Beware the lost and confused on Anchorage's Merrill Field

FAA focuses on keeping wanderers away from the airstrip

Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- From the tower high above Merrill Field, it wasn't hard for the flight controllers to figure out that the 70-year-old grandmother with the kids in the back seat was lost. Seriously lost.

First she drove her sedan slowly up one of the east-west runways. Then down the one right next to it. Then she turned onto the north-south runway and nearly traversed its length. Finally, airport workers pulled her off. ``She was just lost,'' said Jack Schommer, an air traffic specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Such incidents happen all the time at Anchorage's municipal airport. But this year, the FAA in Alaska, along with federal flight officials nationwide, are turning new attention to the problem.

Earlier this year, FAA administrator Jane Garvey ordered that top priority be given nationwide to addressing what the agency calls runway incidents and incursions. An incident is any unauthorized person or vehicle on runways with towers. An incursion is an incident that gets worse, when an aircraft comes close to hitting something that shouldn't be in the way.

Merrill has had six incidents and two incursions this year. Schommer said that's about par for Merrill, one of the nations 100 busiest airports, with about 200,000 takeoffs and landings a year. But its still more than the regulatory agency wants.

The wayward grandmother on May 27 was considered an incident. No aircraft were landing or taking off. But that's only because Merrill controllers kept them away.

``We shut down everything until we could get her off,'' tower manager Linda Couture said. ``We just told them to keep circling around.''

The first actual incursion occurred on May 24 when a man walking with a cane started across the east-west runways from Fifth Avenue.

``We yelled at him and, as they all usually do, he ignored us,'' said Mike Spernak, director of operations for Spernak Airways, right next to the runway. ``We yelled at him again, and he just waved us off, so we called the tower.''

The man explained to airport officials that he was headed to Northway Mall and was walking on the advice of his doctor. The problem, Schommer said, was that the man caused a student pilot and his instructor to abort a takeoff. Thats getting too close for airport comfort.

Schommer said Merrill deals with about 30 to 40 incidents and three to four incursions a year. That's an improvement from two years ago, when the airport led the nation in incursions with about a dozen. Most of the problems occur during summer.

And that's only what gets reported. Merrill assistant manager Mike Byington estimates three-quarters of the trespassers get turned away before they get into real trouble. In fact, air traffic controllers remember one of their colleagues with a deep voice who used to boom over the loudspeakers: ``This is God. Get off the runway.''

The problem didn't use to be nearly so bad. A couple of generations ago there was little activity south and east of the airport. But new neighborhoods and businesses grew, and now Merrill Field is surrounded by city.

Schommer and Byington said some improvements are scheduled for this summer to increase security.

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