FAIRBANKS — If you’re a bush pilot in Alaska, it’s better to bruise your ego than your airplane, or worse, your body. Pilots in Fairbanks now have a place to practice to ensure neither happens.
Two practice landing areas measuring 25 feet wide and 600 feet long were painted on each approach to a bigger gravel runway on the East Ramp of Fairbanks International Airport on Monday night so pilots can practice the tight landings required on small mountaintop runways and gravel bars each summer across Alaska.
The makeshift runway is a collaborative effort of the Federal Aviation Administration, Fairbanks International Airport and several local aviation organizations. A similar runway was painted at the airport in Palmer about three weeks ago. They are the first such practice runways in the state.
Everyone involved agrees the practice runways should help pilots improve their off-field skills.
“We think it’s a great idea for people to practice in a controlled environment before going off and trying to land on some short, rough strip out there,” said pilot Ron Dearborn with the General Aviation Association in Fairbanks.
Or, as Tom George, the Alaska regional representative for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, put it: “This way, if you don’t get it right the first time, you’re not going to screw things up.”
The practice runways are meant to simulate the kind of conditions, at least size-wise, that Bush pilots are regularly confronted with. The 25-by-600 runways — the equivalent in length of two football fields — are “fairly representative” of many Bush landing strips, George said.
“There’s shorter and longer,” he said. “That sounded like a good place to start.”
A dozen local pilots from various organizations gathered at the airport Monday night to paint the white runways onto the gravel ski strip. The runways consist of two rows of white, 2-by-4 rectangles painted every 100 feet, 25 feet apart.
The practice strips will allow pilots flying small planes like Super Cubs, Cessna 180s and 206s, Mauls, Pipers and Scouts to hone their short take-off and landing skills, George said.
“You could go practice on the ski strip just as is, but by putting the markings on it makes the practice a little more revealing,” Dearborn said. “If any of that paint gets touched, it should tell the pilot who touched it something.
“If you can’t land 100 percent of the time in 600 feet you don’t want to land on anything shorter,” he said.
A skilled Super Cub pilot can land on strips that are 400 feet or less, depending on the conditions, approach and terrain, Dearborn said.
But it’s not meant to simulate the real thing.
“It’s meant to get your proficiency tuned up before you head off to more challenging circumstances, like slopes, rocks and trees at the end of the runway,” George said.
The FAA did the “heavy lifting,” as George put it, by approving the design for the practice runways. There were no standards for putting markings on a gravel airstrip, he said.
The idea for a painted strip was raised in an FAA meeting a couple years ago as a way to reduce accidents in Alaska. The idea was spawned as a result of work done by the northern region of the Alaska Department of Transportation.
The DOT, which is responsible for constructing and maintaining airports in rural Alaska, regularly shuts down one half of a runway so it can do work on that section of the strips while leaving the other half open so it can be used, George said.
Paint was used on a gravel strip for the first time a few years ago in Unalakleet and then in Fort Yukon.
Pilots and aviation organizations were “wildly enthusiastic” about the idea when it was brought up and volunteered their time, labor, equipment and expertise to make it happen, George said.
The templates used to paint the strips were made by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Technology Program. Members of the General Aviation Association, the Fairbanks chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association volunteered to paint the strips and provided the equipment to do so, George said.
“It’s only costing the airport three buckets of paint,” he said.
Fairbanks International Airport manager Jesse VanderZanden said anything that can improve aviation safety is a good thing.
“We’re pleased to respond to our customers’ wishes and participate in the FAA’s pilot project,” he said in an email. “I look forward to reviewing the survey results to determine the projects future.”
The FAA will be taking feedback from pilots who use the runways this summer in the form of an online survey in which they can offer ways to improve the practice airstrips.
“If it’s still two thumbs up, I can see this idea spreading to other airports around the state,” George said. “Ultimately, if this is successful or not will be measured by accident rates, but it will take few years to know if it’s a help or not.”