From flying jet fighters to runnin Juneau Airport

Juneau color

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2000

The moon as destination is what got Juneau's new airport manager into the aviation game.

In his office above the Juneau Airport tarmac, Allan Heese ruminated that his boyhood goal couldn't have been more distant from his roots, a 320-acre Nebraska family farm that -- as the local adage goes -- ``raised corn, cattle and kids.''

After a couple of years at the University of Nebraska, Heese joined the Air Force and finished college at the University of Arizona with a degree in astronomy -- which was part of the plan.

With the degree in one hand and an application for the astronaut program in the other, along with pilot training, Heese looked up to his destination with some optimism. But he didn't make the cut on the three principal criteria for acceptance.

``The first was education,'' he said. ``The program required a Ph.D. The second was a lot flying time, which I didn't have. And the third was rank.''

The new lieutenant settled for flying jet fighters -- not space travel, exactly, but a lot faster existence and closer to the moon than most people get.

And, anyway, NASA sent Harrison Schmidt to the moon -- a geologist.

After 21 years in the Air Force jockeying jets ranging from F-4s to F-15s -- and as operational test pilot for the latter -- Lt. Col. Heese retired and soon moved to Juneau. He worked for Wings of Alaska and the state for a while and, in 1995, settled into being the administrative officer for the airport.

Duties included handling the airport budget, leases, security coordination and grants -- in short, ``doing everything but clean the toilets; it's a small airport,'' he said.

Heese moves from talk about his past to what needs to be done at the airport with the ease of a man accustomed to getting to Point B in a hurry.

The most immediate project is the construction of runway safety areas, 1000-foot-long extensions at either end of the runway that provide some margin of safety for flights that over- or undershoot the runway.

That project -- mandated and funded, for the most part, by the Federal Aviation Administration -- is expected to get under way within the next couple of months. It has met with some resistance from Juneau residents concerned with construction on and further incursion into surrounding wetlands.

``The part of the (runway safety area) project that's getting under way can be done on previously disturbed land. It'll be a year or two before we build in the areas that have been part of the environmental concern. We've been working to get through those issues and will continue to do that,'' he said.

Another project, which also orbits the issue of safety, is getting the airport a building for its snow-removal equipment.

If that sounds pedestrian, think 40,000 square feet and $10 million, necessary to house and maintain some very big pieces of equipment, Heese said.

``We've got brooms that are 25 to 30 feet wide and plows 30 feet wide. And we can't get them into the small building we have. Outside storage cuts their operational life in half and we've had to have the crew perform repairs on the machinery outside. This equipment and the operators do essential work.''

Heese has just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., for chats with Alaska's congressional delegation on the very topic.

Heese doesn't expect his administration to differ much in direction from the last. ``There might be a difference in style,'' he said. ``But the important thing is there's a terrific, seasoned staff here, people with a sense of ownership in the airport.''

A project that barely qualifies as even a concept on the airport's long-term agenda is the terminal itself.

``This building had its origins in the 1950s and has been added onto since,'' Heese said. ``Where additions join, you can expect things to leak.''

Further, the building is too small even for current needs, let alone for anticipated growth, he said.

But if $10 million for a desperately needed equipment storage and maintenance building seems like a lot of money to have to find, a new terminal is another kind of beast entirely.

Heese guesses that a new, 200,000-square-foot terminal and parking structure might run to $50 million.

He muses about sources of funding -- bonds, the FAA, air carriers, maybe some of that 1 percent sales tax project money.

The project may be very far away, but Heese knows from experience that you don't have to get all the way there to get things done.

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