Cars, trains, buses--these are how most of us get where we need to go each day. But for many Alaskans, air travel is a regular part of their routines.
Because of its unique geography, airplanes are often used in Alaska to transport people and goods. Nearly 11,000 Alaskans are registered pilots, a number that gives the state the most airplanes per capita nationwide and the most pilots per capita in the world. And with so many pilots and such a high frequency of flying, you can bet that aviation safety is a top priority.
Off-airport landing, photo courtesy blueiceaviation.com
That’s why the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has partnered with the Fairbanks International Airport and Palmer Municipal Airport in Alaska to build practice runways that allow pilots to work on their landing skills in a safe environment.
"Alaskan pilots face high-risk flying and landing in remote areas of a largely rural state. For example, on hunting and fishing trips, pilots may have to land on river sand bars or on mountain ridges."
The Alaska Department of Transportation introduced the idea of designated practice runways to help lower the number of general aviation accidents. Then, FAA employees at the William J. Hughes Technical Center refined a design created by the State of Alaska and provided recommendations.
Finally, with the help of the FAA, the practice landing strips were marked, each measuring 25 feet wide by 600 feet long. The gravel runways were designed to mimic the conditions pilots would face in real flying situations.
Encouraged by the ease of design and implementation, other Alaskan airports are now considering similar test areas. And the feedback we're getting from the pilots who use the existing practice strips will help us make the next runways even more useful to prepare Alaska's pilots for off-airport landings.
It's all part of a series of safety initiatives Alaska has already put in place. The state was the initial test site for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) from 1999 to 2006. The regional FAA office also promotes a weather camera program designed to improve pilots’ situational awareness. Other programs operating in Alaska with FAA support include the consumer safety program Circle of Safety and the Medallion Foundation, an Alaskan aviation safety organization.
Those efforts are working. Recent statistics show Alaska’s fatal accident rate has been lower than the national rate for four out of the past six years. And the new practice runways will help reduce accidents even more.