On any given day, standing in the parking lot of Northway Mall near downtown Anchorage, passersby can stop and see small planes -- Cessnas, Supercubs, Navajos and others -- flying east to west, coming in for a landing on Merrill Field right across the street. Often, they're flying low enough to rattle nerves (and trees) just outside the fence of the municipal airfield. So when a hulking Boeing 727 cargo jet, decommissioned by FedEx and donated to the University of Alaska Anchorage's aviation maintenance program, landed at the airfield on Tuesday, folks in the Airport Heights and Mountain View neighborhoods uninformed to the landing were in for a spectacle.
Most, however, were already aware of this special event; the jet was only able to land at Merrill Field -- in operation since before statehood but now used only by General Aviation aircraft -- with special permission from the Anchorage Assembly due to its massive size. With the plane due to land at 2 p.m., the Northway Mall parking lot was brimming by 1:30, with tripods set atop snowberms and curious onlookers awaiting the plane's arrival. Traffic began to back up on Merrill Field Drive as police directed cars past already-full parking lots. Observers stood along the airport's edge, some with their hands loosely hanging from the chain-link fence, faces pressed up close like children at a zoo.
Two early-arriving bystanders, Frank Barnett and Kelvan Fulcher, enjoyed the relatively snow-free space surrounding a fire hydrant and talked while waiting for the plane's arrival.
Barnett described himself as a "planespotter" who had a long history of flying and a deep appreciation for all things aviation.
"I just like everything that has to do with something taking off or flying," he said. "Just the atmosphere of flying -- the complexity of it, with everything that looks so simple on the outside."
For his part, Fulcher said that he'd come to see the plane land because he was also interested in flying and he had some free time on a beautiful day in Anchorage. Temperatures hovered above freezing under mostly sunny skies.
"Sounds like it's going to be a pretty good show," he said.
Eventually, the 727 made its appearance after a brief flight from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, approaching slowly and looming ominously as a thin grey jetstream trailed behind it. Equipment that had been out clearing the 4,000-foot East-West runway of snow and ice disappeared, and the plane circled around against the backdrop of the Chugach Mountains. The 727 is designed to land on longer runways, but a 4,000-foot landing was still within the planes operational capabilities.
The plane had been dubbed "Two Bears," after the son of Hugo Yturralde, a longtime manager of FedEx operations in Anchorage. Students at UAA will use it for the purpose of training for maintenance on larger cargo aircraft. FedEx has donated more than 60 of its retired aircraft to educational programs over the years.
The plane gave spectators a bit of a show, doing two low flybys of the runway before finally touching down with a roar. Some people cheered, many snapped photos, and a few stuck around as the plane was hauled to its final resting place right next to the UAA Aviation Technology Center.
Inside, the pilots and flight crew of the 727 -- which first entered service in 1979 -- wrote their names on the plane's bulkhead at the end of the long cargo area, marking the plane's final flight and a little piece of Alaska aviation history.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com