Small-plane pilots accustomed to buzzing Fire Island after taking off from Anchorage will have to learn to adjust their routines, as the FAA -- thanks to a sizeable wind power facility being installed -- has declared the island a few miles west of Anchorage a "congested area," establishing new minimum altitudes when flying over the area.
Previously, pilots could fly as low as 500 feet over the uninhabited Fire Island, which had only a few roads, an infrequently-used airstrip and some isolated structures. But with Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) in the process of constructing its eventual 33-windmill Fire Island Wind Project, the island's about to become a lot more occupied.
The result, said Howard Martin, regional counsel with the Federal Aviation Administration, is what could be compared to "building a new subdivision" on Anchorage's western edge.
Pilots must now fly 1,000 feet higher than the tallest obstacle on Fire Island, per the Code of Federal Regulations for "congested areas." Calls to CIRI attempting to determine exactly how high the tallest windmill on the island is expected to be -- and how many people could be on the island at a given time -- weren't returned Friday.
What does it mean for pilots taking off from or coming into the busy Lake Hood seaplane base, or nearby private lakes in the area such as Sand Lake or Campbell Lake? Well, Martin said, those planes will now have to fly higher than before or simply go around the island.
As for those larger planes that fly over Fire Island on their way in to land on the east-west runways at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Martin said the impact of the new designation should be minimal.
"It'll have the effect of keeping (small and large planes) more separated," Martin said. "The reason I say that is that most pilots will now fly offset from the island, while the big guys are actually in what's called Class C airspace -- they're higher up and being controlled by air traffic controllers."
It's not the first incident of small-plane traffic being affected by the Fire Island project -- there were concerns initially that the windmills and other infrastructure on the island could affect communications based on the island, especially a navigational aid known as VHF Omnidirectional Radio (VOR). According to Martin, the VOR has already been moved off the island onto the mainland.
The Fire Island Wind project is in the process of building 11 windmills intended to provide power to the Anchorage area via Chugach Electric, with a three-year plan encompassing additional construction. The equipment for the windmills began arriving in early April.
Martin said that the new designation is intended to protect people and property on the ground, and the impact should be minimal for pilots. But it is something to be aware of during the busy summer flying season, especially with Lake Hood, the world's busiest seaplane base, so close by.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com