Wichita, my last home town, was titled the “Air Capital of the World”, which made absolute sense, because more airplanes were built in Wichita than in every other town in the world. When I worked in Wichita, I worked at Cessna Aircraft company, the company that built more airplanes than any other in the world. That being said, I have seen more aircraft in the air over Anchorage than anywhere else in the world — and on top of that, I have seen more Cessna aircraft in the air than any day I spent in Wichita.
To get a sense of what its like here, let me rundown the airports here in town:
1) There is Ted Stevens International, which is THE commercial airport (if you are flying to ANC, it’s Ted Stevens). It is also an international hub for FedEx & UPS. (Here is a test you get to answer later — why Anchorage as a FedEx or UPS hub, why wouldn’t you put it in the center of things like they do in Memphis or Louisville?) Ted Stevens also incorporates Lake Hood, a float plane docking area and runway — Lake Hood’s “runway” makes Ted Stevens the busiest float plane airport in the world.
2) Merrill Field, a small plane / helicopter airport. The oldest and one of the first airports in Anchorage, it handles mostly chartered or personnel (non-float plane) aircraft. It is ranked annually as one of the busiest airports in North America, even with few flights going through during the winter months.
3) JBER, or Joint Base Elendorf Richardson, or the joint Army-Air Force base. It’s an F-22 Raptor base (that’s the newest kickass fighter the US military uses), with supporting aircraft and tankers leaving regularly.
4) The other little private places here and there, including Campbell Lake, a small residential lake that just happens to be the size perfect to land a float plane on … right in town.
Why is it so busy up here? Well, in part because of the obvious tourism potential. Of course, there is the commercial traffic to get people here from the Lower 48 or elsewhere, but that’s just the start. Most of Alaska isn’t reachable by car, and rough to get there by boat. But there are enough lakes and flat strips of land, that anyone who wants to charter (or if you are local or rich … own) a plane can just be an hour’s flight and you are in literally untouched wilderness. It’s you, a cabin/tent, a lake, a whole bunch of bears, and no humans for miles. There are also “flightseeing” trips, where you can rent a plane to take you to around the mountains and through the fjords. One will even pick you up in town, land you up on top of a glacier, then take you on a dog sled while your up there. The demand for these flights are huge!
There is also the support flights here too. I mentioned before that you have to take a 2 hour flight in a 737 to get to the slope, and those planes are packed multiple times a day. Many of those working up there don’t live in the Anchorage area, so they are flying back to the lower 48 for their R&R. Then there is the support needed to all the communities that you can’t reach by car. Stuff you find in groceries or supermarkets need to be flown into towns like Nome, Dutch Harbor, & Cordova. There is numerous commercial service going to those companies as well.
Then there is the Cargo that doesn’t stay long. I mentioned that Anchorage is a FedEx & UPS Hub — the reason why they use Anchorage because it is in the center. Center of what, you ask? Well — the Center of the routes between, North America, Asia, and Europe. Because of the curvature of the earth, most flights from Asia pass over Alaska going either to North America or Europe; so it just made sense to stop them here and divide up the goods. Every day tens of massive cargo planes come in from Asia, the Lower 48, and Europe land here, run through customs, split things up for the right continent, then send them back on their way. It turns into strange shipping too — like, when I bought my IPhone, and the tracking information said it went from China, to Anchorage, to Louisville, to Anchorage, to me.
So the skies always seem to be filled. The military jets out of JBER, the private planes out of Merrill, the commercial and cargo planes out of Ted Stevens, all seem to blanket the skies. It is moreso this time of year, now that the sun has melted the float plane strips and there is so much more to see when you get up into the sky. They don’t call this the Air Capital here … my guess is because people are too busy flying to call it anything.
PS — I intend to give a “history of aviation in Alaska” blog one of these days, because its pretty interesting. But hard to not comment on the skies being filled right now, when I look out the window and see nonstop airplanes flying.