RANTOUL – It’s been less than a year since Rune Duke has been at the helm as manager of Rantoul National Aviation Center (he was hired last April), and he is not sitting back waiting for pilots to discover the air field on the grounds of the former Chanute Air Force Base. He’s scheduling events to bring in more traffic.
A new helicopter school is fully operational. Duke also is also planning a fly-in this summer to coincide with a popular truck show, and the airport hopes to capitalize on the popularity of unmanned aerial systems – the technical name for drones. Helicopter school. The helicopter school, Summer Skies, started operations about six months ago after being based at Urbana’s Frasca Field for three to four years, Duke said.
“It’s improving as the weather gets better,” Duke said of activity at the school. “I know they’re extremely busy in the summer. Not only for spraying for agriculture but also for teaching students. They take on a lot of international students as well.”
Duke said helicopters are being used more in crop dusting. Drone usage. In the future, drones will probably be doing the crop dusting, Duke said.
“From what I’ve read, about 80 percent (of the drones) used in the U.S. will be used for agriculture,” the airport manager said.
The airport hopes to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in drone use. But like everyone else, airport officials are waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to clear usage.
“The FAA has regulated it so heavily,” Duke said. “Just last week they came out with a notice for rule making that would open the commercial side of UAS.”
Currently, drones can’t be used commercially without special permission.
The FAA’s biggest fear appears to be drones interfering with other general aviation aircraft, “which is primarily what Rantoul does,” Duke said.
“You mix that in with a drone, which is hard to see and not moving fast, and a pilot who’s not looking around, and it can be very dangerous.”
Duke said drones are “an emerging industry” — one that’s been flourishing internationally.
“There’s been a lot of businesses trying to take advantage not only of the platform but also the sensor and data analysis,” he said.
Duke said he has been in discussion with a large number of people in industry as well as colleges and universities “to see how we can take advantage of it.”
The airport does not own any drones. Duke doesn’t know if that will ever happen but said the airport will almost certainly be used for drone flight in some capacity as the industry is opened up and perhaps larger drones come into service.
He said he foresees larger hangars at the airport being used as wind-free testing facilities.
“Perhaps the local high school — that type of thing,” he said. “They would fly them in the hangar. I think it would be a good facility for that.
“Everybody’s kind of waiting” to see if UAS usage opens up. “Right now it’s primarily non-commercial hobbyists,” he said.
The airport has produced a brochure touting its merits for UAS, including being a foreign trade zone, access to rail and highways and climate-controlled hangars.
“This location offers the facilities, infrastructure and airspace to operate a premier unmanned aerial systems testing, manufacturing or teaching facility,” the brochure states. Fly-in set. The airport will host a fly-in July 25 to coincide with the annual Top Gun Large Car Shoot.
“A lot of general aviation airports try to do that for the local community to show off the airport and what it has to offer,” Duke said. “It brings in pilots from around the area.”
Duke said the fly-in will also benefit the truck show and the airport museum.
“It will be a huge draw and bring more excitement for the museum and make the truck show people aware of the airport and the museum,” he said.
The fly-in will be held the same weekend as the nation’s largest aviation event at Oshkosh, Wis.
Duke said airport officials hope that some of the pilots who attend the Oshkosh event will stop by the Rantoul fly-in on their way home.
“I did speak to the Frascas (who operate Frasca Field in Urbana), and they’re going to Oshkosh, and they’re talking about on their way back home, stopping by,” he said.
Discussions are also ongoing for Wright Flying Service to offer flights, and possibly the Confederate Air Force bringing in a B-25, which has not been confirmed.
Tom Reitz of Gifford, founder and organizer of the truck show, said show planners welcome the addition of the fly-in.
He said Top Gun officials are “in the planning stages” to accommodate the fly-in.
The truck show runs July 24-26 at the airport. This will mark the eighth year for the truck show.
“We’re looking at other avenues to add … that would coincide with (the fly-in),” Reitz said.