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State DOT studying Upper Tanana airports for needed improvements

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Federal Aviation Administration
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An 1980s image of the Tanacross airport alerts pilots to cracks in the asphalt of one of the runways and vegetation growing up through the tarmac.

Planners focus on three regional airports and one in Gulkana to improve facilities for pilots, businesses

The state Department of Transportation is studying the condition of small airports in the Upper Tanana region to determine what improvements are needed. And the head of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Alaska says work is badly needed at airports in Tanacross, Tok and Northway.

The Transportation Department has already identified some problems in its Upper Tanana Airport Planning Study. Like, the crumbling runway at the Tanacross Airport, and the one in Tok that’s too short for many airplanes. Also, aircraft coming up through Canada must land at the airport in Northway to clear Customs. But there’s no fuel there.

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Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
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The DOT study mainly is focused on three Upper Tanana airports -- at Tanacross, Tok and Northway -- and the Gulkana airport to the west in the Copper River basin.

“From looking at the condition of the facilities and talking to users, there’s several challenges in the area that we’re hoping the study will provide some insight on,” says Jennifer Keller, a Fairbanks-based planner for the department who’s heading up the study.

Keller says it’s mainly focused on those three airports, two of which are owned by the state. The one in Tanacross is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management, so it’s up to that agency to decide whether and when to fix it. But Keller says it’s part of the study because its status affects the other airports in the Upper Tanana.

“If the Tanacross airport is no longer serviceable, and the agency responsible for it doesn’t have any plans to improve it, then it could potentially fall on one of the state airports to accommodate those needs,” Keller said in an interview Tuesday.

Improvements are badly needed there, says Tom George, the Alaska regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

“Tanacross is old and has numerous problems,” George said in an interview Tuesday. He hopes BLM will fix the airport’s problems, because it’s important for area residents, “and also for firefighting operations, which require longer runways, typically, and more facilities.”

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Jim Schwarber/Alaska Division of Forestry
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A water-scooping aircraft that was used during the 2015 Tetlin Hills Fire operated out of the Alaska Fire Service's Tanacross Air Tanker Base. State Forestry Division has also used the base to fire wildfires around the region.

George says his organization is closely following, and supporting, the Upper Tanana study, because the need is great for pilots in the region -- and those who fly up here from the Lower 48.

“We need a better facility for aircraft flying through Canada that need to clear Customs,” he said. “Northway is the airport that’s been identified for that, but you can’t buy any fuel in Northway. So then you would have to come on to Tok, and it’s not got the longest runway … ”

Keller says area residents have talked about the need to extend the Tok airport’s short runway, And they say other improvements are needed, because it’s a busy facility. 40-mile Air operates out of there, providing scheduled service to Fairbanks International and elsewhere. And there are a lot of other routine and seasonal flights out of there.

“There’s outfitters that operate there for charter flying, for hunting and guiding,” she said, “but also commuter service for people (who) live in the area to get to basic services in Fairbanks and Anchorage.”

She says area residents have told her that airport improvements also would help emergency services that operate around the largely remote region.

“Some of the primary uses that we’re hearing the most about of the airports in that area are medevac, which is critical,” she said.

Keller says the study also will include the Gulkana airport, located to the west near Glennallen.

“We looked at the conditions and we’ve interviewed users at the Gulkana Airport to see if there’s any ancillary impacts that the activity at Gulkana has on the Upper Tanana. Or if maybe Gulkana can serve some of the functions of the Upper Tanana airports.”

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Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
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The state Transportation Department has set up two meetings to talk with residents of the Upper Tanana. A telephonic/virtual meeting is scheduled for tonight, and a May 17 meeting will be in-person at Fast Eddy's restaurant in Tok.

Keller says DOT wants to hear from more residents in the Upper Tanana, so it’s scheduled two meetings, one this week, one next month. The first is a virtual meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight. Keller says a second in-person meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 17 at Fast Eddy’s Restaurant in Tok.

Keller says DOT will complete work on the report next year, and she says work on some of the projects may begin as early as 2027.
The state Department of Transportation is studying the condition of small airports in the Upper Tanana region to determine what improvements are needed. And the head of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Alaska says work is badly needed at airports in Tanacross, Tok and Northway.