Airport Equipment Operator in King Salmon Alaska

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Airport Equipment Operator, State of Alaska, King Salmon Airport

After moving my small family to King Salmon/Naknek in 1984, at first being employed at the Naknek School district 1984-87, then being self employed in a residential heating service from 1987-1989, I realized that the optimum job choice for me was to seek employment at the King Salmon Airport. I had previously worked at the Anchorage International Airport as a maintenance worker. Here at King Salmon I would be with the same state employment union, and could continue my retirement and benefits as well as have a dependable income for living in a semi-remote Alaska village. My wife Kem, as well as daughters Naomi and Rebecca encouraged me to be the best I could be knowing I had a passion for running heavy equipment since I had traineded in those skills growing up in West Texas. So now I paid up my union dues and waited on the list until the airport manager called me in for an interview. I found we shared a love for the transportation trades, a love for God, for family, and he also believed in diversity of culture. In the next couple years he showed how people like himself, and local natives of Alaska could work together in unison to accomplish goals within the rural areas of which 90% of all transportation was done by commercial airline. At that time both Mark Air, Alaska Airline and Peninsula Airways, as well as Reeves Airways dominated air transportation with flights to Anchorage Alaska and to Dillingham, which was also located in Bristol Bay. The other big industry here was commercial Salmon fishing, bringing a great number of seasonal employees to the region starting in June and ending in late August. It bears to mention the influx of world class fishing and hunting enthusiasts, as well as scores of small privately owned aircraft frequented our airports, both the 8500 foot long King Salmon airport and the 4800 foot Naknek runway.

One of the key components was joint use of the airport, being occupied by the King Salmon Air force Base. It was a front line defense housing F-15’s for “TOP COVER” of Alaska, with fast deployment of those jets in any intercept deployment with target of the Old Soviet Union, which by the way seems to be reassembling itself under Russian President Vladimer Putin. Even today I recommend King Salmon Air force base be re-manned to stand by for the future safety of our airways. King Salmon airbase was re-designated into caretaker status back in 1998. I maintain that the defense of a country relies on combined land sea and air protection with a strong defense system that is up to date and fully operable. Its too late to cry wolf after the wolf has already broke into the chicken coop, right?

While employed I was given assignments to help the small highway crew in the summers to keep all paved surfaces on the peninsula highway and the airport in good repair. We went out daily to fix signs, clean culverts, remove beaver debris, to patch holes in the asphalt with emulsified (hot) asphalt, and to clean and maintain bridge surfaces. We repaired embankments, brush-hogged the right of ways, and kept the secondary gravel road surfaces graded as well. Sometimes we had to clear obstructions from ditch and drainage structures, and of course in the winter months we plowed ice and snow. Occasionally we laid down sand or pea gravel to establish good traction on the roadways for the public. The gravel runways were not an issue usually, except we kept the snow plowed off the primary surfaces and the runway lights in good repair. I worked on a crew of about 6 operators, and we shared those duties, while constantly being crossed trained on several pieces of equipment. I could run the Champion grader, or later the John Deere Grader as well as the next guy, and we all took turns in the straight sand truck with a front one way plow. It was a good choice to slow down with that piece of machinery when coming into town and being close to structures etc, so as not to shoot heavy, sometimes wet snow into someone’s driveway or worse yet into the side of their building. By the end of the first winter I was being called upon to work more heavily on the Paved Airport and doing a wide range of duties, as my radio designation of “State Seven”. I performed as a surveillance and operations officer to check the runway braking “traction” readings using the “tapley meter”, then turning in a runway condition report to the FAA control tower or flight service radio control center of the King Salmon Airport. One of us would daily issue any “notams” on specific conditions, or on non standard Runway markings, or closed runways etc. I was one of the men as well who trained for and became an A.R.R.F. agent (aircraft rescue fire-fighter), also airport manager qualified to close the runway and to issue commercial air carrier operating permits, to execute FAA part77 safety regulations and FAA part 149 air carrier regulations. Some of the other men over that time period included Mike Swain who eventually became the airport manager following Joe Hudon. others were Glen Anderson, Mechanic, Bill Knutsen who passed away several years ago; Oren Williams who passed away after the left the State employment, Steve Jones (related to the Bristol Bay Contractors), Tim Mcdermott, Amos Anderson (who later became Airport Manager), John Fundeen, John Donkersloot, Abe Williams and several others, who slip my mind at the moment. Together we had to work as a team and keep the State of Alaska happy, as well as the Air Force, who back in those years kept themselves busy making our job challenging due to they paid the contract/bill to keep the runway conditions at their minimums and to their liking. They used a different braking test called “RCR braking”. If the numbers were too low they might inadvertently require us to scrape ice with the runway plows, or to apply some E-36 chemical to keep the runway surface friction at its highest level even though it might start snowing again. I found through the years that the runway core temperature has a crude memory factor in that it ‘remembered” the temperature of a day or two earlier. The runway core might still be what the ambient temperature was the day before yesterday, so we had to take that into consideration, in as much as ice may still keep forming well after the temperatures have risen above freezing; And vice-versus, it might still be melted and good runway braking friction a day or so into a blowing, freezing snowstorm!.

