake Hood Seaplane Base, the most active of its kind in the world.

Apart from those major hubs, grassy airstrips and floatplane slips dot the Anchorage Bowl and outlying areas. The landscape shows a history where runway-ready aviators took advantage of existing geographical features or, in some cases, took matters into their own hands.

“Dunkle’s Ditch” was the moniker assigned to the runway canal completed in 1940 that joined Lake Spenard with Lake Hood to create the seaplane base. The canal concept came from geologist and aviator Wesley Earl Dunkle, who walked away from a crash in 1936 while taking off from Lake Spenard. Many Anchorage lakes used by pilots were less than ideal, according to historian David Reamer. Another man-made water option today is Campbell Lake Seaplane Base, dammed into existence by developers in 1959, known for its lavish lakeside homes.

“There’s another phrase pilots use, that airplanes are time machines because they save so much time… Those little airstrips help even more with that.”
Adam White
Government and Legislative Affairs Manager Alaska Airmen’s Association
Anchorage hosts two neighborhood airparks: the grassy Flying Crown Airpark in Oceanview, paralleling Alaska Railroad tracks, which dates to the ‘50s; and Sky Harbor Airport, a residential runway alongside Cange Street, between Huffman and O’Malley roads, where taxiways double as driveways. Both are tended by homeowners’ associations and lightly used by residents.

Elsewhere in the municipality, Eagle River has a couple of smaller, private airstrips, and also Fire Lake, between the Old and New Glenn Highways, a seaplane base for aircraft on floats and skis. The Birchwood Airport in Chugiak is a World War II remnant, as is the Campbell Airstrip in the Chugach Range foothills (though pilots may only access the Campbell Airstrip with permission of the US Bureau of Land Management). Birchwood, with 200 takeoffs and landings daily, is a state-owned airport, but talks are underway to transfer the property to the municipality. The state also operates Girdwood-Alyeska Airport, a base for heli-ski and sightseeing flights in the resort town.

One Mile from Anywhere
“Merrill Field is the gateway to the Alaska Interior,” says airport manager Ralph Gibbs. “We are the second busiest airport in the entire state—not Fairbanks, not Juneau.”

The airport bears the name of Russell Hyde Merrill, an aviation pioneer who died in 1929 on what was his third flight that day, en route to deliver supplies to Bethel. Today some 30 percent of the estimated 800 planes based there are commercial pilots who shuttle materials, services, and passengers to rural Alaska, says Gibbs.

“I don’t know that Alaska would have developed in the way it did without aviation,” he adds. “It’s obvious to me that the history of Alaska was enabled by aviation.”

White, a licensed pilot since 1990, agrees: “Aviation is the way to get around. You’ve probably heard the saying, if you build a mile-long road, you’re only a mile out of town. If you build a mile-long runway, you can go anywhere in the world.”

In 2018, Merrill Field recorded 151,400 operations—”touch and go”s, full landings, takeoffs, and flyovers. That compares to 275,189 annual operations at ANC and 112,071 at Fairbanks International Airport.

Merrill Field covers 436 acres and includes 3 miles of roads, a 116-foot control tower, nineteen taxiways, and three runways, the longest measuring 4,000 feet. The complex also hosts helicopters and five flight schools, including one through UAA.

“We’re training the next generation of aviation right here,” Gibbs says.

Gibbs, who was appointed to his manager role in 2018, has more than forty-five years of aviation experience, both civilian and military. He also has a passion for training aviators; he came to Merrill Field after running UAA’s aviation program.

Gibbs is particularly proud of Merrill Field’s recent acquisition of high-grade flight simulators, which are open to the public for paid use. They can simulate landings and takeoffs at any airport and various flight conditions. They’re a tool for training for unique trips or for practicing specific approaches, landings, and routes. The simulators can mimic piloting the smallest Cessna or Super Cub on up to a Beechcraft King Air, a 12,500-pound twin-engine craft that’s the largest to take off from Merrill Field. (The largest landing was a decommissioned FedEx 727 jet in 2013.)

“Any pilot will tell you that the more simulator time you can get before a check ride, the more proficient you can be,” Gibbs says. “It’s all about safety. I derive great joy from helping people master the art form of flying on these simulators.”

While Merrill Field has hangars, most of its pilots are “tie-down customers,” Gibbs says. They’re hobbyists who enjoy flightseeing, hunting, fishing, and other activities in hard-to-reach spaces.

Flying for Fun, Flying for Life
This community of recreational pilots is tight-knit and truly united by a passion for flight, White says. They happily congregate at airshows, collaboratively swap helpful tips and information on social message boards, and hang out on airstrips on pleasant days, barbecuing and talking about planes and flying.

