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Pilots contend with snow and ice at Soldotna airport

Soldotna's airport on Funny River Road is owned and maintained by the city.
Sabine Poux/KDLL
Soldotna's airport on Funny River Road is owned and maintained by the city.

When the fish are jumping and the sun is shining, the Soldotna municipal airport hums with traffic from tourists, pilots-in-training and local anglers.

In the winter, the airport is a lot quieter. Private pilot Brian Groseclose guesses about 10 percent of the pilots who keep their planes at the airport fly in the off season.

And he said those who do are often dependent on conditions both in the sky and on the ground.

“It’s basically a joke with all the pilots here that the lack of maintenance – don’t expect to do much winter flying," he said.

The city of Soldotna maintains the airport. It's a base for private pilots, training schools, flightseeing operators and aid organizations, like Samaritan’s Purse.

The city also maintains Soldotna’s main roads. Those come first on its list of plowing priorities.

When there’s snow or ice, the city sends out crews first to work on its busiest roads, then to its residential neighborhoods. Kyle Kornelis, the city’s public works director, said they’ll often try to send an operator out to work on the airport runway while they’re working on residential neighborhoods.

The city’s taxiways – which pilots use to get back to their hangars and to fill up fuel – are typically last on the list.

“The operators that are out here, they’re very talented, they do a great job when they’re here," Groseclose said. "I can’t complain about the quality of their work. I think it’s great. But it’s not frequent enough when it snows.”

Pilots say that’s been a problem for years.

By many accounts, this year has been especially tough. Kornelis said the repeated snow dumps have left the city struggling to keep up.

“That’s really what kind of puts us, and most agencies, behind the curve," Kornelis said. "When you’re unable to finish taking care of that snowfall event before more comes.”

The city has separate loaders and graders for the airport and city streets.

Kornelis said the limiting factor generally isn’t equipment, but people. There are five crewmembers and an airport maintenance staffer to take care of snow removal, though that can fluctuate throughout the season.

Kornelis said the city also went over budget on snow removal this year. It’s asking the city council for more money to deal with the problem.

“Complaints certainly are up," Kornelis said. "And not unwarranted. We’ve had to leave conditions in a state that isn’t up to our expectations, isn't up to snuff, in our opinion. But with more and more snow coming, we’ve been able to get on it the very next day or a couple days later as we move around different areas of the city.”

The city’s used grants from the Federal Aviation Administration in the past to buy snow removal equipment and upgrade its main runway. Kornelis said the airport doesn’t have a contract with the FAA to pay for snow removal services specifically.

When conditions are really unsafe, the city issues NOTAMsto let pilots know. Groseclose, who used to work with the FAA, says he worries about newer pilots who might not know what to expect when flying into Soldotna, and medevac companies that fly to the area.

Lifemed Alaska, one of two medevac companies that flies to Central Peninsula Hospital, uses the Soldotna airport in the summertime, said Chief Operations Officer Steve Heyano. That’s much more convenient for the operator, since it’s five or so minutes away from the airport.

But Heyano said in the winter, Lifemed uses the Kenai Municipal Airport, since it’s maintenance is more reliable. The company will use a taxi to get from the airport to the hospital, and then the Kenai Fire Department to get the patient back to the airport – about a 17-minute drive each way.

It’s deterred Groseclose, too. Some pilots put their planes on skis. His is on wheels.

“Five days since November I’ve flown," he said. "That’s it.”

On Friday, a large part of the pavement area was covered in a thick layer of rutted ice and snow. One grader was clearing a huge chunk of asphalt as snow melted off hangar rooftops.

Groseclose pointed to a particularly large rut in the taxiway.

“Soon as I went into a hole like this, it would either break my landing gear or I would hit the propeller and that’s a $50,000 ‘oops’ right there," he said.

Following the snow meltdown and additional maintenance work last weekend, Kornelis said the runway and taxiways are mostly asphalt.

But the bad weather this winter, in particular, has been a catalyst for the city to start rethinking how it does its snow removal.

“It’s a good opportunity and reminder to kind of relook at things and see how we can do them better," he said.

He said the city will be soliciting public input on what it can do better. And while there likely won’t be any substantial changes this year, he said he wants to make sure the city is braced for the next one.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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