Following a couple of accidents and concerns about overall safety, state planners are proposing a new airport be constructed to serve the villages of Nanwalek and Port Graham. Public comment is being taken about the proposed project now.
According to National Transportation Safety Board reports, the existing Nanwalek airstrip is 1,850 feet long by 50 feet wide. It sits at sea level, bordered by the waters of Cook Inlet and by upsloping mountainous terrain to the north, east, and south. The village of Nanwalek is built on the northerly slopes, overlooking the airstrip.
Local pilots have reported to NTSB that flights in and around Nanwalek routinely encounter substantial downdrafts when strong, east-southeast winds are present and that, when east-southeasterly winds are blowing, the approach to the runway requires a significant correction for a left crosswind.
In 2003, a Smokey Bay Air Cessna 206 crashed at the airstrip after an aborted landing, killing the pilot, who was alone in the aircraft. According to the NTSB report of that incident, a number of Nanwalek residents who witnessed the accident reported strong wind gusts – between 25 and 35 knots – blowing directly across runway.
In December of 2011, the pilot of another Smokey Bay Air Cessna 206 and his two passengers had to swim 75 feet to shore after the plane went down shortly after takeoff.
Chris Shaver is an investigator with the NTSB who studied the 2011 crash. He agrees that Nanwalek and Port Graham need a new location for their airstrip.
"It is local knowledge that ... due to the terrain that surrounds that airport, you can get some challenging conditions," said Shaver.
The proposal for a new airstrip is viewable online at the Alaska Department of Transportation website. It calls for a new airstrip to be built between Nanwalek and Port Graham, with a 3.5-mile road to be built to connect the communities to the new facility.
The new runway would be 3,300 feet long by 60 feet wide. It would be made of graded gravel, a runway lighting system and a 25-foot-wide taxiway.
An environmental assessment of the area has recently been completed and public scoping meetings were conducted in Nanwalek and Port Graham in July of 2010.
Some of the concerns brought up by village residents at those meetings included the stability of the soil in the area of the proposed airport, what the potential effects by dust might be and how local water bodies might affected.
A representative from DOWL Engineers, the company tasked with developing the project, declined to be interviewed and representatives from DOT did not return telephone calls in time for this story.
You can submit your own comments on the proposed project at the DOWL Engineers website.