What started out as an emergency landing strip in the woods 20 miles north of Elmendorf Field now is home to 303 aircraft.
More than 200 takeoffs and landings now occur at Birchwood Airport every day on average. Pilots have a choice of two paved and lighted runways with a beacon, but no tower. The airstrip is designated for both standard airplanes and ultra-lights, as well as an occasional glider.
During the build-up to World War II, an Army Air Corps field was constructed on Ft. Richardson. It was named in honor of Capt. Hugh Elmendorf who died in 1933 in Ohio while flight-testing a Consolidated Y-1P fighter plane. A large area along the east side of Knik Arm had been withdrawn by the government and a backup strip next to the railroad tracks at the mouth of Peters Creek was cleared. It was abandoned by the Army after the war and turned over to the Territory of Alaska. Designated as BCV, the airstrip was activated in 1949.
Birchwood resident Ralph Doyle in 1954 cleared the runway of brush that had grown up during a decade of disuse. A contractor, Doyle was also a pilot who owned two planes previously based at a strip on Pippel Field in Eagle River. In those days of do-it-yourself enterprise, he opened Chugiak Aviation at the gravel strip in Birchwood and operated a flightseeing service and a flight school. To enable him to use the strip at night, he installed lights alongside the single runway.
A number of other pilots, both local residents and those from nearby communities, obtained tie-down spaces at the airstrip. In addition to parking for private planes, the airstrip became popular for touch-and-go landings due to the low air traffic in the area.
During the 1970s a powerful windstorm went through Birchwood, causing considerable damage to planes that were not sufficiently tied down. Dozens of planes were tossed about, flipped over and severely banged up. Subsequently, the state improved facilities in an effort to mitigate the damage in future such mishaps.
Operated by the State of Alaska, the airport occupies 196 acres. Classified as a general aviation airport, it is 83 feet above sea level and has open approaches from all directions. Its runways are 4,010 and 1,800 feet in length. Operations include small planes, helicopters, ultralights and gliders. Several hangars with commercial services connected with aircraft are situated at the airport.
The paved runways are not monitored and are subject to wear, so pilots are reminded to make a visual inspection before landing.
Local pilots became involved with the Civil Air Patrol not long after Doyle cleared the runway in 1954. The Birchwood Composite Squadron now has a hangar there with aircraft including a de Havilland Beaver. The squadron takes part in search and rescue operations and the Alaska Wing flies an average of 150 such missions a year. They also have a cadet program for teens who are interested in aerospace activities. Aviation safety is emphasized to help reduce the number of aircraft accidents in the state.
The area around the airport has long been seen to have potential as an industrial area. It adjoins The Alaska Railroad, which has a large railyard with several sidings, and is close to the mouth of Peters Creek. Knik Arm is navigable and was used by ocean-going steamers during the Gold Rush era of 1898-1910.
While past ideas went nowhere beyond the talking stage, Eklutna, Inc., has recently developed Birchwood Industrial Park on 160 acres it owns adjacent to the rail yards. The Alaska Native Corporation says the site is designated as a Foreign Trade Zone, “offering unique advantages for manufacturing, warehousing and distribution enterprises.”
A gravel mining operation which has been ongoing there is being wrapped up and the land will be leveled in preparation for building and development.
While the Birchwood Airport will never supplant Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport, it will continue to serve small plane owners well into the future. As history has proven, it will continue to grow and gain improvements to make conditions better.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.