I regularly attend aviation events all over the country and have been doing so for around 40 years. I always enjoy seeing the numbers and variety of aircraft at these events, whether the event is primarily for sport aviation enthusiasts or features high-end business aircraft.
Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun always amaze me by the sheer numbers of aircraft that are on the field at any one time. The business events impress me with the size and scope of the planes used in corporate flying. The Reno Air Races are fun to watch for the simple power, speed and, yes, the daring of many of those pilots.
But, for absolute fascination, there is nothing like driving around Lake Spenard and Lake Hood in Anchorage and viewing the multitude of airplanes. This is the only tower-controlled floatplane facility anywhere and, with the number of planes based here and the extent of the operations, it is easy to understand why some control is helpful.
I’m writing this while attending the Alaska State Aviation Trade Show & Conference, which took place in Anchorage May 1-2. I’ve already run into people I know from virtually every corner of the United States and Canada. The show is located in the FedEx hangar at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) and the interior is filled with exhibitors, while the ramp is packed with aircraft ranging from antiques to sport planes to cabin class bizjets.
But, what continually surprises and thrills me every time I come up here and have the opportunity to look around, is the number of aircraft and pilots. There are 613,745 pilots in the United States, according to FAA data from 2008. In Alaska, about 10,000 people have pilot certificates and about that same number of aircraft are registered in the state. And, it is often said that if everyone in Alaska who flew had a pilot certificate and current medical, the numbers would probably be a heck of a lot higher.
Of course, we all know that Alaskans use general aviation like the rest of the country uses the interstate highway system to get around. However, in Alaska, there aren’t roads leading to every town and hamlet so the airplane is it … wheels, skis or floats, summer, fall, winter and spring, big or little plane. They are used to transport people, to fly students to school, to deliver mail, food and other supplies. Emergency hospital runs are by airplane, of course.
I can only imagine what flying would be like if the attitude toward general aviation was as positive in the rest of the states as it is in Alaska. There are parts of the lower 48 where general aviation is treasured and used much more than in others … the upper Midwest states stick out in my mind, particularly Montana. The large areas between relatively small communities makes flying as attractive to folks in Montana as it is to those in Alaska.
Perhaps if we tore up the interstate highway system, flying would increase in utilization and popularity throughout the country. Or if we could just educate the public to the convenience, the efficiency and, yes, the relative safety of general aviation, we would be able to get more people to join us in the skies. Educating folks seems like a perpetual project, one that has obviously worked in Alaska.
While the use of aircraft has obviously sunk into the mainstream of Alaskans, I discovered something surprising today. With all the flying, I assumed Alaska had one of the most complete and extensive aviation divisions of any state in the union. Boy was I surprised to learn that there is no aeronautics division or aviation specific department of the Alaska Department of Transportation. Instead, the state is split into three regions and each of those has a department responsible for all aspects of transportation. Unfortunately, none of those regions have specific aviation arms. The net result is that support and coverage varies from region to region.
The state owns about 215 airports, while municipalities own another 35 or 40. When you count in the privately owned strips that are registered in the state, the total comes to around 700, according to knowledgeable folks up here.
The problem is that the state operations provide little professional or experienced airport management. They are good engineers but don’t have much in the way of experience in managing airports.
Just in the last few months an organization has been formed of Alaska airport management people. The goal is to improve management. Now the group is trying to get the DOT to join in and help upgrade operations.
I’m really surprised that a state with such extensive use of aviation hasn’t long been a leader among state aeronautics divisions. Let’s hope something positive comes out of the realization that the state airports need more assistance and leadership.
I did point out to the folks to be careful what they wish for — they might just get more government participation and that isn’t always the best course of action. It’s going to be interesting to see what ultimately results.
Dave Sclair was co-publisher of General Aviation News from 1970-2000.