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University wants Boeing 727 to land at Merrill Field

  • Author: Kyle Hopkins
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 7, 2013

Say you're downtown later this month and see a 100,000-pound jet with a 108-foot wingspan descending on Fairview.

No need for alarm. It will just be a Boeing 727 landing at Merrill Field.

That's the proposal by the University of Alaska Anchorage, which has asked city leaders to approve plans to land the three-engine jet on a runway less than 500 feet from Fifth Avenue.

"I'm pretty darn sure it is the biggest aircraft to ever land at Merrill field," said Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who supports the request.

Package delivery giant FedEx, which is phasing out its fleet of 727s, has agreed to donate the jet as a teaching tool to the university's aircraft maintenance program, a UAA spokeswoman said. The university plans to tow the aircraft to a UAA ramp at the city-owned airport.

Once it landed, the plane would never be flown again, said Rocky Capozzi, director of the university's aviation technology program.

"They offered us (a 727) and we would be delighted to have it," Capozzi said. "It's a great asset for our airframe and power-plant mechanics students."

The landing is tentatively planned for Feb. 26, he said.

FedEx has also agreed to give a second 727 to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said Beth Rush, an advisor for FedEx Express' aircraft acquisition and sales group. That plane is expected to be delivered to UAF on Feb. 28, Rush said, landing at Fairbanks International Airport.

Delivering a jet to UAA isn't as easy.

The university's aviation technology department is based at Merrill Field, the small, busy airport that was established a mile from downtown in 1930. Alaska's largest city grew up around it, with the Fairview neighborhoods, the Northway Mall and Alaska Regional Hospital encircling the airport.

City law says that no aircraft heavier than 12,500 pounds may land at Merrill Field. The only exceptions: emergency landings, medevacs, aircraft in need of repair and planes that are participating in an air show.

A proposal now before the Assembly would waive those restrictions for the landing of the FedEx Boeing 727-200. University officials say the Assembly approval is the only regulatory hurdle needed for the landing.

The proposal, made at Sullivan's request, is scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday at Loussac Library. Downtown Assemblyman Patrick Flynn has proposed an amended version that would make it clear that the waiver is for a one-time landing only.

"I expect the neighborhoods would be concerned at the prospect of regular large jet traffic at Merrill," Flynn wrote in an email.

The aircraft, when empty, weighs 97,650 pounds, according to the Boeing website. That includes the weight of the crew but not the small amount of fuel needed to fly from Ted Stevens International Airport to Merrill Field.

From liftoff to landing, the entire flight should take about 10 to 15 minutes, Capozzi said.

From the West Anchorage airport, the 727 would fly out over Cook Inlet, turn right, head over Ship Creek and overfly Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, he said.

"At that point, they're two miles north of Merrill Field, kind of where the (Moose Run Golf Course) is out there," Capozzi said.

Final approach to the runway would "be flown roughly in a straight-line path from just south of Muldoon Road-Glenn Highway intersection, over the Northway Mall, to a full stop at Runway 25," Capozzi wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to acting Merrill Field airport manager Alex Jumao-as.

"They'll be less than two minutes over any population area," Capozzi said in a phone interview.

The plane would land on runway 7/25, a 4,000-foot span that runs parallel to Fifth Avenue, according to the city website.

"We have done engineering to ensure that runway is such that it's adequate to accommodate an aircraft of this size," said Tlisa Northcutt, a university spokeswoman.

"FedEx has had their safety advisers as well and are on board with the landing," she said.

Minimum runway requirements for a 727 vary based on the weight of the plane, engines, temperature and other factors, a Boeing spokeswoman said in an email Friday.

If the landing is approved, the university plans to use the intact jet aircraft to teach courses in aircraft avionics systems, ground operations and safety, and servicing turbine engines, among others. Currently, the largest plane students have to practice on is a Piper Cheyenne, a turboprop aircraft a fraction of the size of the 727.

The acting Merrill Field airport manager did not return phone messages Thursday. Lindsey Whitt, spokeswoman for Sullivan, said city officials believe the jet would be the biggest plane ever to land at Merrill Field, based on conversations with previous airport managers.

The city was unable to provide additional details as of Thursday afternoon.

East Anchorage and downtown residents are used to small planes flying overhead and touching down at Merrill Field. An incoming jet is another matter.

Asked if the landing might spook residents, who could think a jetliner was in trouble, city and university officials said they plan to get the word out through news media and meetings with community councils if the Assembly approves the project.

"We want this to be something that everybody knows about, because it's really an exciting thing," said university spokeswoman Kristin DeSmith.

Northcutt said it would have been too expensive for the university to pay to disassemble the aircraft and truck it to Merrill Field. UAA will take ownership of the plane once it has landed and FedEx removes certain equipment such as the flight data recorder, she said.

"Our agreement with FedEx is that we will never fly it again, nor will we sell parts off of the plane," she said.

FedEx once owned the largest fleet of 727s in the world, including 100 727-100s and 100 727-200s, Rush said.

The company has been replacing the aircraft with more fuel-efficient Boeing 757s. By the end of February, FedEx will own just 23 Boeing 727s and will have donated 64 of the aircraft since 1995, she said.

The plane promised to UAA was built in 1979 and operated by Braniff Airways, Rush said. It is estimated to be worth $400,000 to $600,000, she said.

All of the FedEx jets are painted with the name of an employee's child beneath the pilot window, Rush said. The plane the company plans to gift to UAA is named "Two Bears," which is a tribute to the son of an aircraft maintenance manager in Anchorage, she said.

An earlier version of this story reported Downtown Assemblyman Patrick Flynn proposed an ordinance that would allow for the Boeing 727 to land at Merrill Field. The proposal was first introduced at the request of Mayor Dan Sullivan. Flynn's proposal is an amended version.

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