The blackout is over at the Nenana Municipal Airport.
When lights turned on last month at the airport runway, just south of town, it marked six years since the lighting system failed. Lights and the airport beacon operate now due to lots of legwork, community connections, some CARES funding, and the expertise of a local electrician.
The runway’s original lighting system was installed back in the 1970s, according to Nenana Mayor Joshua Verhagan. In 2003, lighting was extended and upgraded to include a parking area and a ski strip.
“Since then, nothing has happened in terms of additional funding or improvements or maintenance,” Verhagan said. “Unfortunately, six years ago, the lighting system went out, due to a few things.”
In particular, three-phase air field regulators were needed to repair the lights. These days, that is old technology that is very expensive and very unique, Verhagan said.
With runway lights not operational, runway use was curtailed extensively over the past six years, as daylight dwindled during winter months.
“To not have lights when probably two-thirds of the day is dark, it’s really an issue,” the mayor said. “Basically the window was in the middle of the day. It’s not likely that people will only have emergencies during that short window.”
Nenana is an alternative landing site for medivacs headed to Fairbanks or headed to or from the airstrip at Clear.
“Even though it was a huge issue, safety-wise, Nenana couldn’t do anything about it,” Verhagan said. “The city didn’t have that money.”
When he became mayor of Nenana two years ago, he moved the project up the priority list. Estimates to repair the lights were high, in the $100,000 to $150,000 range.
Then, earlier this year, COVID-19 hit and the city received $30,000 in CARES funds from the Federal Aviation Administration, specifically allocated for the airport. Airports throughout the country received similar funds.
“We determined we were going to try our best to get the lights at least up and running for $30,000, since the money could be used for that and not much else,” he said.
Nenana city employee Jaret Laurence, a pilot himself, began calling airports throughout Alaska, in search of some reasonably-priced regulators. He hit the jackpot at Merrill Field Airport in Anchorage.
“They just upgraded to a single-phase lighting system and their four-year-old regulators were obsolete to them,” Verhagan said.
To the city’s surprise and appreciation, Merrill Field donated two regulators to the city of Nenana.
“This is what it means to be good neighbors,” Verhagan said. “Municipalities ought to look out for each other.”
He wrote a letter to the airport manager expressing the city’s deep gratitude. Verhagan said he’d like to see communities connect and help each other more often, perhaps organize to share their needs on a regular basis.
“I could see this being very beneficial,” he said. “A lot of communities are struggling and don’t have funding, even for something as basic as light regulators.”
Local electrician Steve Minnema went to work, and it wasn’t long before the runway lights were working.
“We were now able to get the lights back up, within the dollar amount we still had left, because we could then pay Steve Minnema to install them for us and not have to spend it all on buying new regulators,” Verhagan said.
The airport beacon was also re-activated, to help pilots find the runway from the air.
Since the lights activated, air traffic has definitely picked up with both local and visiting pilots, Verhagan said.
“I knew safety-wise how significant it was, I just didn’t know how many people were excited about it,” the mayor said. “So we were able to use that $30,000 to purchase the equipment and materials needed, as well as paying for the labor.”
One of the city goals is to provide courtesy cars for visiting pilots and passengers, so they can drive into town for breakfast, lunch or dinner or just to visit the city of Nenana. That system isn’t set up yet, so the mayor recently met a pilot and passenger himself and drove them into town for lunch.
“It makes me really happy that we can finally have planes land here safely any time of day or night,” he wrote in a Facebook post to the Nenana community. “What a great way to end 2020.”
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @FDNKris.