November – December 2017
General aviation in rural Nevada often faces a turbulent future
BY MEGG MUELLER
Nevada is the land of wide-open space. Miles of highway, endless valleys, and vistas are the stuff road trippers dream about. Some travelers to the Silver State, however, don’t need any roads. Certain intrepid sightseers prefer to do their traveling with a little altitude. Sure, there’s McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Reno-Tahoe International in Reno, and Elko Regional Airport in Elko, but because there are only three airports to offer commercial service in and out of the state, that leaves a lot of ground to cover. For small aircraft owners—those who fly in what is called the general aviation (GA) category—there are 47 public-use airports in Nevada, with many other private airports and landing strips spread across the state. That is a lot of access to Nevada’s great wide open.
While there are no official numbers for the GA passengers in Nevada, the impact of this industry is undeniable; a study from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Reno done between 2003 and 2005 revealed the total economic output effect to be $275,503,316. According to the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) State Aviation Manager, Kurt Haukohl, today that number is closer to $1 billion.
The study was done to determine the economic effect of general aviation visitors, tenants, and businesses on the local economies, and does not include the impact of the three commercial airports. It’s in the process of being updated, Kurt says, but there’s no doubt of the importance of GA on the state’s coffers. The value of general aviation goes way beyond dollars.
General aviation supports communities across Nevada, from Ely to Jean, but it isn’t always an easy travel solution. A private plane is required, of course, but the infrastructure to support pilots and their passengers is just as crucial. To fly from Santa Rosa, California, to Austin, for instance, is a distance of 313 aeronautical miles. A Cirrus SR22T—which can seat up to five, and has a 315 horsepower engine—can fly a little more than 1,000 aeronautical miles on a tank of gas, but a Piper J-3 Cub—a two-seater built between 1937-1947 that carries between a 37-40 horsepower engine—has a maximum flight range of about 191 aeronautical miles, making fuel stops imperative.
Of Nevada’s public airports, 23 of them have aviation fuel for sale. Austin, for example, just began selling fuel this summer, and there’s already been an uptick in the amount of traffic to the small airport.
“In just two months since we’ve gotten fuel, we’ve sold more than 1,000 gallons,” Frank Whitman, one of Austin’s airport board members, says. “Considering most small planes take 20- 50 gallons, that’s pretty good.”
Along with fuel, Austin now has a courtesy car and a pilot’s lounge with bathrooms and drinking water. A shower is in the works, and rumor has it the area’s best cellphone service is at the airport. According to Frank, it’s just good business.
“We are definitely positioning ourselves so that people can come see Austin. Folks can fly in and pitch a tent at the airport, or they can take the courtesy car to town and stay at one of the B&Bs,” he says.
In Hawthorne, Betty Easley knows firsthand the benefits of having such amenities for pilots. While traffic may not rival some larger airports, Hawthorne sees a lot of repeat customers thanks to such things as three courtesy cars, the ability to fuel jets and military planes with a single-point fueling system, and a pilots lounge that has Wi-Fi and can be accessed 24/7.
Betty is the volunteer greeter/pilot liaison for the airport, a job she’s happily done since she first volunteered in 2007 during the search for famous aviator Steve Fossett who went missing in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Along with the airport’s military presence, Betty notes that pilots use Hawthorne as a fuel stop for flights to Arizona or California, and she’s always there to offer a car into town for a meal or sightseeing.
“We have pilots who come specifically to visit the Ordnance Museum,” she says. “I encourage them to visit the Mineral County Museum and have breakfast or lunch. They usually do.”
HOME IS WHERE THE HANGAR IS
Fuel, courtesy cars, and access to rental cars are three of the things that go a long way in supporting small rural airports but there’s another integral component: an owner/manager.
NDOT doesn’t own any airport in the state of Nevada, Kurt says. While state departments of transportation own airports in Oregon and California, in Nevada the lion’s share are owned by the respective county or city. The rest are either owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), airport authorities, or under private ownership. Ownership of an airport is required for it to be a public airport; without an owner the airport can not operate and eventually will likely be closed.
