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At the End of the World…

by Jan 27, 2020Magazine, Oil & Gas

Deadhorse Aviation Center is a one-stop-shop and home-away-from-home

The US military utilizes DAC services when conducting winter readiness exercises in Deadhorse.

Deadhorse Aviation Center

Weather conditions in Deadhorse make it the ideal setting for the US military’s winter readiness tests. And the Deadhorse Aviation Center (DAC) is the perfect base of operations.

“We have the infrastructure and support staff to help them out,” says Timothy Cudney, who has served as director of the DAC since 2013. “We have the hangars and the meals; we’ve had times where we’ve had 150 soldiers sleeping on the floor in the hangar, with the command team in the regular DAC offices and accommodations.”

Cudney says the military exercises take place every other year, and next month will be the fourth he’s seen since he came onboard. The military sends a staff of roughly 50 to Deadhorse ahead of the exercise to set up, with DAC staff on standby to assist as needed.

“It’s all quiet on the western front until 50 show up, and then another 150 show up,” he says.

That was the case during a February exercise a few years ago, when temperatures at altitude were -60˚F. About 160 paratroopers were flown out to jump, after which they trekked across the Arctic tundra to the DAC to rest, warm up, and have a meal in the dining hall, Cudney says.

The exercises are routine for the military, but they can still surprise DAC staff.

“Here we are waiting for them all to come in, and we see them being carried in with frostbite, broken ankles, and back injuries from landing on their tailbones,” Cudney recalls.

The military isn’t a regular presence at the DAC, Cudney says, but they highlight the uniqueness that accompanies running an Arctic aviation center located at “the end of the world.”

The DAC is equipped to screen passengers and baggage and handle secure cargo.

Deadhorse Aviation Center

Shell Game

Situated at the end of Deadhorse Airport’s Runway 5, the DAC was originally conceived as a single-client, multi-purpose facility to support Shell Oil Company’s offshore activities in the Beaufort Sea, says Rick Fox, CEO of Fairweather, which co-owns the DAC with Offshore Support Services (an Edison Chouest company) and Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation.

In 2006 Sherron Perry, Fairweather’s founder and first CEO, and Shell entered into an agreement for Fairweather to build the DAC, with construction beginning that year. But when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals placed an injunction on Shell’s exploration activities the following year, the oil giant negotiated out of the lease, leaving a building with no tenant.

“At that point, the building was closed in but there was no build out in the interior,” Fox says. “So, you just had a metal building. A nice metal building, but just a metal building on one lot.”

The unfinished building sat dormant until the Chouest family, owners of Edison Chouest Offshore, a Louisiana-based provider of marine transportation solutions seeking to expand its operations and establish a presence in Alaska, purchased a majority share of the DAC from Fairweather.

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“The Chouest family had been interested in going into business in Alaska because they saw the long-term value of the offshore exploration,” Fox says.

In 2011 Fairweather hired Fox, recently retired from Shell, to help build out the facility. With Shell out of the picture, Fairweather had to modify its original concept.

“We changed the concept from a single client to a multi-client and retained the multi-purpose use,” Fox explains. “We built the building we thought would best serve the North Slope for all clients, rather than what Shell had in mind.”

Architects Alaska designed the at-the-time 70,000-square-foot facility, which contains an ergonomically designed hangar, airport terminal, medical facility, multiple secure office suites, tenant and staff housing, dining facilities, and a logistics center. Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation out of Utqiaġvik served as general contractor, with other local contractors assisting. Construction was completed in 2012.

But because the DAC was a rare speculative buildout, it still had no tenants.

“The typical model is to have a contract in hand before you attempt something like this,” Fox says. “Since there was already a building, we had a choice of letting the building sit empty and wait for a business or build something that we thought would work and go after the business. We chose the latter.”

It took time, but the DAC’s vision and patience paid off. GCI, which supported the engineering and design for the DAC’s technology rollout, was the first to move in. The telecommunications company has operated in Prudhoe Bay for more than thirty years and was previously typically housed by the oil field companies, says Rick Hansen, GCI’s vice president of engineering and operations. Changes to their work model, however, left them in need of an independent space.

“When we moved to a customer-neutral environment, we still didn’t have a space that enabled us to be independent to the oil producers while still being actively engaged with all our customers,” Hansen says. “One of the largest issues with past leases was the quality of rooms, food, and accessibility after hours. The DAC was a perfect fit to move our operations into, while still being very close to all our day-to-day customers.”

Today, Fox estimates the DAC has eight long-term tenants and another thirty to forty ad hoc clients, like the military, researchers, and universities, who use the center on an as-needed basis.

