Birchwood Airport boasts big business
Tucked toward the end of Birchwood Spur Road, surrounded by forest, the Birchwood Airport is the tiniest in the Municipality of Anchorage, far smaller and more secluded then Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Merrill Field or Lake Hood Seaplane Base.
But the Chugiak airfield has its own bragging rights: One of the busiest small airports in the state, the Birchwood Airport is also home to the largest aviation manufacturing company in Alaska.
“Nobody expects us to be out here,” said Heather Montgomery, CEO of the Chugiak-based Airframes Alaska. “Manufacturing overall is difficult in Alaska – you don’t see a lot of manufacturers as it is.”
Montgomery’s company is one of the exceptions. From a cluster of hangars on the west side of the runway, it makes airplane parts ranging from landing gear and struts to tails and tires. In 2014, the company acquired the Alaska Bushwheel brand – a type of broad, sturdy tundra tire — moving manufacturing from Oregon to a hangar in Birchwood.
It continued to grow. When Montgomery first began working as an accountant for Alaska Airframes in 2012, she was the eighth employee, she said. Now there are 40.
On a crisp, bright afternoon in early September, some of those employees were busy at work in the company’s administrative office and fabrication shops. A computer numerical controlled lathe, a mill and a water jet are used for regular production and the occasional outside job, Montgomery said. In another hangar, the air smells like rubber, and piles of tires in various stages of production fill the floor.
In 2014, Airframes Alaska was named Made in Alaska Manufacturer of the Year by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. The following year, it purchased Merrill Field’s Reeve Air Motive. In 2016, Inc. magazine named the Airframes Alaska the fastest-growing private enterprise in the state, and number 37 on a list of the top U.S. manufacturing companies.
It all happened at the Birchwood Airport. Right at the midway point between Anchorage the Palmer-Wasilla area, the Chugiak space allows Alaska Airframes to draw customers and employees from both places, according to the company. The location is right for flying, too: Known colloquially as the Birchwood Bubble, the area tends to avoid the winds found in the Matanuska Valley and the fog sometimes found over Anchorage, according to local pilots. Some rural customers prefer flying in to Birchwood to avoid traffic at Merrill Field, Montgomery said.
Small planes are the company’s bread and butter. While many Alaskan pilots fly aircraft unmodified for decades, Alaska Airframes keeps a heavy focus on research and development, Montgomery said. This year, she said, they acquired a new double-slotted flap system — Performance STOL (short takeoff and landing) — which allows pilots to land at slower speeds and lower angles, ideal for rough Alaska terrain and short rural runways. There are plans for spacious new fuselage designs, too — adding one or two additional seats to the traditional two-seat Super Cub frame. One of the new designs is already certified, Montgomery said. The other is on its way.
While Alaska Airframes produces as much as it can at the Birchwood Airport, there are still gaps in Alaska’s manufacturing chain. There are no local casting or anodizing companies, Montgomery said, so some parts must be shipped Outside for completion.
About 10 percent of Alaska Airframes’ business is international – including a blossoming European customer base, according to the CEO. Approximately 30 percent of business comes from the Lower 48. The rest comes from Alaska, Montgomery said.
There’s plenty of it. On Aug. 25, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker declared September Aviation Appreciation Month in recognition of the state’s 749 registered airports and seaplane bases, 7,853 active pilots and 9,346 registered aircraft. Nearly 500 of those aircraft belong to Chugiak-Eagle River owners, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
The planes keep the Birchwood Airport busy. With more common-interest ownership agreements than any other small airport in the state, the airport has no more available space to lease, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation. For the fastest-growing manufacturer in the state, though, the local airfield turned out to be an ideal place to do business, Montgomery said.
“Birchwood is a fantastic location,” she said.