Fairbanks goes with what it's got, promotes cold testing

PHOTO/Journal file
Come to Fairbanks -- it’s cold.

That’s pretty much the marketing pitch Fairbanks International Airport officials use to lure aviation companies to Alaska’s second-largest city for cold weather testing.

The truth-in-advertising tactic is effective.

Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Cessna, Eurocopter, General Electric, Gulfstream, Honeywell, Sikorsky and many other aircraft companies have tested in Fairbanks over the years.

"We’re trying to do what we can with what we’ve got and that’s ordinarily reliable cold weather,’’ said Dave Carlstrom, director of airport marketing for the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.

"It’s our way of making lemons into lemonade popsicles,’’ Carlstrom said.

Cold weather testing in Fairbanks dates back to World War II. In 1974, the British and French-made supersonic airliner Concorde underwent cold weather trials.

But it wasn’t until the early 1980s after several companies had tested airplanes in Fairbanks following the Concorde that the city began going after business.

"We finally put two and two together and realized our cold weather was a commodity,’’ Carlstrom said.

About every two years, Carlstrom travels to the Paris Air Show, pitching Fairbanks to aircraft manufacturers as a great place for cold weather testing.

"I make cold calls, soliciting booth-to-booth,’’ Carlstrom said, adding that the famous French air show is not the ideal place to do business.

"They are there to sell, not to be sold,’’ Carlstrom said.

Fairbanks has cold weather flight testing competition from Sweden, Canada and Russia. But none of those places can offer the amenities and warm hospitality of Fairbanks, Carlstrom said.

"It’s not hard to find a cold place with an airport,’’ Carlstrom said. "We are the coldest, northernmost outpost in the world that can offer decent hotels and restaurants.’’

With an 11,800-foot runway, the Fairbanks airport can host any airplane and the airport is nearly delay-free, Carlstrom said.

There’s also plenty of open airspace up north in which to do the testing, he said.

Cold weather testing runs from November though March, with December, January and February the peak’ season, Carlstrom said.

If an aircraft company needs anything to do its testing, the businesses and residents of Fairbanks are ready to help.

"We make life easy and convenient for them. We let them know we appreciate their business,’’ Carlstrom said.

Jim Turner, a Boeing engineer in Seattle, said Fairbanks’ businesses and residents bend over backwards for his company.

"People are outstanding there and we get first-class support. There is more cooperation there than about any other place we’ve been,’’ Turner said.

Boeing cold weather tested its 777 in Fairbanks a couple of years ago and had about 30 people in town for a few weeks. The company also tests its airplanes in California, Arizona and Florida.

Cold weather testing actually adds little to airport revenue, as landing and fuel flow fees are negligible, Carlstrom said.

The big impact is to local businesses, he said.

"What it helps out is our visitor industry,’’ Carlstrom said.

Carlstrom estimates that 3,000 hotel rooms are rented each winter for flight crews and aircraft engineers.

Cathy Schultz, general manager of Sophie Station Hotel, said cold weather testing does add to her company’s bottom line.

"It’s one of the stabilizing factors to our revenue,’’ Schultz said. "The colder it gets, the more bookings we get.’’

Key to cold weather testing in Fairbanks is Alaska Aerofuel Inc., which offers everything from refueling and airplane maintenance to rental car and hotel bookings.

"Anything these guys need, we’ll get it,’’ said Tom Murray, president of Alaska Aerofuel, "even warm clothing.’’

Alaska Aerofuel also has a hangar at Fairbanks International Airport and has a special freezer for cold soaking aircraft batteries.

When you’re selling cold, the more bitter, the better. But last year’s unseasonably warm temperatures in Fairbanks hindered testing for flight test teams from Italy’s Agusta Helicopters and Germany’s Eurocopter Deutschland GmbH.

The Europeans needed temperatures in the minus 40 degree range for ideal testing certification for their respective helicopters, but temperatures spiked to a balmy 40 above in mid-January.

"It was an embarrassing, bummer year,’’ Murray said. "Just a fluke.’’

The average winter temperature is 2 degrees, but the mercury routinely dips to 40 below for a few weeks every year, Murray said.

In 1999, the Italians first came to Fairbanks hauling their Agusta Helicopters with a chartered Airbus Beluga. They returned to Italy for Christmas, missing the coldest weather of December. They returned last year, but were met with temperatures some 80 degrees higher than needed for testing.

Eurocopter, which spent $500,000 to get two helicopters to Fairbanks for testing last year, may come back this year. But new flight rules in place since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 may not allow foreign carriers and pilots to haul cargo to the United States, Murray said.

Eurocopter is looking for a better interpretation of the new rules, Murray said.

Murray and Carlstrom say they believe the outlook for cold weather is good for this year.

But Randy Acord said the days of truly cold weather in Fairbanks have been gone for at least 30 years.

"We haven’t had cold weather since 1970,’’ said Acord, who first came to Alaska in 1943 as a test pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps., and later worked as a commercial pilot for Wein Air Alaska.

He flew more than 70 variations of more than 20 fighters from 1943 to 1946 for the military, routinely in temperatures of minus 40 or lower, he said.

As a pilot for Wein, he flew 25 days straight in temperatures 50 below or colder, Acord said.

The coldest weather he flew in was 71 below in Bettles in 1947, he said.

11/25/2001 - 8:00pm