President's Position: North to Alaska

November 1, 2008

As AOPA’s president, Phil Boyer conducts Pilot Town Meetings throughout the country.

This month I am writing my column from a hotel room in Fairbanks, Alaska. At least every two years I try to get to the forty-ninth state to speak with as many AOPA members as possible by holding Pilot Town Meetings in Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. This is my twelfth visit as AOPA president and, as many are aware, general aviation in Alaska is not just fun —it’s a key component of the state’s transportation system, and a major contributor to the economy.

After arriving in Anchorage Sunday afternoon, my week started with a “bonus speech” to 150 people at the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO). This organization represents the men and women in state government aviation agencies, almost all strong supporters of the GA airports under their authority. Many states, like Alaska, own and operate both commercial air carrier and GA airports.

Alaska is home to 409 public use airports. Even the large commercial facilities such as Anchorage (PANC) and Fairbanks (PAFA) support a large base of GA aircraft. Lake Hood, a part of PANC, is the largest floatplane base in the world. At any one time, you can observe a Boeing 747 lifting off the 10,000-foot-plus runways at Ted Stevens International Airport and two or three floatplanes taking off or landing on Lake Hood. It is a unique sight and a combination of big and little airplanes that works. Anchorage tower controls both busy operations on two frequencies, and does a great job of doing so. Fairbanks, where I landed this afternoon, supports an 11,000-foot runway for mainly international cargo carriers and a parallel 6,000-foot GA runway. But that isn’t all. There is a water runway for floatplanes and a gravel strip that becomes a runway for aircraft with skis in the winter. The GA side of the airport even boasts a campground for airplanes and their occupants. Accompanying me on this trip is AOPA’s Alaska Regional Representative Tom George, who is known by about anyone and everyone here, and lives in Fairbanks.

Around the world pilots recognize that we all have similar interests, but Tom and his fellow Alaskan pilots operate in some of the most unusual conditions imaginable. Weather is obviously a challenge with cloud cover much of the year that isn’t friendly to light airplanes because of the high probability of icing conditions. So, much of the flying is done year around underneath the cloud deck, often low level and, in many cases, low visibility. For instance, tomorrow’s flight from Fairbanks to Juneau will be in IFR weather and the best approach to Juneau requires an 1,880-foot agl ceiling and two-mile visibility—and it’s all based on GPS waypoints. Special VFR approaches and departures to and from airports are often used to provide needed transportation from the many small villages and towns. Keep in mind air taxi operations are quite different in Alaska. With a vast geography, and a lack of highways, single-engine piston and turboprop airplanes are often the vital connections to places less than 30 miles apart. The local high school basketball team may use GA to travel for a game with a neighboring town.

ADS-B was born and refined in Alaska, which has scant radar coverage. The ability for airplanes to broadcast their positions to the ground and other airplanes was unique. And ADS-B “in” allowed pilots to receive graphic weather and traffic in the cockpit. With special VFR ops and a need to know weather in flight, ADS-B, or the Capstone Project as it has been named, has increased safety by 44 percent, according to the University of Alaska. In the Lower 48 we might ask who needs Capstone to get weather in the cockpit? Keep in mind, Alaska is not in the XM/Sirius satellite footprint, so what we can receive on a handheld GPS is unavailable in this environment where it is most needed.

This morning at Anchorage’s GA-only Merrill Field, I stopped at Northern Lights Avionics to visit with Gary Bennett who always provides me insights on what products Alaskan pilots are buying. Handheld GPS devices are still very popular, and aircraft owners continue to buy Garmin 400 and 500 integrated GPS/Nav/Comm radios—many with WAAS approach capability. Gary and others said high fuel prices and worse-than-normal summer weather reduced GA flying at Merrill by 20 to 30 percent. The seaplane base at Lake Hood is down 10 percent—in spite of robust tourist travel. Avgas is as much as $8.80 at some outlying Alaska airports. So a reduction in flying is not unique to just those of us who live in the Lower 48.

To me, one of the best state groups is the Alaska Airmen’s Association, which brings considerable benefits to members. They made a case to the state legislature, and now owners can apply for low-cost loans for installation of the Capstone (ADS-B) equipment package. Like AOPA, the association has an annual sweepstakes airplane giveaway, plus a growing and successful trade show open to the public in late spring. Executive Director Dee Hanson can be credited with much of this group’s success. She is co-owner of a Piper Cub on floats and the AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer for Lake Hood.

I have been and will continue to be impressed with Alaskan general aviation. It’s the same passion and love for flying we all enjoy, plus the unique environment that is only found one place in the world—North to Alaska.