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As the region’s aviation community anxiously awaits the annual yes-or-no decision about whether the Alton Bay Ice Runway will open, here’s a tidbit to consider: Keeping Cessnas and Beechcraft from crashing through as they land isn’t why officials have to wait until there’s at least 12 inches of ice everywhere.

“It’s not the airplanes we’re worried about so much. We need the foot to hold the trucks that we plow the runway,” Jason Leavitt said, noting that a 10,000-pound truck outweighs two or three small private planes.

If we could only get enough volunteers to clear the 260,000-square-foot runway with shovels, it could be open more!

I learned this intriguing fact while interviewing Leavitt for the New Hampshire Aviation Museum, which sits alongside the main runway at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, and is what may be the funkiest building in the Granite State. The museum is in the airport’s original terminal, which looks like an escapee from Miami Beach, sporting a green Art Deco vibe that is about as un-New England as it gets.

If you don’t know the museum, you should. It’s a cool place to learn about general history you might not know, like the New Boston Bombing Range, and see far more state airplane-related stuff than you’d expect. Make sure to check out the canopy from a military jet that was ejected during a crash and ended up being used as a snow sled by kids who found it in the woods. You won’t find that at the Smithsonian.

The Alton Bay Ice Runway, as you probably know, has for 30 years been the only FAA-designated ice runway in the Lower 48. (Alaska is not impressed.) It usually opens by mid-January but often is accessible for just a couple of weeks. Climate change is making everything iffier: It didn’t open at all in 2019 or 2023, and so far this winter is looking depressingly warm.

Leavitt, as airport manager, gets the delicate task of deciding when the runway can open and when it has to close. Under regulations, it must shut by March 15.

“As soon as the ice is four inches thick, we start the layout process to keep ice fishermen off. As the winter progresses, we go out with a long auger, 7/8-inch-diameter drill, and measure. As soon as it’s a foot thick, we open the runway,” he said.

The north-south runway is 2,600 feet long, or half a mile, to give plenty of room to stop on the friction-free surface. It’s 100 feet wide and there is also a taxiway and a large parking area for planes. That’s a lot of space which requires thick ice.

“You have to have that consistent 12 inches everywhere: runway, parking, ramps. If you get out there at 2,500 feet and you’re only measuring 11 inches, it’s not open,” Leavitt said.

Twelve inches is probably more than needed but this is definitely a case where it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Every morning before traffic comes in, I check the runway, make sure there are no ice-fishing holes, cracks,” Leavitt said. One reason the runway isn’t longer, in fact, is that just past the end of it there’s an area prone to ice heaves and cracking.

Leavitt, whose real job is state Division of Aeronautics planner for UAS or unmanned aircraft systems, a.k.a. drones, took over as airport manager from Paul LaRochelle, who resurrected the runway when it was in danger of dying out and retired recently. Alton Bay has been a seaplane base since the 1940s and pilots have been landing on the ice since the 1960s.

The runway has always had a special reputation among private pilots, who come from as far away as Florida to earn an Ice Chip commemorative piece for landing here. Leavitt said its popularity has grown markedly in the past decade: “I think social media is really what has made it grow. Facebook posts – people love those posts!”

“On busy days we have people on the ground marshaling airplanes, giving an advisory on conditions. Sometimes the parking area is full, that’s the big limitation. We advise planes in the pattern that it’s full; they might circle in the pattern, wait for somebody to leave. … Some land, then taxi back and take off just to say you did it,” said Leavitt. Things get particularly hectic during Alton’s Winter Carnival.

To find out if the Ice Runway is open, check its Facebook page or call the recorded line at (603) 271-7398. If you’re a pilot, Notams (notice to airmen) from the FAA may also be available, listed under B18, the identifier for the Alton Bay Seaplane Base.

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