ANIAK — From the air, the Kuskokwim River village of Aniak is a striking oval of homes and stores, lodges and offices, even a pizza place, all surrounding an airport that is unusually big for a small town.
The World War II-era airport stands out as a central feature of a community cordoned off by the Kuskokwim and Aniak rivers and Aniak Slough. This is a flood-prone island of 500 people.
Now the state of Alaska is about to launch a project to shift the Aniak runway 261 feet at an estimated cost of $55 million. But almost no one in the village sees the runway relocation as necessary or even beneficial, beyond construction jobs and a temporary boost to local lodges and other businesses. The state airport will stay where it is, slapdab in the center of town.
In practical terms, the runway will be shorter, narrower — and safer, according to the state Department of Transportation. And with that, the Federal Aviation Administration will pay most of the bill.
"There's a number of things — fences, buildings, roadways — that are too close to the runway, according to FAA standards," said the DOT project manager, Morgan Merritt. "So this is basically a safety project."
It makes little sense to locals.
"Really there's nothing wrong with the airstrip here," said Bill Wilson, who is both Aniak mayor and a Ravn Alaska commercial pilot.
He is of two minds on the project.
"The one good side is there are going to be temporary jobs for local people for a while," Wilson said. The influx of cash will be good for Aniak, he said.
But, he said, "from the big picture, macroeconomics of the state and the United States government, I hate to see them spend the money on something like this, when they could put a lesser amount in and just resurface the existing strip."
The closest important building to the runway, about 300 feet away, is the power plant.
"It's horrible," Darlene Holmberg, president of Aniak Light and Power Co., said of the runway project. "I don't think there is anyone in the community that is in favor of this."
A few people are anticipating the boost to businesses and chance for jobs but others worry about the new configuration, said Ricky Ciletti, Aniak airport manager. As a city council member, he hears both sides.
"Will the bigger aircraft be able to come in, like they normally do?" people ask him.
The state says yes.
Big Cold War runway
Aniak grew up around the airfield, one of the oldest in Alaska. The Civil Aeronautics Authority project began in 1939 during the buildup to World War II, according to a history outlined in the DOT airport master plan.
An older form of transportation gave the village its Yup'ik name: "Place to come out," referring to the Aniak River mouth.
The community then was tiny, just a cluster of waterfront homes around settler Tom Johnson's old trading post, according to the history. Gold mining was the lure and it may be again, if the Donlin Gold project near Aniak is a go. Earlier Yup'ik and Athabascan settlements had been abandoned but as the community grew, Alaska Native people returned. The high school sports teams are named the "Aniak Halfbreeds," which may be jarring to outsiders but in this town is embraced and not a slur.
The airport was supersized in 1956 to support the White Alice communication system, a series of Cold-War-era microwave stations with billboard-sized antennae. Aniak's were unique, painted like checkerboards because they were so close to the runway, according to the DOT history. The Aniak antenna site was torn down when that system became obsolete, but the town still has White Alice Road.
Now Aniak is a hub for a dozen villages. The Kuspuk School District and Bush-Tell Inc. communications company are headquartered there. Troopers have a post. There's a big health clinic.
Much of it surrounds the airport: the trooper station and the power plant, the high school and the elementary school, the post office and Alaska Commercial Co. store. Mushers used to park dog teams in the woods at the airport's edge before it was fenced off.
Multiple passenger planes arrive daily direct from Anchorage, Bethel and nearby villages, transporting mail and groceries, school basketball teams and relatives coming for a visit. Cargo jets land four times a week in summer, less often in winter.
The problem, according to DOT's Merritt, is that a half-mile stretch of Aniak's Boundary Avenue that includes the power plant is within what the FAA calls an "object-free area" — more commonly called a crash zone — that extends 400 feet from the runway center along either side.
The state could have opted to simply repave the due-for-a-makeover runway at state expense, for $8 million or more, he said. But back in 2006, the state agreed to move it. The federal government expects to pay more than $50 million of the $55 million cost. The state Legislature already has committed Alaska's share, 6.25 percent of the total.
To state planners, the project has value in its own right.
"It's not just a money thing," he said. "It's a safety thing. Even though planes haven't been crashing into those buildings, it is still one of these statistical things. It is just not a good idea. Don't ride your bike on the freeway."
It's not uncommon for DOT to move runways away from where people live and work.
