SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Gravina airport is 45 years old

Jet age came to Tongass Narrows in 1973, a promised bridge did not



August 03, 2018
Friday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - Forty five years ago this weekend, the Ketchikan International Airport on Gravina opened.

The dedication of the airport on August 4th and 5th, 1973, ended a decade of intense effort to bring the community's airport from Annette Island 20 miles to the southwest

The Annette airport had been built during World War II and Ketchikan was connected to it by amphibians and floatplanes operated primarily by Ellis Airlines and then Alaska Coastal Ellis Airlines. 

jpg Gravina airport is 45 years old

Ketchikan International Airport
Photo courtesy Alaska Dept. of Transportation

In 1968, Alaska Coastal merged in Alaska Airlines and that airline provided the multiple daily flights that connected Ketchikan passengers with the northbound and southbound jets that were landing on Annette.

As early as the 1950s, the Ketchikan Chronicle and the Ketchikan Daily News advocated for a Ketchikan airport. Initial discussions centered around the only two patches of flat land nearby. Gravina Island, across Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan's West End, and the flat bench land near North Point Higgins, some 14 miles north of Ketchikan.

At one point, in 1955, the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce suggested that the Federal Government study the "feasibility" of filling in the Ketchikan side of the Narrows near Bar Harbor to create enough flat land for a landing strip, but that was quickly dismissed as being too expensive.

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In 1965, the Alaska State Division of Aviation commissioned a study that determined it would be possible to build a runway in the Ketchikan area that would be big enough to handle the largest jets of the day. The Ketchikan Daily News advocated strongly for the Point Higgins site, but state officials chose the Gravina site for two reasons. One, the Point Higgins site would have no room for expansion and two, the Gravina site would be closer and more convenient. State officials also pointed to complaints in Juneau that the Mendenhall Valley airport there was an  "inconvenient" 15 miles away from downtown Juneau.

At a speech in Ketchikan in 1968, Gov. Walter Hickel acknowledged that access to Gravina would be an issue, but only until the state built a bridge across the Narrows to Gravina. Hickel told the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce that the Ketchikan bridge would be built as soon as the bridge connecting Sitka and its airport on Japonski Island was completed in 1971.

Land clearing on Gravina began in 1969 and the airport officially opened on August 4, 1973. The dedication ceremony drew just about everyone who was anyone at that point in Alaska.

Gov. William Egan gave the dedicatory address. Also in attendance were Alaska's two U.S. Senators, Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel, as well as Congressman Don Young. The Federal Government was represented by U.S. Secretary of Labor Peter Brennan, Federal Aviation Administration deputy administrator James Dow and Transportation Department Deputy Secretary Bob Monaghan. 

Borough Chairman Karl Steward spoke on behalf of the borough. Astronaut Stewart Roosa was also among the honored guests.

The first jets began arriving on August 3. There was also an "autograph" party at the Voyager Bookstore downtown featuring Alaska Sportsman publisher Emery Tobin and former Mayor Bob Ellis. Also on hand was Roy Jones, 80, who had flown the first plane into Ketchikan, the Northbird, in 1922.

The weekend also featured an open house on the USCG Cutter Confidence at the Coast Guard base. On Saturday, the Alaskan Air Command Band arrived aboard an Air Force C-130 and residents were treated to several stunt plane shows courtesy of the Jack Hayes Stunt Flying of Washington. Sky Divers from the National Guard and the Air Force also performed.

There was also a special flyover of local flight services including Temsco, Webber Air, Ketchikan Air Service, Revilla Flying Service. Todd's Air Service and Southcoast Airways.

When the celebration wound down, Ketchikan adjusted to its new airport.

Initially, there were some concerns over noise from the jets taking off and landing just across the Narrows, but over time residents realized that the jets were much more quiet than the Grumman Goose amphibians that had dominated the waterfront since the end of World War II.

The opening of the new airport also spelled the end of the amphibians dominant role in Southern Southeast. Alaska Airlines soon retired the handful of the planes that had connected Ketchikan with the airport on Annette.

The new Ketchikan facility would also herald the end of the Annette airport. For several years, the US Coast Guard continued to operate a search and rescue air station on Annette, but by the end of the 1970s those operations had been consolidated in Sitka.

When the Gravina airport opened, airport ferries took passengers across the Narrows between Ketchikan and Gravina. Planning for the new bridge was slow and soon the state became concerned about the potential cost.

In 1978, the State Department of Transportation estimated that it would cost more than $25 million to build a bridge from near Wolfe Point at the narrowest part of the Narrows. State officials also expressed concern about how a bridge in that location could effect both ship and air traffic, especially in overcast or foggy weather.

It wasn't until the early 2000s when efforts by Sen. Stevens and Rep. Young brought more than $200 million in federal funding to Alaska to "improve access" to Gravina, ostensibly with a bridge. Unfortunately, by then the costs had risen dramatically, with some estimates reaching past $400 million.

One factor driving the cost was the rapidly increasing cruise ship traffic in the Narrows. Some designs called for a 150 foot high bridge in order to accommodate the mega ships. The cost also increased as proposals to build two bridges, one to Pennock and one from Pennock to Gravina, were considered.

In 2004, the state decided to pursue the two bridge option, with a 120 foot high bridge over the east channel and a 200 foot bridge over the west channel. The total bridge length would be more than 8,000 feet. Total cost was estimated at $398 million. About half of the money, $223 million, was approved in the federal budget in 2005, but last minute political wrangling removed the specific "earmark" for the Ketchikan bridge, leaving it up to the State of Alaska to determine how to proceed.

In the meantime, the Ketchikan bridge and the Knik Arm Crossing near Anchorage were being pilloried in the national media as expensive bridges to "nowhere."

When running for Governor in 2006, Sarah Palin strongly supported the bridge but then had financial concerns after taking office and balked at providing the state matching funds, $185 million, for the project. When Palin was running for Vice President in 2008, she frequently said that Alaska had cancelled the bridge to nowhere and returned the money. In fact, Alaska kept the money and used most of it on other projects.

In 2016, the state Department of Transportation announced it still had approximately $90 million left for "Gravina access." In 2017, the ADOT announced a plan to use the money to make infrastructure improvements to the ferry terminals and parking.


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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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