250 Private Airstrips Dot One Alaska Valley

An aviation management plan might solve some possible air-traffic conflicts linked to the high concentration of airports in Mat-Su before they result in accidents.

Requiring borough permits for new private airports might be one result of the plan.

According to representatives of Dowl Engineers, as many as 250 public and private runways dot the area between Wasilla and Palmer, more than any other area of similar size in the nation.

Many of those airstrips pose conflicts for pilots taking off and landing within each other's flight paths. Unclear rules about communication channels make it hard for pilots to announce plans to land or take off. So many runways crowd the area that not all of them will fit on a sectional, a relief map with airport information pilots keep handy in the cockpit.

The potential for collisions because of the clustered airstrips has not led to many accidents, however. Of more than 30 aircraft incidents and accidents in the Valley since January 2005, only one involved a collision between two aircraft, according to the National Transportation Safety Board database online. That accident killed five people in aircraft that departed Anchorage's Birchwood airport and collided over the Palmer Hay Flats.

Dowl, an Anchorage firm, secured a $590,786 contract last year to inventory airstrips in the Valley, look at local aviation policy issues and look for obvious places to put a floatplane base and a combination floatplane-airstrip to serve the South Denali area. A draft copy of the plan is complete, and Dowl is seeking public comments.

At a meeting about the aviation plan last week at Colony Middle School, several pilots said they wanted clear rules about communication channels in the Valley.

"There are five different CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) frequencies in the Mat-Su Borough," said Dowl engineer John Jones. "Not everyone knows there is a pattern."

Matt Freeman, a project engineer at the Federal Aviation Administration airports section, said the Parks Highway serves as a dividing line between the two most-used frequencies. Airports north of the Parks Highway are usually assigned the 122.9 frequency. Those south of the highway typically get 122.8, he said.

Newell Walther, a Wasilla dentist and pilot, said he only recently realized there was a pattern. Now he has two radios in his cockpit. It can still be confusing, he said.

"You take off from Wasilla airport and fly over Wasilla and you're in a whole different frequency," Walther said. "The whole intent is to minimize risk."

Derril Bergt, an operations specialist with the FAA Alaska flight services information area group, said he plans to publish the radio frequency information and maps in an upcoming Alaska Supplement, an information bulletin published every 56 days by the federal government.

Bergt said he also plans to send the information out in letters to registered aircraft owners and others who have attended aviation plan meetings.

Pilots in Mat-Su do remarkably well despite the apparent congestion, Freeman said.

"A lot of these airports are somebody's backyard airport. They're not a Birchwood or Wasilla (airport). Just the sheer numbers of airports per square mile is a lot but the number of operations per airport is not that many," Freeman said. "The tough part is, there's congestion there. One way to help is to manage the airspace appropriately."

The FAA paid for the borough planning effort to address potential problems, he said. It's not clear what the fruit of that effort will be.

"It would be unrealistic to say at the end of the planning we're going to have some laws enacted," Freeman said. "Part of this planning effort is to educate, to help people understand and the borough understand what may be their responsibilities."

Dowl Engineers suggested adding borough permitting for new airports. The borough does not require permits for new runways. The FAA requires airports to register but doesn't go out looking for unregistered airports, Freeman said.

If the borough developed a permit and required airstrip owners to get a "favorable airspace determination" from the FAA before granting an airport permit, issues such as conflicting flight paths could be addressed, he said.

"Really, what we're looking for is more a voluntary compliance. Our focus is to make aviation safe," he said. "We're trying to balance, of course, that people want to be free from government regulations and want to fly using existing (rules). But the Valley is crowded with airports, and to make this thing work safely there needs to be some type of order."

Borough transportation planner Brad Sworts said no approval process is being drafted right now, although plans are to keep active a citizen's advisory committee that helped vet the aviation management plan.

"The technical advisory committee should stay together for at least a year or two to help us get an ordinance written," Sworts said.

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