"You take something to worst case and an aircraft blows a tire on landing and veers off the runway and goes plowing through a bunch of people's houses, shops. That's what the FAA looks at," said DOT Deputy Commissioner John Binder. If Aniak's airstrip can be reoriented to improve safety, "I can't argue with that," he said.
Since 2007, the department has made 14 airport relocations — including Akiachak and Alakanuk, Tuluksak and Tununak, Pilot Station and Stevens Village — at a cost of about $308 million, almost all of that from the federal government, according to DOT figures.
Some rural airports, including in Naknek, Chignik Lagoon and Nanwalek, can't meet the FAA safety standards, so the state operates and maintains them without any federal support, Merritt said.
No one recalled near-misses or crashes into buildings near the Aniak airport.
The Aniak hub serves Kuskokwim River villages from Kalskag to Stony River and those on the Yukon River from Russian Mission on up to Grayling, said airport manager Ciletti, who has lived in the village most of his life. During breakup and freezeup, it is the only way in or out.
At 6,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, the current runway is appreciated by pilots yet, according to DOT, oversized for a small village.
After it is moved 260 feet to the south, the new landing distance will be 5,400 feet, while the width of the runway will be 100 feet.
The new runway will still be long enough for passenger prop planes — and cargo jets, Merritt said. But depending on conditions, jets might have to carry lighter loads to Aniak, he said, raising concerns in the village about higher freight costs.
As it is, the old runway, last repaved in the mid-1990s, must be patched up at the start of every summer — maintenance that takes longer every year, Merritt said.
"We can't put it off until the pavement goes to shreds," he said.
The project also will add a taxiway to more easily turn planes around. Navigational aids will be moved. Fencing will be extended, though won't completely enclose the airport. Trees will be cut down. Troopers plan to move off airport property, and community fairgrounds will relocate too.
A 'noncompliant' airport
Aniak was put on the FAA's list of noncompliant airports in 2004, the agency said.
The state had pushed for the rules to be bent but had no luck. To get federal dollars, it had to improve the airport's safety areas, Merritt said.
The FAA says that it won't compromise on longtime safety standards even though it's costly, especially in remote Alaska. In 2006, after public meetings and public planning, the state agreed to move the Aniak runway, Merritt said.
"We grilled them," said Holmberg, the head of the power company. "They are stuck on the safety zone and how old the old runway is."
When now-U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan made an Aniak campaign stop back in October 2014, he got an earful about the expensive project.
"I think that's the state DOT, right?" he asked.
No, FAA, he was told, according to a snippet of a community meeting posted on YouTube. He heard about the project flying in.
"Boy, what an amazing, beautiful runway," he said to the Aniak group. "I have no idea what the rationale would be. They can't get a waiver on that or anything?"
He promised to push for an explanation and once elected he did look into it, according to his spokesman, Mike Anderson.
"However there was no relief available to these national safety standards," Anderson said in an email.
The shorter runway still perplexes some pilots and carriers.
"Does that make any sense?" asked Ravn Alaska pilot Brett Harris. "I say leave it as it is."
Other options were considered but they would have been more expensive and more disruptive, such as moving the entire airport or rerouting Boundary Avenue and the buildings on it, Merritt said.
Plus, Aniak is on low ground. Dikes protect the town proper from rising water and crashing ice during breakup. There's not much place to build.
The project saves the buildings on Boundary but will lead to the demolition of Aniak's trooper post as well as outbuildings on the east end of the runway. Three utility buildings old enough to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places aren't sturdy enough to move and will be razed.
The state Department of Administration is helping troopers find new quarters and office space to replace the repurposed civil aviation complex that is now the trooper post, said Capt. Barry Wilson, trooper commander over Western Alaska. The complex dates to the 1950s and would be too expensive and complicated to move because of asbestos, he said.
"We are not going to be terribly hurt about seeing that old building go away," Wilson said.
Also being pushed out are the Interior Rivers State Fairgrounds and city ballfield, where a woman in town gathers kids for softball games almost nightly during the summer, said Wilson, the mayor. City and tribal leaders are working to relocate the ballfield and fairgrounds, a cluster of semipermanent stands for festivals with fish-cutting competitions and greased-pole climbing.
The main building too close to the runway is the power plant, about 310 feet away. After the runway is shifted, Merritt estimated the power plant will be about 570 feet away.
The runway project should go to bid this summer, with construction likely in 2018 and 2019.
Once a contractor is picked, DOT will host a conference in the community where local businesses and potential workers can make a pitch to be part of the project.