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Alaska Airstrip Vandalism Is Highest In Y-K Delta. DOT Is Trying To Stop It

Russian Mission saw one of its worst spate of runway vandalism in April.
Jim Duffy

The Alaska Department of Transportation has a problem: it’s hard to keep people from breaking runway lights in rural airports, especially in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The state is trying to mitigate this through a series of public service announcements, posters on bulletin boards, and outreach to villages, as the lack of working runway lights can keep flights from landing.  

A long and graveled airstrip is very tempting to kids looking to have some fun in Alaskan villages. Linda Bustemante is the Department of Transportation’s outreach coordinator for a program to try to curb the problem. 

"We need help keeping kids off the runways, and we don’t want them using the runways for any purposes other than to safely meet a flight," she said. 

The DOT has a Rural Airport Safety Program, which uses public service announcements and posters to spread awareness of the dangers of breaking runway lights. Bustemante says that they see the vandalism problem a lot at western Alaska’s many airstrips.

In Russian Mission, for example, four kids smashed around 40 runway lights in one evening a few months ago. Jim Duffy, the state’s contractor for maintaining the village's airstrip, understands why kids want to go there to play: it’s right next to town.

"Early in the spring, this is the driest ground," Duffy said. "Just maintaining the runway and the apron, having that cleared, that’s always clear ground first whereas up at the areas that aren’t cleared, there’s still snow four weeks later."

Duffy says that the kids are usually responsible and police behavior among themselves.

DOT's Bustemante was asked if the state might be open to finding a better place for kids to play, particularly during breakup. 

"[If] it’s a direction they want to go, it’s certainly something we can talk to them about," Bustemante said. 

A couple of teachers in Russian Mission have started their own outreach in schools to help, but the runway light vandalism problem usually spikes in the summer when kids are out of school.