Although the DAC shifted focus from a single- to multi-client operation, its primary focus of providing safe, efficient aviation services to oil companies and their suppliers remains the same.

“We serve as an FBO—a fixed base of operations—so if a corporate jet, charter flight, or executive plane flies up, we’re the ones that serve them while they go do their business on the North Slope,” Fox says.

Two hangars are available for the public, private, and charter planes that fly in and out of the DAC. The 16,000-square-foot west hangar is fully equipped with safety, fire suppression, and internationally approved environmental features and can accommodate two or three large helicopters or smaller fixed-wing aircraft. The 12,000-square-foot east hangar can accommodate private jets, single and twin-engine prop planes, and helicopters; in addition, it has a combined 4,000 square feet of office and lounge space.

The terminal complies with Department of Transportation security requirements and offers passenger and baggage screening and handling of secure baggage and cargo. The twenty-four bedrooms and twenty-four suites each have private baths, while kitchen facilities and a dining hall can feed sixty guests. Secure office suites and a private conference room are equipped with video conference capabilities and Wi-Fi.

Because no other business operates in Prudhoe Bay outside of the oil and gas industry, the majority of the DAC’s clients are either oil and gas providers or suppliers who support their activities, Cudney says.

But some ad hoc users fall outside oil and gas, he adds, which can provide interesting experiences for staff.

In addition to the military, researchers from the US Geological Survey conduct polar bear surveys out of Deadhorse, Cudney says, and DAC staff have been able to accompany them on some counts. The Federal Aviation Administration houses its weather cams on the building and occasionally asks staff to clean them.

“We’ll get a call to get some Windex and go clean the camera lens,” Cudney says with a laugh. “With all the technological advancements, they want us to clean it with some Windex and a lint-free cloth.”

Fixed Base of Operations

Adapt to Succeed

One of the key aspects of the DAC’s success is its ability to meet both the actual and anticipated needs of its target users.

“Without having the clients, we had to be flexible going in,” Fox says of the DAC’s approach to determining what services to offer. “We had to figure out what would work for the people we were trying to serve and make adjustments, and we did.”

The heated jetway DAC installed in 2015 is one example. The first of its kind in the US Arctic, the fully enclosed jetway was designed specifically for use in the harsh Arctic climate to increase passenger safety and comfort.

“One of the big selling points was passenger safety,” Cudney says of the push to build the jetway. “We didn’t want people leaving a warm environment to walk fifty yards to the terminal in the cold and wind. The exposure to having someone slip and fall was astronomical. The jetway is much safer.”

That flexibility and willingness to work with clients was a factor in Alaska Airlines’ decision to route its daily flight service in and out of Deadhorse through the DAC rather than upgrade its existing terminal, Alaska Airlines’ Regional Vice President Marilyn Romano says.

Alaska Airlines’ Deadhorse terminal was originally part of the company’s 2020 Great Land Investment Plan, a three-year, $100 million initiative for maintenance, facility upgrades, and improved air-cargo service, she says.

“Toward the end of that cycle, our options were to remodel the [terminal] we had or tear it down and rebuild it,” Romano says.

But a new option presented itself when Alaska Airlines entered into a contract with BP Alaska to transport oil field commuters. After extensive discussions with the DAC, the airline ultimately decided that leasing space, rather than undergoing a complete redesign of its terminal, was the better option and began daily flight service in late October. The experience, Romano says, has been nothing but positive, and she believes it’s a win-win for both the airline and the DAC.

“We were able to work with Rick and his team and our airport affairs team, so instead of rebuilding our facility we entered into an agreement to use a beautiful facility already up there,” Romano says. “They’re just willing to do and work with us for whatever we need.”

Right now, the primary needs are modifications to accommodate TSA and some “small little tweaks in terms of passenger flow and baggage retrieval” to improve efficiency and make the passenger experience more comfortable, Cudney says.

The Future of DAC

The DAC has expanded its footprint since 2012 and now sits on forty-one acres, Fox says. Nineteen of those are classified as non-aviation, which allows the land to be used for ground storage, as a laydown yard, or (as happened several years ago) a place for luxury car company Audi to test its vehicles’ cold-weather performance.

The potential exists to build out the adjacent aviation lot and add another large hangar or to add additional gravel to the non-aviation portion of the lease, Fox says, but for the moment there are no plans to expand.

“We’re at the point right now where we would rather listen to our clients, so we’re paying attention to what they might need next,” he says.

In the meantime, Fox says the DAC will continue to meet the needs of its clients and provide the service they’ve come to expect.

“The goal is to be a one-stop-shop for aviation support,” he says. “Our clients expect good service and we give it to them.”

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