Merrill's runway caters to pilots with tundra tires, skis

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
A new $1.5 million gravel runway at Merrill Field is the only one of its kind in Anchorage that caters solely to airplanes with tundra tires in the summer and skis in the winter.

At a ceremony Dec. 1, pilot Ed Apperson was honored with the first take-off and landing using runway 3-21 with his ski-equipped Cessna 172.

A formal dedication ceremony for the runway is being planned for March.

For Apperson and other Bush pilots, the retro-style runway has been a long time coming.

Twice over the years, Apperson needed to be flown to Anchorage from his cabin near Rainy Pass for medical emergencies, but he couldn’t because there was nowhere to land a ski-equipped airplane.

On Thanksgiving eight years ago, Apperson was having serious heart-related problems and a few years later he was impaled on a ladder after falling off a roof. Both times, Apperson’s neighbor and fellow pilot Doug Sanderlind attempted to land at Lake Hood, but ice was not thick enough or there was overflow. The airplane had to be landed in Big Lake, where Apperson was transferred to a car and driven 90 minutes to an Anchorage hospital.

That’s a long ride with severe chest pain or a severe laceration.

"When your condition’s like that, timing is everything,’’ Apperson said.

Dave Lundeby, manager of the city-owned airport, said demand for a ski strip has been around since 1975, when the existing north-south runway began being snowplowed to bare asphalt to accommodate increased flight training operations at Merrill Field.

Demand for a gravel runway dates back to early 1970s when the north-south runway was paved, Lundeby said.

Huge, balloonlike tundra tires are made of a soft rubber compound and wear quickly on asphalt, Lundeby said. Some Bush planes use slicks designed for dragsters.

While tundra tires work well on bumpy, unpaved airstrips, they are dangerous on smooth tarmac. If an airplane comes in for landing the least bit sideways, or "crabbing,’’ one of the tires can stick, causing the airplane to flip forward or onto its wing, Lundeby said.

"If one of the tires adheres to the strip, the airplane can go into a ground loop real easy,’’ Lundeby said.

Gravel is much more forgiving, Lundeby said.

Lake Hood has a gravel strip, but all nearby parking is reserved, and what may be available is about a half-mile taxi away, Apperson said.

The new 2,000-foot runway, on the south side of Merrill Field, is 60 feet wide and has enough parking spaces along its apron for 37 aircraft. All spaces have been leased at $50 a month, and a waiting list for about 40 more spaces has been established, Lundeby said.

The airport received federal grant money for the runway, which was augmented with state and city matching funds, Lundeby said.

Construction on the runway began last summer and was completed just before the first snowfall in October, Lundeby said. Other work, including new fencing and tie-down areas were completed in late November.

Reflectors are used to outline the runway and on taxiways at each end. Lundeby said lights may be added later.

The new runway will be good for business, as ski-equipped airplanes can be put on dollies and wheeled to any of the various aircraft maintenance shops at Merrill Field.

Before the new runway opened, Bush pilots were limited in where they could go for repairs. Sometimes, mechanics from Anchorage traveled to the airplanes needing repair, Apperson said.

"There are more mechanics and parts available in Anchorage,’’ Apperson said, adding that more dollars will be spent in Anchorage on shopping and entertainment. "It’s going to give people, especially in the villages, much more of an option than they had before.’’

Lundeby expects up to 20,000 take-offs and landings annually at the new strip, a number projected to double in the next two decades, he said.

Some of those numbers represent tundra tire-equipped aircraft already landing on the paved runway, Lundeby said.

The new runway, between 15th Avenue and Taxiway Quebec, uses the same flight pattern as existing runways at the airport.

"Aircraft won’t overfly any new residential areas,’’ Lundeby said.

12/16/2001 - 8:00pm