by George Marshall,
Flight Instructor, Aviation Safety Coordinator, Pilot, Airport Board member,
Growth and change do not come easily. There are always those who fear the passing of the familiar and comfortable, and the unknown elements of potential consequences. Growth and change are inevitable. And, as has become increasingly evident globally, nationally, and locally, lack of pro-active economic development and modernization invite decay and eventual death by slow strangulation. Ravalli County is struggling.
Modern transportation has always been essential to a healthy economic environment. Failure to improve and expand road systems in response to use and demand is an obstacle, not a blessing. It only invites congestion and compromises safety. It is no different for aviation.
Ravalli County Airport has at times been characterized as a “hobby airport”, and one that caters to the idle rich. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ours is a working airport, providing services and jobs. Activities such as fire fighting, emergency response, medical transportation, aerial wildlife and resource reconnaissance, flight training, remote ranch supply, backcountry access, and business travel make the airport an integral part of our community. Nationally, 70% of all operations at general aviation airports are service or business related.
Unfortunately, our airport has over the years lapsed into disrepair and has fallen behind design standards for the operations that make it so valuable. What may have well served Piper Cubs 40 years ago is no longer adequate for today’s aircraft. There are over 30 general aviation airports in Montana serving smaller communities than ours that have longer runways. Ravalli County is unique in having rebuffed available funding in accordance with FAA guidelines, while others typically propose to exceed them. It is time for us to cease having to be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming. We cannot be complacent in allowing obstructionism to prevail.
Utilizing the existing runway as the new taxiway, and constructing a new 5200-foot runway 240 feet east and 1000 feet to the north eliminates the waste of tearing up seven acres of perfectly good asphalt and base, and the crippling closure of the airport and its businesses for extended periods. Since funding would likely come in annual increments rather than all at once, a shutdown would accompany each construction phase. The new configuration would also provide increased separation from residential areas. These are modest improvements that would make a huge difference in safety and viability.
Nor does this proposal constitute “airport expansion” in the sense of providing for the next larger class of jets some claim. Airports with scheduled passenger service typically have runways in the 9,000- to 10,000-foot range, and much higher weight bearing capacities. A 5200-foot runway is simply the current standard for the types of aircraft already prevalent here. In the event of mechanical failure on takeoff, it provides a critical safety margin, primarily for smaller aircraft – not jets.
A modern facility benefits and attracts businesses. A light industrial park is only one idea. I witnessed firsthand the upgrade of the airport in Sandpoint, ID in the late 90’s – a community similar to our own. After much debate the runway was lengthened from 4200 feet to 5400 feet. Jet traffic did not noticeably increase. What did happen was the on-field start-up of the Quest Aircraft Company, a manufacturer of utility aircraft primarily for Third World and humanitarian operations. At one point the company employed 350 people, currently about 100. Not bad for a time when our biggest challenge is jobs and the economy.
Please support a safe, modern airport that will meet the needs of our community, and help provide a sound economic environment for ourselves and our children.