“For us, flying is more than a hobby,” White says. “It’s how we get out and recreate. It’s how we see the rest of the state. I use an airplane to go out and harvest a moose every fall. We’ve got a few berry patches we can only get to by airplane, and we still don’t tell anybody where they are.”

The Alaska Airmen’s Association was born from this pilot community in 1951 when pilots were concerned about changing flight regulations, White says. “Folks would meet at Peggy’s Restaurant and have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee and talk. We’ve expanded from there to being the biggest membership organization in the state. We like to think of ourselves as the voice for aviation in Alaska.”

Today’s members are everyone from cargo and airline pilots to hobbyists with small planes. There are even Lower 48 members, “because they fly vicariously through their membership,” White says. “Alaska is a dream place for folks, and being a member of our organization is a way they can feel connected.”

The organization’s original mission to protect, promote, and preserve general aviation in Alaska remains important today, White says. “We want to make sure we’re at the table with regulators and policy setters, so we’re able to advocate for our members. We’ve got a very strong voice when our members are concerned about things.”

The aviation community in Alaska has visibility and relevance due to its economic significance. The State of Alaska’s 2019 Economic Contribution of the Aviation Industry to Alaska’s Economy reported that aviation supports approximately 35,000 jobs in Alaska, bringing $3.8 billion to the state’s economy per year. One in ten Anchorage jobs were attributed to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

“The big airplanes may be making some noise coming in and out of Anchorage, but COVID showed us Anchorage is a critical part of the global supply chain,” White says. “It’s even more important now because of what’s going on in Ukraine. We’ve got a lot more traffic coming into Anchorage because they can’t fly over Russia. That’s a big benefit for us because those planes have to land and get fuel and swap out crews.”

Federal COVID-19 relief from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) supported essential infrastructure and operations at Merrill Field.

“When the director of the Department of Transportation first announced these CARES funds going to the airports, it wasn’t about keeping the airplanes flying,” Gibbs says. “It was about keeping the lifeline of food and medical and other supplies open to everybody in the state of Alaska and across the United States.”

Gibbs sees the link between aviation and Alaska livelihood on a daily basis: people regularly land in small aircraft, hop into parked cars, return with groceries and supplies, and fly off to their remote homes.

“That’s the value of Merrill Field to the Anchorage economy and to the state economy,” he says.

From the Ground to the Sky
The more airstrips, the better, as far as White is concerned. The accessibility of alternatives provides safety and travel efficiencies.

“There’s another phrase pilots use, that airplanes are time machines because they save so much time,” White says. “Those little airstrips help even more with that.”

Airline infrastructure is hardly static, from its management to its upkeep to its preservation. Take Lake Hood, the high-volume seaplane base. It’s open to the public so people can enjoy the lake and planes, while wheeled aircraft may use those same spaces for takeoffs and landings.

“It’s very special,” White says. “We have fought hard to keep Lake Hood the way it is. We want it to be a part of the community so people can just come out and enjoy the afternoon in the summer and see the airplanes.”

The more modest infrastructure at Flying Crown Airpark in South Anchorage may be forced to change, though.

The neighborhood landing strip nestled between the backs of decades-old homes has been a fixture for flyers since the early ‘50s.

“Anchorage kind of grew out of it and around it,” says Chuck Kopp, a former state legislator for the area. “For the aviation community, it’s a treasure. It’s been there so long that for many decades, Anchorage hadn’t even reached it. South Anchorage was so rural. The town kind of grew up around the airpark.”

The airpark near Old Seward Highway and Huffman Road is a stone’s throw from Alaska Railroad tracks. In recent years, the railroad moved to define its authority on the right of way. At the southern end of the airpark, a sliver of runway overlaps with the railroad corridor. Should the land become unavailable to homeowners, it would effectively block about eight of more than forty homes along the airstrip from accessing the runway.

Kopp says “very constructive dialogue” remains underway between the Alaska Railroad Corporation, the Ocean View North Runway Homeowners Association, and the board of the Flying Crown Property Owners Association. He consults for the latter party as the matter continues to be litigated.

Since 1997, Jack Brown has lived in one of the eight homes that could lose runway access. Now retired, he relishes the proximity and access the airpark affords him as a pilot.

“Returning from the cabin down on the gulf coast or some other Alaska adventure and not having to give a second thought to unloading or tying down the aircraft and just being home already is priceless,” Brown says. “Same for heading out. It’s just downstairs, ready to go!”

That lifestyle is exactly what White, with the Airmen’s Association, is trying to promote. He invites passengers from the Lower 48 to share photos they take from his aircraft. Seeing Alaska through their fresh perspective, and from the air, reminds him of how important pilots are to the state.

“I want to see what they’re seeing in Alaska,” he says. “That helps me remember how special it is to be here and how incredible it is to fly and see Alaska the way we do as pilots. For us who do it all the time, it’s good to be reminded of that.”