Connecting Alaskans through airport design

by cmmyers  |   

UAA alumna Carla Baxley, B.S. Civil Engineering '01, senior project engineer in the Airport Design Group at R&M Consultants Inc., loves being in a career where she knows she makes a difference. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Airport runways are important, clearly. There needs to be a space for aircraft to take off and land safely, to transport goods, services and people to their various destinations day-in and day-out. But while taxiing out to a runway, buckled into one's seat, you never really think about the runway design or layout, or that once you take off, there's an invisible surface called a Part 77 Airspace. Essentially a buffer zone that airport engineers create depending on how large or small an aircraft is so it can safely maneuver through the sky. But all of these things are what UAA alumna Carla Baxley, B.S. Civil Engineering '01, considers daily when working on airport design projects.

Baxley grew up in Anchorage and once she graduated from high school, she decided to come to UAA to pursue her degree in civil engineering. As a full-time mom of two small children, she knew the importance of a college degree and getting into a field that not only excited her but would also pay the bills.

"Being a single mom, I needed to have a career that was a good career so I could take good care of my children and be a good example for them," Baxley said. "But I also really wanted to help people in a positive way, so I chose civil engineering."

Baxley has more than 17 years of airport engineering experience, in both the public and private sectors. She worked for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) for 12 years and was recently hired to R&M Consultants Inc.'s Airport Engineering Group, as a senior project engineer. She's worked on airports all over Alaska, from designing runways in rural villages only accessible by plane to working at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and she can truly say she loves her job.

"I didn't even really know about airport design in college," said Baxley, laughing. She said she'd never really thought about it until she went to work at DOT&PF. "You're never really taught about airport design in college; you learn more about highways and transportation, but most people drive a car and not everyone flies an airplane every single day," said Baxley.

But once Baxley began her work at DOT&PF and was assigned rural airport projects in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, she quickly realized how vital airport design and aviation is to communities off the road system.

Sunrise at Merrill Field on a cool September morning. Baxley's job has taken her all over the state for airport design work. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Connecting Alaskans to each other and beyond

"The importance of these communities having an airport is immense because it is their only source of transportation that is reliable all year round," said Baxley. She said for many of these villages, everything is brought in by aircraft, from medical supplies to items like generators or household necessities like dish soap. The runway is the connection to the outside world. "I really enjoyed going out there because I could see how important airports are."

She said it was truly an eye-opening experience for her and that, like many Alaskans on the road system or in Southcentral, it was easy for her to take for granted the quick accessibility of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport for a family vacation or the ease in which she was able to order items from Amazon and have it delivered to her doorstep. She said it's just not really something you think about until you're off the grid and you see how important a little strip of runway is.

"My perspective really changed when I started working in airport design," she said.

At R&M Consultants Inc., Baxley's latest project has taken her out to Newtok, Alaska - a community that's been in the news recently as an example of extreme climate change in Alaska. The remote Western Alaska village is having to completely relocate due to the warming climate that's causing the banks of the river to erode away where the village once stood.

"It's like 70 feet a year that river's moving," Baxley said. She and her team are helping the community of Newtok relocate and redesign their airport. "We will have that airport design and construction ready for next year and then they can start moving their community over to the new site, once the airport's built."

This project is why Baxley says she works in airport design. She said she is honored to work on Newtok's airport redesign because she's seen firsthand how important it is to the community.

"Once they're able to move to a different area, they'll be able to grow their community and my heart is really happy about that; I am able to help people have a better life," Baxley said. "I feel very lucky because not a lot of people get to have a career like this."

Passing the torch

Now that Baxley's children are grown (her daughter recently graduated from UAA's College of Engineering with a degree in electrical engineering), she felt it was time to make another career move. She joined local engineering firm R&M Consultants Inc., to work in their Airport Engineering Group. She was nervous at first but is thrilled to be a part of the team. She loves the close-knit "work family" at R&M and that potentially, for really big projects, the whole company could come together and bring their skills from the other divisions within the firm. She loves the creative and collaborative work environment.

Looking back, she's proud to be UAA alumna and is thrilled that her daughter is carrying the torch she picked up so long ago as a young student.

"I think UAA is so important and I love how my daughter and other students have graduated from what feels like a hometown, small-town university," said Baxley. "People really support each other there - my daughter got so much support with her professors and friends. I also think it's important for our community, to have a place where people can be educated."

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

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