Airspace Change Threatens to Disrupt Christmas Tree Harvest
October 5, 2015
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  • An airspace designation change threatens to disrupt Christmas tree helicopter harvests around Salem, Ore., but a solution may be at hand if federal regulators approve revisions.

    Christmas tree farmers in the vicinity of Salem, Ore., hope a change in federal airspace designation won’t complicate upcoming helicopter harvests of their crop.

    Over the summer, the Federal Aviation Administration increased the radius of “Class D” airspace around the Salem Municipal Airport from about four miles up to eight miles in some areas.

    This expansion would impede harvests of Christmas trees in the area because helicopters would come under stringent restrictions that would effectively prevent most flights when visibility is low — a common occurrence during the cloudy autumn months.

    “We realized it would shut the growers down,” said Terry Harchenko, president of Industrial Aviation Services, a Salem aviation firm that serves farmers.

    Roughly 2,600 acres of Christmas trees on multiple farms are included in the larger “Class D” airspace, said Ben Stone, whose family operates BTN of Oregon, a farm near Salem.

    “That’s a big area,” Stone said.

    Growers have a narrow window of five to six weeks to harvest trees, so companies such as BTN of Oregon wouldn’t have time to switch their harvest plans this year, he said.

    The farm doesn’t have sufficient tractors, roads or workers to cut and haul the trees by ground, nor could such operations be accomplished quickly enough to meet holiday demand, Stone said.

    “We’ve farmed with helicopters for 30-plus years,” he said.

    Due to protests from pilots and others affected by the airspace change, the FAA agreed to scale back the expansion — under a new proposal, the radius of “Class D” airspace around the Salem airport will increase by up to one mile.

    However, due to the public notice and comment process, growers fear the revision will not be finalized in time for this year’s harvest.

    “Helicopter harvest is very critical to what we do,” said Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association. “I refer to the Christmas tree harvest as controlled chaos and this is going to make it even worse.”

    There is a possibility that harvest disruptions can still be avoided.

    Agricultural aviators may be able to operate under a “letter of agreement” that allows them to fly in the “Class D” airspace during periods of cloudiness and reduced visibility, as long as they follow certain conditions.

    Rob Broyhill, air traffic manager at the Salem airport’s control tower, said he’s drafting a “letter of agreement” that he expects to have done by Oct. 15. The proposal must still be approved by FAA officials, he said.

    Harchenko of Industrial Aviation Services said the outcry from pilots and growers, as well as intervention from Oregon’s congressional delegation, will hopefully allow the problem to be resolved in a timely manner.

    “It could have been a real disaster if everybody wouldn’t have gotten with it,” he said.

    Growers should also submit comments on the scaled-back “Class D” airspace proposal, which was published in the Federal Register on Sept. 21 and can be found online, Harchenko said.

    The original expansion occurred after an FAA review determined the change was needed to improve the safety for pilots operating on instruments around the airport, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

    Affected pilots and others didn’t comment on the proposed change because they were unaware of the FAA’s announcement, said Mitch Swecker, director of the Oregon Department of Aviation.

    “Nobody noticed it,” Swecker said.

    During periods of low visibility, pilots in “Class D” airspace come under the jurisdiction of FAA’s control center in Seattle, which is unlikely to have time for helicopers harvesting Christmas trees, he said. In such a situation, the Seattle control center would probably simply stop them from flying.

    “There ability to focus on something as small as ag operations is not very good,” Swecker said. “It probably wouldn’t be a high priority for them.”