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Wasilla Lake to be 'gateway airport' for floatplanes during president's visit

Floatplane pilots are getting a break: Wasilla Lake will serve as another security checkpoint for small planes while President Barack Obama is in Alaska, allowing pilots to stop there and then head on to Lake Hood in Anchorage during periods when airspace is restricted, under a notice to airmen published Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That's a change from temporary flight restrictions released Wednesday. At that point, there was only one spot for general aviation planes to be cleared outside Anchorage -- Palmer Municipal Airport, which only serves wheeled aircraft.

Now both Wasilla Lake and Palmer will serve as "gateway airports," where pilots, passengers and aircraft can be screened before heading to any of three approved airports in the city: Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Merrill Field and the Lake Hood Seaplane Base. The Transportation Security Administration will set up screening stations and pilots must call 907-771-2950 at least 24 hours in advance to register for clearance, according to the FAA.

The addition of Wasilla Lake is a big help to floatplane operators, said Todd Rust, owner of Rust's Flying service. His air taxi service has nine floatplanes and 11 wheeled planes in operation. His company has tried to move flights around to avoid the restricted times but couldn't move all of them. Under the earlier proposal, clients who wanted to go on a day trip to see bears or glaciers would have had to stay the night in a remote area.

"That was not workable," he said. "From a practical standpoint, they just weren't going to go." Most of the air taxi trips are for flightseeing and fishing, not hunting, he said.

Restrictions have not yet been announced for Dillingham, Kotzebue or Seward, where the president is also visiting. Jane Dale, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, said carriers have been told there will be complete closures of airspace around Dillingham and Kotzebue for several hours during the president's stay. She wasn't sure about Seward.

"I do think they are trying to accommodate aviation on some of the busiest days of the year. We appreciate work they've put into this area. There still are going to be some inconveniences," Dale said."I am a little concerned about Dillingham and Kotzebue, where it's going to be closed."

Dale was at Wasilla Lake checking out the area that will likely be used for the temporary checkpoint.

"There's a nice, big, long dock," she said. The TSA will use hand wands to check passengers and pilots, air carriers have been told. Bags may be opened. Passengers will need to show identification. At Palmer Municipal Airport, the TSA is planning to set up a tent for screenings, said airport manager Jeffrey Combs.

The FAA has announced tightened security for some airspace in Alaska while the president visits the state, including periods from Monday to Wednesday in which small planes will need to undergo the checks if flying within a 10-mile security radius. The FAA earlier had said the spot was centered around Stevens Anchorage International Airport. On Friday, a document provided by the FAA said the zone is centered around a spot "roughly 6.7 miles northeast of Anchorage International Airport." That appears to put it at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

The earlier flight restriction allowed floatplanes to leave from Lake Hood during the restricted periods, but didn't provide a means for them to return.

The president's visit coincides with the start of moose and waterfowl hunting seasons in Southcentral Alaska, which increase air traffic in what are already busy skies.

Some of the times have been changed from what was announced earlier. The first period of extra security within the 10-mile zone starts Monday at 1:15 p.m. and ends Tuesday at 11 a.m. A second period begins Tuesday at 6:15 p.m. and ends Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

In addition, from 11 p.m. Wednesday to 12:30 a.m. Thursday, no general aviation operations will be allowed in or out of Stevens Airport, Merrill Field and Lake Hood, under the flight restrictions. The restrictions don't affect regularly scheduled commercial passenger and cargo flights.