For FAA technicians in Alaska, the commute can be the toughest part of the job

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2002

MIDDLETON ISLAND (AP) -- When a winter snow storm blanketed the runway on this lonely, wind-swept island in the Gulf of Alaska last month, Jim Simpkins and Rich Edwards couldn't get to work.

Simpkins and Edwards take care of the Federal Aviation Administration's radar, communications and navigation systems on Middleton Island as well as the runway, the buildings that house the equipment and the power plant that keeps it all running.

Their chartered plane couldn't land in the snow and there was no one on the tiny island, 170 miles southeast of Anchorage, to operate the runway snowplow. So the two returned to their base in Kenai and quickly made arrangements to fly back to the island -- this time in a helicopter.

''We don't believe in taking chances. We like to play it on the safe side,'' said Simpkins, who has worked as an FAA technician in Alaska for more than 25 years.

For the 240 FAA technicians who travel around the state installing, repairing and maintaining the equipment that supports the aviation system, getting to the job site is sometimes the toughest part of the job.

It can mean hiking up steep slopes and slogging through swampy tundra, fighting off mosquitos and keeping watch for grizzly and polar bears.

More than once, grizzly bears have used the approach lights at the Cold Bay airport as back-scratchers and knocked the lights out, said Vern Jensen, now an FAA supervisor who worked as a technician for many years in southwest Alaska. Techs sent out to repair the damage are armed and travel in pairs.

The work can require travel by boat, snowmobile, helicopter and all-terrain vehicle. And when the weather turns bad, the techs can find themselves stuck in remote areas for days at a time. One technician was stuck on Atka Island in the Aleutians for 19 days last year when weather socked in the airport.

''You have to be a bit of an adventurer and be flexible. You can't expect to drive to your site and be home every evening,'' said Fred Jack, a manager with the FAA's Airway Facilities Division.

While their work is usually invisible to the flying public, FAA technicians play a critical role in keeping the state's air transportation system working. And in a state with few roads, where planes carry everything from food to fuel to school children, the loss of a navigation aid can quickly affect daily life.

''When you live in a village you realize how much you count on planes. You feel the impact of every missed flight,'' Jensen said

But there are risks. FAA technicians are routinely required to fly into small airports where navigation or communication systems may not be working. And flying in small planes in remote areas of Alaska, where the terrain is rugged and weather can change quickly, has its own hazards.

Plane crashes have been the leading cause of occupational fatalities in Alaska in recent years. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says Alaska averages about one aviation fatality every 10 days. Of those deaths, roughly half are classified as occupational, with pilots making up about half of those.

On Oct. 18 two FAA technicians, Joyce Tucker and Ronald Frizell, were killed along with Era Aviation pilot Bob Larson when their helicopter crashed into the chilly waters of Cook Inlet. Co-workers Steven Durand and William Dick survived the crash and are recovering.

The crew had been making repairs and doing routine maintenance on navigation aids on Fire Island, an uninhabited island five miles west of the Anchorage airport. The chopper went down in a snowstorm as the crew was making the short trip home to Anchorage.

The FAA takes steps to minimize the risks to technicians. All receive survival training, including a course in how to survive a plane crash. They are allowed to decide whether or not they want to fly without fear of getting fired, said Denny Powell, the FAA's manager of airway facilities in Alaska.

But efforts to improve aviation safety in Alaska have led to the installation of equipment in ever more remote areas, Powell said. Two dozen video cameras installed around the state enable pilots to check weather conditions with a quick look at an FAA Website. Those cameras can be a challenge to maintain.

''We're installing more facilities in inhospitable locations. People want more and more of this, but it does put our folks in peril,'' Powell said.

Because of the importance of the facilities on Middleton, the FAA sends technicians to the island to monitor and maintain the systems there on a regular basis. In addition to navigation aids, Middleton is home to the FAA's long-range radar system, which tracks planes flying to and from Anchorage.

''This is a very critical site. It's what brings aircraft in from the Lower 48,'' said Jack McAlister, the FAA's manager of technical support for southern Alaska. ''This radar goes down and everybody flips.

''If you have family that flies you can thank these guys for keeping them alive.''

Simpkins is the electronics and radar technician for Middleton. Edwards is the environmental systems technician, taking care of everything from the power generator to the plumbing.

The two work eight-day shifts on the island and return home for a six-day break between each shift. It's an unusual schedule and there is little to distract them from their work.

Middleton Island is a narrow spit of sand just a couple of miles long. The only year-round inhabitants are hundreds of rabbits and a variety of seabirds. The techs must bring food and drinking water with them. Their living quarters are located in a corrugated metal building that also houses radar equipment.

Both men often work alone for hours at a time and they say they like the problem-solving aspect of their jobs.

''And it helps if you like to fly,'' Simpkins said.


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