Daily, we started our day by doing runway inspections and then by changing hats while we attended to plowing the runway, sweeping the runway, blowing snow into the atmosphere with snow-blowers, preferably away from the runway surfaces, and applying de-icing chemicals. THEN we turned in the FAA runway reports, and gave commercial airlines a written authorization to land at our airport. Then we would change hats again and become an A.R.F.F. firefighter with a silver flame retardant suit, and out to the runway we’d go with a million dollar fire truck set up with 3000 gals of AFFF (aqueous film forming foam) along with 500 Lbs of dry chemical, and we set up to cover the approach and landing of a Boeing 727. We only covered commercial flights unless there was a specific emergency and the Air Force responded for their own aircraft. Training for aircraft firefighting was provided once a year as well as airport managers and safety training. As well, the local, state and Air Force emergency response units would set up a simulated crash landing site and do incident command post, triage, and rescue technique training every year or so, which we participated in and some of us acted as airport officials while others responded with aircraft rescue trucks. It was all necessary to keep us in practice and also necessary to stay current with applicable training certificates. However the most fun was the trips we made to outside training facilities. One year it was Coulis base in Kodiak, which provided live fire training, airport safety training, and emergency response techniques. Following that one, in the next few years I attended the same certification classes and live training at Hagevik fire training facility in Juneau Alaska, and Big Bend College in Moses Lake, Washington. While talking about this, I will mention that in 2007 I was working as assistant to the airport manager in Jamestown N.D. with Airport Manager Jennifer Eckman, whereas she sent me to Duluth Minnesota for A.R.F.F. fire and rescue certification part 139, part 77, and other requirements including live burns and classroom time at Superior College fire training facility. After completion I began responding to the Jamestown regional flights as A.R.F.F. official. The daytime duties of airport office assistant kept me so busy with airport leasing and billing etc., that there was so little time to play, but I somehow made time to get into the hanger and practice with the firetrucks so I would be comfortable if ever caught in a live emergency situation.

Within the daily activities working for the State of Alaska at King Salmon Airport, I found myself stretched and challenged to perform at high levels of proficiency while learning FAA regulations, such as surveillance codes and operations, State minimum response requirements, fulfilling the contract with the joint use agreement, providing the Air Force with their minimum requirement for safe runway conditions, and AT THE SAME TIME provide snow and ice control labor which required constant diligence to keep the equipment running sometimes in intense sub-zero cold. We would literally scrape ice with plows equipped for belly blades using1200 lbs of down pressure for hours on end, sometimes until the ice and snow storms abated. We were ever on call. There was no time to eat hot lunches, so it just had to be a quick sandwich or whatever you had brought with you. In my case my wonderful wife had usually prepared me a full and nutritional bag lunch. If it was just snowing without icing conditions, using the Sicard/Caterpillar sweepers pulled behind a tow truck would suffice, but once a snow “berm” had formed we would be required to use a plow to remove it from the runway. First we plowed using the Oshkosh roll-over plows. Then someone would follow with an 4X4 Oshkosh 20 ton Snow-blower, blasting snow and ice crystals into the atmosphere away from the runway and lighting, sometimes forming a man made cloud over the runway which added to the natural wall of ice fog we face through most of the snow storms. These weather conditions forced us to make frequent calls to the FAA tower to inform them of our position on the runway since they could not see any better than we could. But a normal call I would make would be, “tower, plow 7 at taxiway Charlie, eastbound on runway 11(one-one), 10 ft inside lights, full length”. Later when the work was completed I would clear off by reporting, “tower, plow 7 clear of all runways". Every activity you performed on the runways while in tower operations hours would be transmitted on the tower frequency in a similar fashion. Conversely, they might have issued an order to clear the runway by an order, “all runway personnel clear the runway immediately for inbound traffic, report when clear!” So each one of us would clear at the nearest taxiway or service road and report “state 7 clear”, or whatever number they identified as. If it was a plow it should clear as a plow.

