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Challenged by location and tight space, Merrill Field tries to keep out uninvited guests

Nathaniel Herz
An airplane taking off at Merrill Field with a full moon in November 2012. Loren Holmes photo

Officials at Anchorage’s Merrill Field are fighting a worsening problem that has long plagued the urban airport: people and vehicles that risk collisions with planes when they accidentally stray on to restricted airport space.

Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded a sharp rise in the number of “vehicle-pedestrian deviations” at Merrill Field -- airport-speak for people, cars or trucks that end up on runways or in other areas where they’re not supposed to go.

Merrill’s cramped layout, on the site of an old city landfill, means that snow plows and maintenance crews have little room to maneuver, and sometimes inadvertently cross the yellow lines marking internal airport boundaries. And the field’s location between two major city roads, with pavement that can link to restricted taxiways, makes it an inviting shortcut for the occasional passerby, especially if they’re distracted by a cellphone.

The FAA recorded 12 deviations at the airport in 2013, the most since 2004, and the agency is closely monitoring activity there, according to a bulletin distributed by Merrill Field officials late last year.

Regional FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer did not respond to questions and refused a request to interview local FAA safety officials. 

But the federal agency and the city-run airport are now exploring what else they can do to combat the problem. Ideas range from installing rumble strips at the edge of restricted areas to heightening airport fences.

Merrill Field Airport Manager Paul Bowers wants to reduce the numbers, but he also said that efforts will only go so far given Merrill Field’s unique location and space constraints. 

“We have been very conscientious,” he said in an interview. “Is it going to happen again? Absolutely.”

Merrill Field, which is hemmed in by 15th Avenue to the south and Fifth Avenue to the north, has struggled for years with pedestrians and drivers who somehow end up in the wrong place. 

A 2000 Daily News story documented how a “wayward grandmother” in a sedan drove up and down all three of the airport’s runways before workers intervened.

Even then, FAA officials were trying to fix the problem, and controllers in Merrill Field’s tower used a loudspeaker system to ward off potential trespassers. One deep-voiced worker was known to shout: “This is God. Get off the runway.”

Other local airports face similar challenges. At Lake Hood Seaplane Base in West Anchorage, which includes water runways and a gravel strip, the FAA has documented incidents of dog-walkers and runners in takeoff and landing lanes.

“We will occasionally end up with someone out on the runway,” said John Parrott, who oversees Lake Hood’s operations in his job as the manager of Ted Stevens International Airport. 

He added that smaller airports like Merrill Field face special challenges because they have to be accessible to their users.

“I don’t know what you can do about it,” he said. “Pilots need to be able to drive off the road and drive over to their airplane and go flying. You have to be open to the general public, and that’s where the problem comes in.”

In fact, it’s not that easy to gain access to Merrill Field’s runways, or even its taxiways, which are used by planes going to and from runways. And the majority of Merrill Field’s deviations last year stemmed from vehicles rather than pedestrians.

All the airport’s runways are fenced off, Bowers said, and there are signs that tell visitors which areas are off-limits. Violators can be hit with a $75 fine, Bowers said.

But that still doesn’t stop the occasional determined individual from ignoring the signs, or climbing over a fence.

At Lake and Pen Air, which sits on the northern edge of the airport, office manager Laura Combes recalled last summer seeing a shirtless man who somehow had ended up on a taxiway and was spinning in circles.

“A couple of pilots escorted him off, and the police met him,” she said. “Poor guy -- he was in bad shape.”

To help keep vehicles from straying into restricted areas, Bowers says that the airport has been making sure the double-yellow lines separating taxiways from adjacent parking areas for planes are brightly painted, and well-plowed during the winter.

Airlines and other tenants are instructed to report any visitors who look lost or out of place.

One new option that Bowers wants to pursue is installing a rumble strip along Merrill Field’s northern taxiway, to warn drivers if they’re getting too close.

“That certainly gets your attention,” he said.

An FAA report from this winter also recommends that Merrill Field improve or raise its fence along Fifth Avenue. A project is already in the design phase, Bowers said.

The measures that the airport has already undertaken seem to have helped, he added.

“But it’s not a panacea,” Bowers said. “There is no magic bullet.”

Contact Nathaniel Herz at nherz(at)adn.com.