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June 27, 2013 // Facility Spotlight: Merrill Field Tower

There are 12 NATCA members Merrill Field Tower (MRI) in Anchorage, Alaska – 10 certified professional controllers (CPCs) and two developmentals.

The facility’s summer hours are 6:45 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. AKDT, and winter hours are 6:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. AKDT.

MRI is a general aviation airport that hosts 15 Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) aircraft a day. The largest daily commuter traffic MRI NATCA members see are Beech Super King Airs (BE20), though MRI NATCA Facility Representative Brandon Martin says members on occasion encounter a Douglas DC-3, a fixed-wing propeller driven airliner, and transport aircraft. The biggest aircraft that has landed at the airport is a Boeing-727, given to the University of Alaska earlier in this year.

Martin says MRI has an interesting airspace, “sandwiched” between the airspaces of Elmendorf Air Force Base (EDF AFB) and Anchorage Tower (ANC).

MRI NATCA members work with controllers at four other facilities, including EDF AFB, ANC, Anchorage TRACON (A11), and Kenai Flight Service Station.

What’s different about working in this 116-foot tall tower is its status as a training airport. MRI is home to several helicopter training schools, and MRI controllers work with a lot of student pilots as well as “bush pilots,” those who live in a village or remote area and rarely use air traffic control.

“The level of understanding is not always there so you have to really focus and double, and often triple check, that pilots are doing what you need them to,” says Martin.

At this facility, commissioned in 1999, NATCA members see an increase in traffic several times throughout the year for special events. One of these events occurs every March – the Iditarod. Martin says pilots fly supplies in and out of MRI to the long-distance sled dog race trail. Another event affecting MRI is the Elmendorf AFB air show, “Arctic Thunder,” for which MRI shuts down its airspace. MRI also sees an increase in traffic during an annual large fly-in, where 20-plus Bonanzas, Lances, and Aerostars stay at a campground on the air field for up to a week, and fly around the Anchorage area.

The MRI NATCA family promotes unity and bonding among themselves with fantasy football leagues, college basketball brackets and by competing on a group Play Station 3 for bragging rights, according to Martin. They also extend the family atmosphere to members’ spouses, and invite them to quarterly NATCA meetings.

Martin says the NATCA atmosphere at MRI is good. He says it’s an environment that’s easy to learn in, since NATCA has a good relationship with MRI management, and NATCA members all seem to be invested in what’s best for the facility and group. He also says MRI NATCA members are getting more involved in the Union.

“We are starting to get more people involved, with things like revamping training and taking classes at the national level,” he says.

When not on position, MRI NATCA members can enjoy all the activities of Alaska’s most populous city. While there are plenty of shops, restaurants, and a couple museums in Anchorage, the city’s nickname is “Big Wild Life” for a reason. As MRI NATCA member and hobby photographer Matt Quaid showed us in a recent edition of NATCA’S magazine, The Controller, there are black bears, caribou, lynx, moose, grizzly bears, and more living in close proximity to the city. Visitors can spot these creatures at the Chugach State Park, east of downtown Anchorage. Besides hiking in a state park, MRI NATCA members can opt to see Anchorage from the sky with a flight tour, or get a closer look at the breathtaking 1,000-foot high glaciers and humpback whales from the deck of a boat on one of Anchorage’s glacier and wildlife cruises.