Story last updated at 8:24 PM on Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Alternative airport sites under consideration for villages

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

With an eye toward safety, maintenance and the environment, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, DOWL Engineers, the Federal Aviation Administration, local air carriers and the residents of Port Graham and Nanwalek recently met to discuss alternative sites for the villages’ airports.

Port Graham and Nanwalek are located near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula and are separated by less than five miles. They are accessible only by air or water. An airport master plan for Port Graham was completed in 1998 and identified a preferred alternative for that community’s runway.

“Then we started looking at safety issues at Nanwalek and tried to get a feeling from (residents) as to whether they’d be interested in co-ownership of an airport with Port Graham,” said Todd Van Hove, the DOTPF manager for the village airport project. “We decided to open up a master plan study at Nanwalek and look at their needs. Once we got into that, we decided to do a phase-one reconnaissance study to see if there was any place where we can put an airport between the two communities and/or other alternatives.”

Village meetings to discuss options have resulted in a numerous possibilities now being reviewed by Tom Middendorf and Nan Llewellyn of DOWL Engineering.

“They’ll look at the alternatives given to them by the community and do an evaluation and put together some final results,” Van Hove said. “We’ll probably go back to the villages in May and present the results. Hopefully at that point we’ll learn more about the communities and what they really desire, how they feel about the sites chosen and the alternatives presented to them.”

For Kevin Jones, the state’s Homer Airport manager and maintenance supervisor for the Port Graham and Nanwalek runways, maintenance of the Nanwalek airport is a challenge.

“With the runway parallel to the beach, anytime you have a series of high tides with a strong wind out of the southwest, it destroys the runway,” Jones said. “It’s hard to rebuild cost-wise, time-wise and effectively.”

Storms hit more frequently in the winter, when material sources for repairs are limited, Jones said.

Compared to Nanwalek, Port Graham is “pretty much issue-free,” he said. “They do a very good job over there with maintenance. The location of the runway doesn’t get beat by ocean swells and is lined up better for pilots.”

Linking the villages by road so they can share an airport is one option being considered, however that is not without problems, since the country separating Nanwalek and Port Graham is steep and receives heavy snowfalls.

“But with all that said, it may be easier to maintain a road than it is the (Nanwalek) runway in its current location,” said Jones, adding, “I’m extremely happy they’re looking at it and trying to find a workable solution.”

Claire McCann, owner of Smokey Bay Air which provides on-demand air service to the two villages, listed weather and wind as the biggest challenges faced by pilots.

“And there are terrain issues at Nanwalek which put more of a restriction combined with the other two factors,” McCann said. “All the sites being considered have issues that need to be worked out, but a shared airport is definitely the optimum. That would be most acceptable.”

Andy Smircich, director of operations for Homer Air, said from purely a flying point of view, his preferred option is a new runway for each village, with Nanwalek’s built on a breakwater extending out into the water.

“Turbulence and wind shears are our biggest concerns,” Smircich said of the existing location. “Snow and clouds, there’s nothing you can do about that. They’ll be there or not. But by relocating the runway, we might be able to solve the turbulence and wind shear.”

However, a four-year timeline to put the best-case scenario in place makes for more immediate concerns, according to Smircich.

“Basically, the current runway doesn’t meet safety standards, but (Nanwalek) still needs air service for the next four years,” he said. “We’ll do our very best to provide that for them, but our concern is that putting money into these studies may cut maintenance (funding). … Kevin Jones will say they’ll maintain the airport as they always have, but the problem is they can’t get federal funding to do it. They have to come up with state funding and apparently that’s harder to come by.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at