“We’re probably losing two airports a year,” Kurt says. “Mostly because they are on BLM land and the leases are expiring, and they don’t have owners. Last year, we added just one airport (Calvada Meadows in Pahrump).”
There are about 75 abandoned airports in the state right now, but Kurt and NDOT are working to secure owners for current and future airports. The airport in Duckwater is currently a BLM property, but could end up in the hands of the local Duckwater-Shoshone tribe if Kurt can work it out.
MULTIPLE USES ON THE RADAR
Some rural airports benefit from their proximity to larger cities, and have carved out successful niches that keep the hangar doors open. Beyond GA traffic, Boulder City airport’s helicopter-tour industry sees more than 200,000 visitors a year, 90 percent of which are from other countries. At Minden-Tahoe, along with corporate traffic, the area’s superior soaring conditions make it a hub for sport aviation.
Reno-Stead Airport is home to the National Championship Air Races, and a Federal Aviation Administration-designated Unmanned Autonomous Systems (UAS) test range. UAS, or drones, are a burgeoning industry at GA airports, and the airport in Searchlight is about to become the first drone port in the state. The newly leased airport will become a training destination for drone pilots, thanks in part to the fact there is no federally controlled airspace there.
Tourism is definitely a factor for some rural airports. Visitors to the Wendover, Utah, airport who purchase fuel get a free car rental and buffet ticket to one of the casinos in West Wendover, Nevada. Four airports—Wells, Jackpot, Wendover, and Elko—all see spikes in GA traffic when Mustang Monument Resort is open for business. In Austin, Frank notes the land-sailing competitions on nearby Smith Creek Playa always bumps traffic at the airport, and they are hoping to promote and encourage heli-skiing in the nearby Toiyabe Range someday.
“Now that we have jet fuel, it makes a big difference what can happen here,” Frank says.
Betty would love to see Hawthorne Industrial Airport host a fly-in for pilots during the annual Armed Services Day celebration, but logistics are standing in her way. Space restrictions won’t allow the airport to close for pilot traffic and there simply aren’t enough parking places for the anticipated traffic. Not completely dissuaded, the airport hosts a static military display during the event, and last year there were 17 aircraft visitors could view.
Ely’s Yellan Field lost commercial service in 2012 due to a lack of passengers, Kurt mentions, but that hasn’t stopped the airport from doing extensive community outreach. From signing up 50 people to take flying lessons recently to bringing local youth out to fly, Ely is reinventing itself as a GA airport.
“Nevada’s rural nature is what makes it so unique for general aviation.”
The continued loss of GA airports affects everyone in Nevada, regardless if they are a private pilot or not. The single biggest issue facing Nevada’s rural community would be the loss of emergency medical services that rely upon these airports to combat wildfires, perform search and rescue missions, and transport patients to urban hospitals. Firefighting operations are staged at many Nevada airports, such as Dayton Valley, Wells, and Battle Mountain, and the ability for EMS responders to reach someone stranded or injured in Nevada’s vast wilderness is crucial to saving lives.
“Nevada’s rural nature is what makes it so unique for general aviation,” Kurt says. “Whenever I talk to pilot groups, I tell them I have one county with three airports, two planes, and one pilot. That always gets them.”
Infrastructure and community outreach play a huge role in guaranteeing the future success of Nevada’s small airports. Getting the word out to pilots about the services and features available is top of mind for people like Frank and Betty.
“We had the Highway 50 historical society come through town and I played tour guide for them,” Frank recounts. “Two of the guys were pilots, and they were surprised we had a courtesy car. They said they’d definitely be back.”
Betty adds, “We have every type of pilot come through here. From the guy who can barely scrape together enough to keep his plane in the air to the business jet pilot. And we respect them all.”
The NDOT Aviation Planning Section is responsible for helping ensure that Nevada’s general aviation public-use and private-use airports and heliports meet applicable safety requirements and provide maximum utility to their communities and the flying public.
They also provide matching grants for FAA projects on rural airports.
Nevada Department of Transportation
Aviation Planning Section
1263 S. Stewart St. Carson City, NV 89712