Spurred by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Oregon Department of Transportation, construction will soon begin on a new heliport in the northeast corner of Bend Municipal Airport.
But some airport business owners and officials are divided over whether creating a separate space for helicopters will help with the overcrowding issues at the airport.
A heliport is a space, typically located within a larger airport, that provides space for helicopters to take off and land. The proposed heliport for Bend Municipal Airport will take up an area of about 427,000 square feet and also include more than 90,000 square feet of hanger space, as well as space for outside businesses, according to information provided by Airport Manager Gary Judd.
“We’re just really excited about this,” Judd said.
Judd added that the goal of the project is to reduce some of the congestion on the ground by creating a dedicated space for helicopters. As it stands now, there is parking available for helicopters, but takeoffs and landings have to be done from taxiways that are intended for fixed-wing aircraft.
“From my perspective, the sooner we can give these helicopters a place to land, the better,” Judd said.
However, Gwil Evans, president and general manager of Professional Air, a fixed base operator based at the airport, has been a vocal critic of the project. In January, Evans sent a series of comments in response to the environmental assessment for the heliport questioning whether the proposal would alleviate airspace problems caused by additional traffic at the airport.
“Our real concern is that it’s a solution, but it doesn’t fix the problem,” Evans said.
Laying the groundwork
The quest for a heliport is not new. In 2009, Bend Municipal Airport applied for a Connect-Oregon grant, which are managed through the Oregon Department of Transportation, to build a heliport. A subsequent Connect-Oregon grant for $326,700 toward a Helicopter Operations Area was awarded in August 2014, according to Chris Cummings, Freight Program Manager for ODOT.
On Sept. 14, 2015, the airport was awarded a grant from the FAA for $966,670 for the project, and Judd said more funding would be coming from the agency in 2016. In total, the cost for the heliport has been estimated at more than $8 million, according to Judd.
The FAA approved an environmental assessment for the project in July. Judd said site preparations, including removing trees, would likely begin this winter. He estimated that the project would be complete in the fall of 2017, pending additional funding.
Bend airport was hit hard during the recession. The closing of the Cessna plane factory and the bankruptcy of Epic Air eliminated nearly 500 jobs. But overall operations — takeoffs and landings — have increased since 2010, and helicopter activity is leading the way. An air traffic review that was conducted in 2014 as part of the environmental assessment projected 70,104 helicopter takeoffs and landings in 2014 — around 51 percent of the total operations at the airport.
Much of that helicopter activity comes from Leading Edge Aviation, a business based at the airport that provides a variety of services, including helicopter charters and flight training classes. Professional Air has fought both Leading Edge and the City of Bend in court over Leading Edge’s plan to install two aviation fuel tanks at the airport, stating that the city breached the terms of his company’s lease.
Travis Warthen, vice president for Leading Edge, estimated that the company is responsible for around 90 percent of helicopter traffic at the airport.
“We’ve seen constant growth since 2010 on the helicopter side,” Warthen said.
The vast majority of flight training students are taking classes through Central Oregon Community College, Warthen said. The COCC Aviation — Professional Pilot program is around a decade old and has grown steadily in recent years, according to Karl Baldessari, Aviation Program coordinator for COCC.
Today, he said, the program has 225 students, around 120 of whom are focusing on helicopters. He said during school days, Leading Edge could have as many as eight helicopters running at any given time.
It all adds up to a lot of activity for an airport with a single 5,260-foot runway and no air traffic control tower. Evans said “go-arounds,” aborted airplane or helicopter landings that can be caused by activity on the runway, are common, and pilots have avoided the airport in the past.
In the comments sent in response to the environmental assessment in January, Professional Air cited a “near-collision” earlier that month.
“This is an airport where it is absolutely mandatory to always have your eyes outside the cockpit and always be paying attention,” Evans said.
Baldessari added that a heliport would simulate conditions that helicopter students would face at other airports, in addition to being easier to manage.
“If all of your helicopters are operating in the same physical location, it makes things easier,” he said.
However, Evans remained unconvinced that the new heliport would do anything to alleviate traffic in the air. In an email sent to the FAA in January, Professional Air argued that the proposed air traffic split, which would have the east side of the runway manage helicopter traffic coming from both directions, while the west side would do the same for fixed-wing aircraft, would create problems by creating additional hazards that pilots would have to navigate without the help of a tower.
Instead, Evans advocated for a new federally funded control tower, which would improve communications for all aircraft. While neither Evans nor Judd would speculate on the cost of such a tower, Gabe Daniel, line services manager for Professional Air, pointed to the airport in Aurora, which completed a $3.3 million control tower in August. That figure did not include maintenance or staffing costs.
“And this airport is busier than Aurora by far,” Daniel said.