Assembly OKs landing 727 at Merrill, but will it be biggest plane ever there?

khopkins@adn.comFebruary 13, 2013 

FedEx, you are cleared for landing.

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday voted unanimously to allow a 100,000-pound Boeing 727 to land later this month at Merrill Field, the small city-owned airport on the edge of downtown.

"I can only imagine what some people might be thinking as a (727 is) coming into the neighborhood," said Assemblyman Adam Trombley, asking how the city planned to let neighbors know to expect the jet. The answer: Meetings with community councils, fliers, news stories like this.

The proposal before the Assembly asked whether to waive a city law that prohibits any aircraft heavier than 12,500 pounds to land at Merrill Field except under certain circumstances, such as air shows. The 727-200 is owned by FedEx, which has agreed to donate the jet to the University of Alaska Anchorage aviation technology program to prepare students for aircraft mechanic jobs and other careers.

"Our state and our community will all benefit through the training that can be provided through that type of aircraft," FAA Regional Administrator Robert Lewis told Assembly members.

No one else testified on the issue. Lewis told city leaders the aircraft should have no problem landing on the 4,000-foot Merrill Field runway that sits less than 500 feet from busy Fifth Avenue.

Lewis said after the meeting that he didn't know the exact minimum runway length necessary for the three-engine aircraft. He estimated it is 2,500 to 3,000 feet.

"They've got plenty of leeway there," he said. FAA air safety inspectors have reviewed the proposed landing, he said.

Lewis said he suspects the 727 will be the largest plane ever to land at Merrill Field. A spokeswoman for Mayor Dan Sullivan, who proposed the landing waiver, has said the same.

Others aren't so sure.

Retired Lt. Col. Harry DeBruhl, now a pilot for FedEx, said he landed an HC-130 at the airport in August of 1992.

The HC-130 has a wingspan of 132 feet, 7 inches, he said, slightly larger than the 727's 108-foot span. The Alaska Air National Guard plane weighed more than 100,000 pounds, likely about 105,000, on the day of that landing, he said.

"It was pretty routine. The C-130 is built to go into short strips," DeBruhl said. Once he was on the ground, DeBruhl realized the plane was probably too big for the taxiways.

"I was afraid we would cut a small airplane up or blow it around with our prop wash. Fortunately, we didn't do either," he said.

As far as he knows, that was the first and last time a rescue HC-130 landed at Merrill Field.

The operating empty weight for a 727-200 is 97,500 to 100,700 pounds, according to a Boeing spokeswoman. The jet will take off from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and make the short flight to Merrill Field with a minimal amount of fuel, the university says.

Before the Assembly vote, a FedEx official said the 727 landing would probably be scheduled for Feb. 26. The company has agreed to donate a second 727-200 to the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Feb. 28, she said.

The package delivery giant once owned the largest fleet of 727-200s in the world, but is replacing the aircraft with the more fuel-efficient Boeing 757s, said Beth Rush, adviser for FedEx Express' aircraft acquisition and sales group.

The jet must be landed in winter at Merrill Field while the ground is frozen to the "relatively shallow" depth of at least 18 inches, to avoid damage to the runway, according to a Dec. 13 letter in support of the landing from university Aviation Technology Division Director Rocky Capozzi.

Assembly members said they're excited for the landing, recommending the jet be repainted to say "Merrill Field" or "UAA" once it's parked, permanently, on a university ramp at the airport.

Under the university agreement with FedEx, the plane may not be flown again or sold for parts, according to a UAA spokeswoman.

Merrill Field was ranked the 72nd busiest airport in the nation in 2010, the city says.


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