One quick story about a blizzard that created a road closure one winter while Bill Knudsen and I were working the night shift, we were called out by the state police to open the peninsula highway, and with Bill in the Champion grader and I in the big straight plow truck, an International with a 12 ft. one way plow; well, after we worked and pushed snow drifts for two hours, I heard Bill on the radio saying “MIKE, I LOST THE ROAD!” (this could be bad next to power lines and ice and tundra just off the road at Paul's Creek flats,); I breathed a sigh of relief one hour later when he spoke on the airwaves again, “I FOUND THE ROAD AGAIN!”. Hallelujah, I wasn’t going to have to call out the military troops to rescue him! (The drifts that night were close to twelve feet tall). Some of the men I worked with could be pretty rough and yet they seemed to forgive me for also being a minister and missionary through these years. I visited Bill later when he was close to death after having suffered a stroke. At this time he told me he had accepted Jesus into his life at this point. He passed peacefully, missed by his sister and others of his family.

Sometimes we would have encroachments of wildlife on the runways and we would be dispatched to shoot shotgun blanks, diverting them out of the safety zones. Caribou and occasionally a bear or fox were likely to stray into the airport perimeter. Fences eventually took care of most of this problem except the varmints. Also one that was harder to deport was the migrating geese varieties on their way up and down the peninsula.

Ongoing duties were to repair the runway edge lighting. In a normal snowstorm several lights could come up broke and maybe were blown away by the snow blower. Occasionally also an airplane would hit some of them. In the summer we would mow the safety areas and the ILS glide slope areas to keep those operational. Daily duties would require us checking the lighting systems and glide slope systems prior to commercial flights, though the FAA provided servicemen to repair the more complicated light systems.

As my oil-fired burner repair skills were well known, this work overlapped with my career job and once I was called by Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Alexis, asking me to repair his house boiler and all its plumbing that had froze up (it was 35 below zero for several weeks that winter). So dutifully I brought him heaters to keep his little family warm and then began the arduous task of replacing both his boiler and all the heat-fin tubing and piping and all the inside plumbing that was broken: After it was fixed, he thanked me profusely; and even though I was paid for my services, he felt that I had given above and beyond by putting my family aside a little while in order to help them. Though I was another faith than he was, he maintained that I was welcome anywhere and in any village he was at. Sometimes the rewards of hard and faithful, selfless service pay other than in dollar bills!

Back on the airport, there were times that we worked double shifts, but the state pay system took care of us and the overtime really helped with the expenses of being married and raising a family while living in a rural(fly-in-only) area of Alaska. We also worked in a little missionary environment with our church and used much of the income to support a village vacation bible school ministry which has since been carried on by Andy and Lucinda Hall. They also used a small plane to travel and to get their ministry and faith delivered to the residents of Bristol Bay, using mostly the smaller Naknek runway. They used a hanger space provided them by Donna Vukich and partly due to village support over the years they were very successful in their work. So you see that everyone, including the fishermen and all local residents depended on our work keeping the airports to specification. Hunting abounded and there were lots of small aircraft involved with that, including King Air, Egli Air and others. Bristol Bay contractors (the Shawbacks) hauled fish, contracted the school bus routes, and basically ran the city docks, unloading barges and providing other freight needs. Sometimes they were called on to move airplanes as well. There was no shortage of work and jobs and challenges involved to make this small community operate safely.

At one point Mike Swain hired a local man who though being small, eventually made a good equipment operator, named Dave Foster. He was from somewhere over in Maine, but he brought a work ethic with him, and showed us you are never too old to work: Others, one who gave his life on the runway was Paul Munson, who had worked 30 years in the same job, and was ready to retire. Mr. Munson was caught accidentally between two of the equipment being used to pave and patch asphalt on the safety areas of the primary runway 11-29, and suddenly was killed.

Though we were always training, we learned from each other and for the most part were an inseparable team. Some of us were present on the King Salmon airfield at all times, in order to meet our mandate of operations. Though we each wore several hats, we took them off and put them on gracefully and cheerfully if possible. I doubt that any of us will forget each other as we worked that close together, whether Alaska native, or simply Alaska resident. We were the people of Bristol Bay, and though some of my best friends moved away as I did eventually, some however have stayed and will be there forever.

Whether you have been in a job similar to this one or perhaps are planning to work in such an environment, it is a challenge to live as remotely as this and accept the remote community lifestyle. It sometimes takes a few years for people to learn to trust and accept you as one of their own. But really I have found this to be true no matter where you go. I hope that I have made the biggest impression on my immediate family through my life and service to them and others. We are all changing slowly and getting older as the years go by, but we are never to old or too young to say “I love you!” to those who are our “family” either by birth, marriage or just by career association.

Author: Michael O. Jones/Oscarlites Hubpages/Copyrights owned/ copy by permission only

My regards to those I have mentioned as co-workers, including Steve Jones, (Steve and Mary ann) Amos Anderson and his family, Glen Anderson and his family, Tim Mcdermot and family, John Fundeen and family, David Foster and family, Michael Swain and family, John Donkersloot and family, Doug Moorcroft family, Munsen family, Abe Williams and family; also any I might have left out accidentally.

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