Airplanes queued up on the tarmac at Bend Municipal Airport.
The whine of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter filled the air. Down the runway, a lime-green helicopter prepared to lift off. In the distance, an airplane from the Leading Edge flight school prepared to land.
It was a typical day at the busy regional airport.
Last year, the number of takeoffs or landings rose to 168,000 — 20,000, or 13.5% more than had been projected. There’s a waiting list for pilots seeking hangar space, and the airplanes based at the airport topped 251.
It’s that kind of growth that has captured the attention of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has asked for an updated master plan. The city of Bend, which owns the airport, is holding listening sessions with stakeholders, who believe it’s time to add some big-ticket items like a control tower, a longer runway and more hangars. The FAA must approve the plan before providing construction grant funding.
“Much of the growth in activity is created by an airline pilot shortage, which is driving up the need for pilots who train here, both privately and as part of the Veterans Administration retraining program,” Gary Judd, Bend Municipal Airport manager, said Wednesday. “We also have several corporate jets based on the field.”
The master plan looks at what’s been built and prioritizes what needs to be built. A plan should go to the FAA by next summer.
The aviation industry mirrors the economy, and when the economy is doing well, so does the aviation industry, said Damon Runberg, Oregon Employment Department regional economist. “Businesses out at the airport property have been growing steadily in this current business cycle,” Runberg said. “We’ve seen a nice resurgence, but I imagine most would agree that aviation, in particular, personal airplanes, are more vulnerable during recessions.”
The airport’s 415 acres generate 450 jobs, with more than 100 added in the past two years, Runberg said. The airport pumps about $174 million into the Central Oregon economy in economic impact, Judd said. Because it’s a municipal airport, there are no landing fees, Judd said. Revenue is generated from ground leases, hangar rentals and other fees, he said. Last year the airport generated about $800,000.
Before the 2008 Great Recession, Cessna operated at one end of the airport. When it stopped operations, it left a hole in Bend’s aviation industry that has taken several years to fill, Judd said.
Roger Lee, CEO of Economic Development for Central Oregon, said the rebound has been slow.
“Where we’ve really seen particularly steady growth even through the economic recession and recovery at the Bend airport is in aircraft operations associated with Central Oregon Community College’s aviation program,” Lee said. “More new helicopter and fixed-wing pilots are being trained through that program at the Bend Airport via COCC’s private contractor, Leading Edge Aviation, than almost anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.”
The community college’s aviation program has grown from about 60 students in 2005 to more than 170 students last year, said Karl Baldessari, an assistant professor of aviation.
“Without the airport, we wouldn’t be able to offer the program at all,” Baldessari said. “Most of the students coming to the program come from outside the area. It is not your typical community college demographic.”
The FAA asks for updates every seven years or sooner if there’s a lot of activity, said Allen Kenitzer, FAA spokesman. The most recent master plan is a 4-inch-thick document that was completed in 2013. It includes a $22 million plan to extend the runway 1,000 feet, but that was not built or funded. It included a $10 million helicopter operations area that included helicopter pads, taxiways, parking aprons and support facilities.
“Bend undertook the master plan update due, in part, because the airport had substantially completed its near term projects,” Kenitzer wrote in an email. “In addition, the airport thought it needed a longer runway, and that would need to be evaluated via the master planning process.”
The FAA paid $400,000 toward the $584,000 cost to produce the master plan.
At a recent meeting of stakeholders, the conversation turned to the need for a longer runway, a tower to regulate air traffic, more tie-downs and hangar space. If planners determine these items are necessary, they will be included in the master plan that will be approved by the FAA next summer.
“We knew the airport has become popular with the flight schools,” said Carolyn Eagan, Bend economic development director. “I’m not surprised by the growth and the mix at the airport. What was surprising was the request by the FAA.”
Travis Warthen, Leading Edge Aviation vice president, said having a control tower would make the airport run more efficiently. A control tower would organize the takeoffs and landings.
The school operates seven days a week, Warthen said. Leading Edge is in the process of building additional hangars at the airport, but is awaiting county approval, he said.
“We’re trying to stay on top of things,” Warthen said. “The master plan needs to show what is needed.”
Eagan, however, said the FAA is not funding control towers, and the local jurisdiction would have to secure the funding. The FAA paid for the bulk of the $10 million helicopter pad at the airport.
The master plan’s goal is to create a blueprint for change. There will be more listening sessions before a draft is sent to the FAA, Judd said. The plan will identify areas that will need improvement to accommodate growth, he said. For example, Epic Aircraft, which hopes to launch its single-engine turboprop this year, will add to runway traffic. The company has said it plans to produce one plane a week, and that will require space for test flights and later for servicing, said Baldessari, the COCC aviation professor.
“I think a tower is necessary to operate safely,” Baldessari said. “Even if we don’t grow our flight school, right now, it’s up to the pilots to avoid any incidents on the ground or in the air.”
And when the permits get their stamp of approval, Leading Edge will begin construction on a hangar at the new helicopter pad, which is one-of-a-kind at a publicly owned airport, Judd said.
“We’re anxious to get everyone moved out here,” he said. “We’re hoping by the end of summer, we’ll have helicopters here. The question is what kind of airport do we want.”
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