Merrill Field serves Anchorage aviators for over 90 years
In 1915 the southern edge of Anchorage was Ninth Avenue – with only undeveloped land beyond. In about 1917, vegetation was trimmed back along a one-block wide by 16-block long strip of land south of Ninth to create a firebreak, and in 1923 this strip was completely cleared to accommodate Anchorage’s first airfield and a golf course.
By 1929, Anchorage’s residential areas were expanding around and beyond the Ninth Avenue airfield, prompting the City of Anchorage to relocate its aviation facility to Anchorage’s eastern outskirts, just beyond what is now 15th Avenue. After receiving title to the land from the federal government, the city built “Aviation Field,” which was operational by August 1929.
In 1930 the airfield was renamed in honor of early Anchorage aviator Russ Merrill, who disappeared on a flight across Cook Inlet in 1929. By 1935, six airlines were operating off the field, and it handled more than a quarter of the state’s air traffic.
After World War II there was an influx of military veterans (many of whom had gained flight experience during the war) and other civilians into the territory. This was accompanied by an increase in the use of small civilian aircraft for both commercial and recreational flying.
Also after the war, and due in part to wartime airfield construction in Alaska and Canada, commercial aviation initiated the Northern Pacific Great Circle air route from North America to Asia. Anchorage became one of the principal stops along the route.
With the increased activity, a control tower was built at Merrill Field in 1947. Photos show it as a skeletal 4-story structure constructed of steel girders, with a covered stairway winding upward to the enclosed control “cab” atop the structure. In the late 1940s the airfield also improved other facilities, including lengthening both its east/west and north/south runways.
By this time, Anchorage’s growth had again surrounded its airport. Merrill Field couldn’t expand, and it couldn’t accommodate the larger planes then entering service. A new airport at Point Woronzof (now called Ted Stevens International Airport) was constructed between 1949 and 1951.
Many officials expected the new airport to eclipse — even eliminate the need for Merrill Field. However, while larger commercial operators moved to Point Woronzof, small operators and private pilots remained loyal to Merrill. According to a history of Anchorage area aviation, Merrill’s activities in the early 1950s exceeded those of Los Angeles and San Francisco — ranking it No. 1 on the West Coast. During this time the length of the runways was once again increased.
In 1961 a new four-story air traffic control tower (shown in the drawing) was constructed south of the east-west runway, near its intersection with the north-south runway.
The City and Borough of Anchorage merged in 1975, and the new Municipality of Anchorage assumed control of Merrill Field. The Municipal landfill adjacent to Merrill closed in 1987, giving the airport room to expand. Expansion included adding a seasonal northeast/southwest runway for use by ski-equipped aircraft.
With facilities expansion, by the mid-1990s Merrill Field needed a new tower. A 10-story control tower was constructed on the north side of the runway between 1997 and 1999.
After the new tower became operational, the old tower, which obstructed air-traffic-controllers’ views of taxiways and the north-south runway, was deconstructed. The upper floors, along with the control tower cab, were removed. The ground floor was then re-roofed, modified, and repurposed as the Airport Manger’s office.
The old control-tower cab was moved to the Alaska Aviation Museum adjacent to Lake Hood. The cab was renovated with a grant from the State of Alaska, and is now open to visitors.
Today’s Merrill Field, which boasts over 150,000 flight operations each year, remains one of the busiest airports in the United States.
“Historic Recap – Aviation in Anchorage, Alaska.” Gail Phillips. Alaska Aviation Museum website. 2016
“Merrill Field celebrates 75 years.” Melissa Campbell. Alaska Journal of Commerce. 2-26-2005
“Merrill Field.” Municipality of Anchorage website, 2022