A visit to a third-grade class in Bethel last month turned into an Alaska aviation field day.
Our mission was simple: to deliver some dictionaries to students at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, the Yup'ik immersion school. The school building burned last November, so classes now are held in another building. It was part of a service project for my Rotary Club. Accompanying me was our club's exchange student from Chile, Pato Moyano.
We checked in a little early for Alaska Airlines Flight 43, the midday flight to Bethel. Instead of using the jetway, we marched down the stairs and onto the tarmac to use the rear air stairs. That's standard operating procedure for the 737-400 combi aircraft. The front half of the plane is dedicated to cargo, separated by a fixed partition. These combi aircraft are familiar to travelers in many smaller markets, including Bethel. Alaska Airlines announced plans to retire the combis next year.
The Bethel Airport is huge for a town of fewer than 6,500 people. There are several hangars for different airlines (including Alaska Airlines) and plenty of smaller planes tied up, ready to fly off to neighboring villages like Akiachak, Tuntutuliak and Kasigluk, among others.
When you consider that Bethel is a hub for dozens of villages around the Lower Kuskokwim Delta, the outsized airport starts to make more sense.
For a better look, we checked in at Yute Air's charter office. After getting on the scale, we loaded into a Cessna 172 for a quick air tour across the river. On the way, we passed the village of Napakiak before banking to the south and crossing the Kuskokwim River. Flying back upriver, we flew past Napaskiak and up to Kwethluk. Along the frozen river, folks were driving trucks, snowmachines and four-wheelers back and forth between the villages.
While all of the villages were built along the shore of the twisting river, there's one long, straight path in each one: the airstrip.
These strips are not the same as the asphalt runway in Bethel. They are part of a collection of 247 state-owned airports, airstrips and seaplane bases (and one heliport). The strips are literally the last mile in a vast state-run airport system. More than 80 percent of Alaska's communities rely on aviation for year-round access. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are more than 700 airports in Alaska, including jet-capable private airports at Red Dog Mine and the Kuparuk oil field.
From his office in Anchorage, Troy LaRue heads the team that oversees the largest aviation system in North America for the state's Department of Transportation and Public Facilites. He's the division operations manager for the rural airport system.
"My dad was the airport manager in Unalaska," said LaRue. "I started working on the runway there, before becoming the airport manager." Later, he was promoted and he moved to Anchorage.
Although LaRue's office is near the Anchorage airport, his focus is on the state's rural airports. The Anchorage and Fairbanks airports are much bigger and have their own system, the Alaska International Airport System.
LaRue's team doesn't provide air traffic control services, weather forecasting or security screening. Rather, the team works on the operations of the air fields. In Alaska's harsh and varied climate zones, there are different needs for different areas — and for specific airports.
Nineteen airports around the state can handle planes with 31 or more passengers. There are several differences for these airports, including TSA security screening. But one of the biggest expenses for the bigger airports in Ketchikan, Adak, Barrow, Kotzebue and other jet-served destinations is for fire and rescue personnel and equipment. LaRue admits that's a big part of the $39 million annual budget.
Dedicated staff at the larger airports receive more training and specialized instruction. This includes regular fire and rescue training, radio protocol and issuing notices to airmen when required. As airlines upgrade their fleets to bigger or faster airplanes, there are new requirements for the conditions of the airfield. This means scraping and sweeping the airfields, then treating them with de-icing chemicals, sand or both.
Also, the 19 biggest airports all are paved with asphalt. LaRue's office is responsible for having the equipment (fire trucks, graders and sweepers) and the material (sand and de-icing chemicals) on hand.
The top 19 airports are important, to be sure. But LaRue's team also is tasked with developing plans to maintain and operate those 228 other state-owned airports. That includes having the equipment to clear and level the gravel runway. And it's not enough to simply have sand for traction -- there has to be a covered place to store it. There are no towers in these communities. At many smaller airstrips, there are no terminal buildings at all. The "pre-board announcement" is the plane flying over the village to land at the strip! Mail, baggage and groceries often are off-loaded on to trailers pulled behind snowmachines or four-wheelers. Reservations and flight manifests are developed not by airline or air taxi employees, but by village agents, who work from home.
The list of improvements needed for Alaska's rural airports is long, including:
1. Coldfoot Airport: Resurface runway, install new lighting and protect the runway from the imminent erosion by the Koyukuk River.
2. Deadhorse Airport: Airport Rescue and Fire Building bay addition, with sand storage.
3, Kwigillingok Airport: Reconstruct airport and extend runway.
4. Cold Bay Airport: Main runway rehabilitation, crosswind runway improvements, new taxiway construction, airport rescue and firefighting building expansion. Cold Bay's airport, because of its long runway, also serves as an emergency landing location for trans-Pacific flights.
5. Ambler Airport: Rehabilitate all runway surfaces, extend the runway, replace runway lighting and new equipment building.
… and more
Here in Alaska, we must keep the idea of "access" in perspective. For the 82 percent of Alaska communities who depend on aviation for year-round access to their communities, a well-maintained runway is their bridge to the rest of the world.
After delivering our dictionaries at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, we stopped by the local Alaska Commercial store in Bethel to check our email (you can get a free hour of Wi-Fi each day). Then, Pato and I returned to the Bethel Airport. The Ravn Alaska terminal was busy with the evening Dash-8 flight from Anchorage. Grant Aviation and Yute Air both had flights from neighboring villages on the ground. Some passengers were coming to Bethel for medical appointments. Others were making their way to the Alaska Airlines terminal for the jet flight back to Anchorage.
After clearing security, we walked out on the tarmac. There was a fresh layer of sand underfoot. The wind had blown all of the snow away, leaving a slippery ice surface. At that moment, I was thankful for the crew maintaining that runway, so the planes -- and the passengers -- were able to come and go safely.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.