I’ve been a pilot for 42 years and in that time, I’ve seen it all. Whether it’s flying as an air taxi pilot or flight instructor, crop dusting, or even being an airplane broker, aviation is a pleasure, a freedom and a lifeline for our communities. And while everything revolves around the airplane and flying, the truth is that the airport is in many ways the epicenter of our community supporting our pilots, local businesses, flight training and so much critical economic activity.
For example, the Chan Gurney Municipal Airport plays an important role in supporting our community, our businesses and our way of life. When you crunch the numbers, general aviation airports across South Dakota support more than 7,000 jobs and $791 million in state business sales. Our airport is one of those general aviation airports. As both mayor and a pilot, I see the impact of our airport every day.
Airports are often called to action during times of crisis. Whether it’s a tornado, flood, wildfire, blizzard or manmade catastrophe, the first question disaster relief workers ask is where is the nearest airport. From there they set up a local command center as their base of operations and work to deliver aid and resources to those in need. We all remember the terrible train derailment that happened in Lesterville a couple years ago, where seven cars left the tracks, taking out a bridge before they started to leak ethanol that then caught on fire. That accident spilled nearly 50,000 gallons of ethanol and caused more than $1 million in damages and serves as one of the worst ethanol spills on record. Our airport served as the closest point of contact to Lesterville and played an important role in flying personnel to the site of the disaster where they could assess the damage and respond to it. Almost as soon as the disaster struck, our airport manager was on the phone with response teams and within hours crews were flown in from as far away as Texas to tackle this crisis. These crews flew in and set up camp at our airport for nearly a week as they tackled the fires.
The benefits of our airport go beyond disaster relief. While airports are an important part of our nation’s infrastructure, they also support other parts of our infrastructure. Take the Gavins Point Dam and the Fort Randall Dam. These two dams play a critical role in our community by creating the Lewis and Clark Lake and producing energy to keep our lights on. The Army Corps of Engineers depend on our airport to help them maintain these two dams. It’s through our airport that they are constantly flying in engineering specialists and experts to advise and maintain the dams.
Our airport also plays an important role in supporting our business community. Businesses in the Upper-Midwest must contend with distance, weather, transport of materials and supplies and the quickest way to move personnel and reach plants and other branches. Kolberg-Pioneer Inc. (KPI-JCI), for example, has been a fixture within our community for more than 75 years and our airport played a key role in convincing them to grow their investment in our community. Other professionals utilize our airport, including Mark’s Machinery, an underground boring company, a local grain buyer and livestock feed service, even a hospital maintenance supervisor who flies from hospital to hospital to manage technology infrastructure at different facilities in the area. Another advantage our airport provides is the ability to have parts rushed in when needed. There have been countless times that companies have had to rush order parts to be delivered by airplane. One instance that comes to mind is when L&M Radiator needed a large piece of equipment to be flown in. When companies need a part for same-day service, general aviation is often the only resource they have. These are just examples of the ways that general aviation supports our community and the benefits it provides for towns like ours across the country.
Finally, our local EAA chapter has given more than 3,000 kids a chance to fly over the last 25 years through the Young Eagles program, while I personally have taken up more than 450 kids in that time. The experience these kids have being in a plane is inspiring and helps to promote interest in aerospace and other STEM fields. Our fly-in breakfast has had upwards of 800 people attend in the past. We are a community that loves aviation.
With all that as context, I am deeply concerned about legislation being debated in Washington that would threaten access and resources for local airports and general aviation around the country. Specifically, some in Congress are proposing to take our air traffic control system away from Congressional oversight and the FAA and hand it over to a private board that would make critical decisions about the system, where resources are directed and what taxes and fees are paid. The private interests would be dominated by the biggest airports and airlines, and their decisions would obviously be driven by their bottom line and hub airports. I am deeply worried about the decisions they would make regarding smaller airports such as ours and fear they would only focus their resources into the biggest cities in the country.
As it stands, our airspace is a public resource that we all have access to. Let’s keep it that way.