Birchwood Airport to Get Enforcement Action?

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Statements made by a handful of pilots in front of Alaska's Department of Transportation and public facilities officials at a recent meeting of the Birchwood Airport (BCV-PABV) Association will prompt an FAA enforcement action at the state-owned airport in early 2002, according to DOT officials.

DOT officials were on hand at the October 11, 2001 meeting and open house of the Birchwood Airport Association's 160 members to present a consultant and host a presentation for the implementation of an airport master plan study. The officials reacted to a confrontation between general aviation and ultralight activity that may play into the hands of Alaskan politicians.

State Sen. Rick Halford, (R) Eagle River, criticizes DOT for the lack of separation between two runways used for general aviation and ultralight activity, and the construction of hangars close to the end of the ski/tundra tire/ultralight runway.

News of the enforcement action is already pitting general aviation pilots who use Birchwood against ultralighters, although state DOT officials have indicated that the enforcement is not targeting any one group.

"Yes it is unfortunate, but we are going to ask FAA and some of our officials to start enforcement of procedures at Birchwood," said Ron Stroman, leasing officer at Birchwood for DOT. "We are not looking at any groups per se, but individuals who are not using the airport according to procedures."

Birchwood Airport users have continually agreed at previous meetings of the Airport Association that ultralights have not been a problem. In addition, to date there have been no ultralight accidents, nor have there been any incidents between general aviation aircraft and ultralights in many years.

"This is absolutely baffling," said Pete Marsh, president of Ultralight Flyers of Alaska (USUA Club 094), an organization of 85 members. "I see now that some users on this airport don't consider our ultralights viable aircraft and we are intruding into the space for their private club airport. This is crazy, our club members' safety record speaks for itself!"

Controversy about the use of ultralights at Birchwood airport is nothing new to long-time users of the facility. Mike Jacober of Arctic Sparrow Aircraft has battled with other pilots and FAA officials over pattern and operational procedures for the last 21 years.

The most recent action to thwart ultralight activity was an attempt by a local FSDO inspector to rule that the woods and surrounding area on the east side of Runway 01R/19L was a congested area. This ruling would have forced ultralights to enter and exit the pattern at 2,000 feet agl over the standard aircraft pattern.

FAA rescinded that definition as unsafe and impractical, and the inspector was moved out of the region.

Since 1999, DOT officials created Birchwood pattern procedures for general aviation and ultralights, and went so far as to designate 600 feet of a taxiway that leads into the ski/tundra tire strip for ultralight use.

Ultralight runway 01R/19L is east of the paved 4,000-foot runway, with an operational ultralight pattern also to the east of the airport.

General aviation operations on the main runway 01L/19R operate in a pattern to the west of the airport.

According to Stroman, this is the only airport in Alaska that uses FAA-approved DOT-recommended procedures.

To further add to the confusion, Birchwood Airport Association's executive director Dick Lochner, who has reiterated continually at the Association's meetings that there is no problem with ultralights, later said that perhaps "ultralights should go elsewhere to fly."

In the past Lochner has been very critical about the use of ultralights at Birchwood Airport, and made this comment at a Birchwood Community Council meeting in session to discuss the airport's master plan study.

The comments were subsequently published in the November 22 issue of the Alaska Star, a local Eagle River newspaper. The Star published three stories about airport safety in three separate issues on their front page before allowing the ultralight community to give their side of the recent accusations.

DOT officials admit that they thought operations between general aviation aircraft and ultralights were working out, and are dismayed at what they heard at the October 11 meeting.

"I thought this was all worked out and things were going smoothly," says Stroman. "But when I heard pilots were changing the pattern procedures and landing in the safety aprons on the main runway, that was too much."

At the root of DOT's problems with Birchwood Airport is a state senator who has repeatedly written letters to DOT Commissioner Joe Perkins, prompting the stories in the local newspaper.

"I am concerned about safety at this airport," stated Senator Rick Halford. "I am getting letters and calls from constituents who think it is just a matter of time until there is an accident out here."

"This is ridiculous," says Dave McKay who is taking instruction from Jacober. "Ultralight pilots conform to regulations and procedures more so than some general aviation pilots."

McKay, a high-time helicopter pilot and executive president of Northwestern Arctic Air - an aerial ambulance service that offers flights in Alaska and the Russian Far East with Lear 25 and 35 aircraft - thinks Birchwood ultralight pilots are bending over backwards to comply with procedures and regulations. "'Safety', 'safety', 'no simultaneous operations' and 'watch for general aviation activity' are the buzz words out here," says McKay.

Jacober, who offers all pilots a free class on ultralight airport procedures, contacted Lochner (who also serves as the association's newsletter editor) about publishing a public service advertisement in the Birchwood Airport's PABV Newsletter. Jacober wants to offer the free class to general aviation pilots every fourth Wednesday of the month at a regular ground school offered by Arctic Sparrow Aircraft.

According to Jacober, Lochner initially refused the ad, saying they don't run ads and that it would take an action of the board to accept the advertisement. PABV News regularly offers advertisements and features in the newsletter about general aviation businesses on and off the airport.

"I don't care about the enforcement action as much as when they are going to be out here looking for illegal procedures," says Mike Jacober, a USUA AFI with more than 3,000 hours as a flex-wing instructor. "They will be out here in the winter when there is diminished use of the airport by those who are breaking the rules. We fly all winter, that will only leave us for them to examine."

"I am not worried about the enforcement," says Howard "Bud" Gish, a powered parachute dealer who uses Birchwood Airport. "Bring 'em on. We are all legal. I think they are going to bring more action against general aviation pilots than ultralights."

"This just might backfire in their faces," adds McKay who is in agreement with Gish.

Clearly blanketed by all of the controversy is the excellent safety record by an increasing base of ultralight users, says Jacober. "Our pilots are doing a good job, the safety record speaks very well for itself, but we are not going to take this lying down," Jacober says. "We will work with DOT on pattern procedures and see what happens.

"I have been here far too long and put too much time in here to have a handful of pilots using the gravel ski/tundra tire runway to try and run us off. If the association and DOT continue to needle us, general aviation users might just lose the use of the ski/tundra tire strip. If they don't ease up on their complaints, we might all just end up on the main runway."

Report filed by Rob Stapleton

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