Piloting his twin-engine airplane, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe made a whistle-stop landing Friday at the University of Oklahoma Westheimer Airport to promote general aviation and the introduction of new legislation he has co-authored that would make federal funds more available to smaller airports for infrastructure improvements.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced the Forward Looking Investment in General Aviation, Hangars and Tarmacs, also known as the FLIGHT Act, in Congress on Thursday.
Inhofe is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and a certified pilot with more than 11,000 flight hours.
The FLIGHT Act, Inhofe said, extends the time frame for local airports to access federal funding from a four-year period to six years. The act also would “lock in” the money, making it available only to smaller general aviation airports.
Currently, smaller airports have to compete with larger airports such as O’Hare International Airport in Chicago for funding, he said. While money is made available first to the smaller airports, if the funds go unused over a four-year period, the unused portion goes back into “a big pot” accessible to larger commercial airports.
The new legislation would extend the four-year period to six years and ensure that any unused money would go into “a pot just for general aviation,” Inhofe said.
“A robust general aviation airport system has substantial, positive impacts on aviation safety, the efficiency of large commercial airports, emergency medical operations, law enforcement activities, agriculture activities and small businesses throughout the United States,” the senator said.
Many general aviation airports manage military-related and national security air operations, directly supporting the readiness and training of the country’s armed services, he said.
Inhofe said general aviation airports in Oklahoma are “in great need” of infrastructure improvements.
Before landing at Max Westheimer, Inhofe made stops at general aviation airports in Bristow and Frederick. After leaving Norman, he planned stops at Pryor and Grove before a return trip to Tulsa.
Oklahoma is home to 96 general aviation airports, which will need $303 million in critical infrastructure updates over the next five years, he said.
“As a pilot myself, I know first-hand the needs of the GA community, and the FLIGHT Act makes a number of needed reforms to facilitate GA airport infrastructure investment,” he said.
Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, accompanied Inhofe on his tour of smaller airports.
Currently, Bird said, “as much as $15 million a year goes back to a big pot in Congress, forcing smaller airports to compete with larger commercial airports for funding. The great thing about the senator’s act is that it locks in that funding to be used for general aviation airports.”
General aviation airports have a greater chance of accessing the money they need from “the smaller pot,” while also still being allowed to compete for funding from “the big pot,” Bird said.
If the legislation is approved, Inhofe said, the state’s general aviation airports, such as Westheimer, can compete for money to repave worn-out runways, install or upgrade lighting and other navigational aids, and ensure buildings, safety areas and other airport infrastructure meet modern design standards.
Straying off topic only briefly, Inhofe commented on former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I’m not on that committee, so I wasn’t there for his testimony, and all I know is what I’ve seen (in the media),” he said.
But, he said, “from what I’ve seen, Comey was not imposed upon to do any special favors. I think Comey needs to move on, and I think he will.”
Many Democrats, he said, “are still living in denial that their candidate, Hillary Clinton, didn’t win. … Just two weeks before Comey was fired, they were demanding he be fired. Then when he was fired, they protested his firing.”