Control tower and air station get top honors

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The Merrill Field control tower in Anchorage and the Kotzebue Flight Service Station received top honors Friday for being mistake-free in 2002.

It was the first time that the control tower and the air station received ''Facility of the Year'' national awards.

''I am very proud of both facilities,'' said Bruce Johnson, the Federal Aviation Administration's national director of air traffic operations, who participated in the awards ceremony.

The control tower at Merrill Field, which had 174,971 takeoffs and landings last year, competed against 94 similar facilities nationwide to capture the No. 1 spot.

''Merrill Field has been picked out of all of those to be the very best,'' Johnson said.

The Kotzebue Flight Service Station, which is located 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle and oversees an area about the size of Colorado, is doing an outstanding job in extremely difficult conditions, Johnson said.

''Kotzebue, what can you say? What a challenge,'' he said.

The flight service station is a hub for between 25 and 30 villages in northwestern Alaska. In 2002, it provided 131,447 flight services, an average of 360 per day. Those services included pilot briefings, flight planning and weather reporting.

The Kotzebue facility, unlike Merrill Field's control tower built in 1999, is more than a half-century old. It is about 30 feet from the Bering Sea, said Earl Valley, assistant manager for air traffic in Fairbanks.

''It is a 1940s building with black specks in the water, a sewer line that freezes in the winter, and they sit around in their Arctic gear and still talk to the airplanes,'' he said.

Conditions in Kotzebue are so harsh that staff work 10-hour days on an eight-days on, six-days off schedule so they can live in Fairbanks.

Donald West, an air traffic controller at the station, said Anchorage normally handles the air space in the Kotzebue region, but hands it over to the air station when the weather gets bad.

The station's controllers have learned not to waste time organizing search and rescue missions when something is amiss, West said.

''When they even get close to overdue, we start looking,'' he said. ''We have had planes go down on the ice and be picked up in 30 minutes.''

Controllers have learned to expect the unexpected. A week ago, the air station got a radio call from a pilot who said there was a man in the water being carried out to sea.

West said he called search-and-rescue in Kotzebue. In the meantime, the pilot, John St. Germain, flew to Kotzebue and got a float plane. Air traffic controller James Betts volunteered to help.

The two found Charles Foster in 3-foot seas. He had been swept out to sea while trying to cross a small creek on an all-terrain vehicle. Betts managed to get on the plane's floats, threw a rope to Foster, and Foster, now suffering from hypothermia, was pulled on board.

''They work in some very rough conditions,'' Valley said.

Alaska is the only state that continues to staff most of its air stations. Stations elsewhere have been computerized and automated.

Linda Couture, Merrill's air traffic manager from January to November 2002, said Merrill is very busy and has a challenging runway configuration, consisting of two east-west runways and two north-south runways. In addition, Merrill has a gravel runway for planes with skis and tundra tires.

More than 900 planes are based at Merrill Field, which also has five flight schools.

Between April and August, the tower averages 20,184 takeoffs and landings a month. During peak summer days, the tower typically handles about 1,300 takeoffs and landings. Controllers, unlike at the larger Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, do not rely on radar to track planes on the ground. They use their eyes.

''This is a look out the window and see what's coming type of airport,'' Couture said. ''It can be crazy, but it is fun.''

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