Kalispell City Airport is not the domain of the rich and famous.
It’s used by local business people, search-and-rescue volunteers, hobby pilots and, local pilots argue, middle-class folks who depend on accessible runways for small aircraft.
They say they do their best to be good neighbors by keeping the skies quiet and the safety level high, by giving youth runway access to launch careers and lifetime hobbies.
And, aviation businesses here point out, they help give a pretty reasonable shot in the arm to Kalispell’s economic health.
“When Glacier Park International shut down (intermittently) in August,” said Jim Bob Pierce who owns Red Eagle Aviation, the fixed base operation at Kalispell City Airport, “people came here and said they really enjoyed it, getting out to the town. If you land at Glacier International you have three options on where you’re going to go. If you land at Kalispell you have one option.
“The people of Kalispell should embrace that,” said Pierce, who offers a courtesy van for pilots to run errands into town. “They have a captive audience where it guarantees that people who are coming here are going to be in Kalispell for sure.”
Yet airport supporters find themselves under fire from a group calling itself the Quiet Skies Committee, neighbors of the airport in south Kalispell whose quality of life, they say, is harmed by buzzing airplanes and the threat of plane crashes on city streets.
The neighborhood group staunchly opposes many points in a proposal to update the city airport.
One of its complaints is that ordinary citizens are not the airport users, that it’s a playground for wealthy out-of-towners.
“Most people are the middle class,” Pierce countered. “We rarely get any of the higher-income people.”
Dennis Lacy last year started Flathead Youth Aviation to help 12- to 18-year-olds see that, through work and persistence in refurbishing a couple planes that have been donated to the effort, they have a shot at launching an aviation future of their own. If he can do it, he figures, so can they.
“Aviation is thought of by non-pilots as a luxury,” Lacy said. “It’s a struggle financially for me to get in the cockpit. I’m a young pilot and I went with 12 people in a club to own a plane.”
Sharing the expenses, he said, has made it possible for him and other ordinary people to pursue a passion. And the municipal airport is the affordable option for many pilots needing to hangar a plane, fuel up, take off and land.
“One of the things about a (general aviation) airport is it’s the common man’s airport. You can get into an airplane for $20,000,” whereas a good pickup easily can cost $50,000,” pilot Scott Richardson pointed out. “It’s not cheap but … these guys make it sound like you’ve got to have $10 million in the bank and that’s just not the case.”
Richardson’s business, Page Northwest, is a stone’s throw off the north end of the airport property. His clients operate 911 emergency dispatch systems and public safety communications centers and the like. If he can’t hop into his 210-hp Mooney turbo and be at a client’s property on a moment’s notice, he’s out of the game.
“If the airport moved, it would significantly hurt my business,” he said, “both in revenue and response time … There’s a level of responsibility I have to fulfill” in fast response to a client’s need.
Richardson is the local representative for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, acting as a liaison between the local community and the association.
He also sits on the Kalispell City Airport Advisory Council, the panel that provides feedback to Airport Manager Fred Leistiko and information to the city council as it has worked its way through airport recommendations since the first study in 1979.
“I deem the airport as being safe,” Richardson said, “but not up to current FAA standards.”
The Federal Aviation Administration will fund 95 percent of the cost of safety upgrades and other work if the city decides to expand it from a B-1 to a B-2 airport. In exchange, it asks for 39 assurances to guarantee its investment by having the city continue to run it as an airport. Those assurances expire in 20 years.
Work on runways, lighting, fencing, KGEZ Radio towers and acquiring land are on the list the city is considering.
“I think they’re going in the right direction,” Richardson said. “They’re trying to get the towers mitigated, they’re trying to proceed with updating the (environmental assessment).”
That update of the 2002 document is needed, he said, because it has been three years since “the last tangible progress” through buying land or making airport improvements. Opponents claim an entirely new EA process must be started.
Richardson is all for the democratic process, he said, and believes the Quiet Skies views should be heard.
“But their information is not accurate, responsible or correct. It’s about emotion, and I have a problem with that,” he said. “There’s no basis of fact.”
Opponents claim that a longer runway would bring in larger and louder jet traffic. They fear the engineer’s maximum recommendation for 4,700 feet — it’s 3,600 feet now — is exactly what the city intends to build.
“The city already recognized that they don’t want to have jet traffic. It could be added if needed in the future,” Richardson said. “But the FAA acknowledges that building a 3,600- to 3,700-foot-long runway would be the way to discourage larger craft … I’m looking at something between 3,700 and 4,200.
“I just can’t see people using this with jets when they’ve got Glacier down the road,” he said. “I want it safe, and a shorter runway, and keep the jets out. That’s what Glacier is for.”
Aircraft noise from touch-and-go training flights, and from general aviation planes taking off or landing over homes already is an issue. Pierce took neighbors’ complaints to heart.
“There was a complaint of consistent noise seven days a week, dawn to dark,” Pierce said. So he implemented a plan to restrict training flights from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. At other times, training must go elsewhere.
“I even had a letter from (Quiet Skies co-founder) Steve Eckels a month or two ago, and he stopped in to see me to say thanks for the great improvement in noise,” Pierce said. “But he’s still complaining, so that’s a little confusing.”
Both noise and safety issues, Pierce noted, are addressed by a proposal to rebuild the runway farther south away from town.”
Leistiko, who was in the midst of council decisions on the airport’s future as he sat on the city council from 1999 to 2002, was hired in July 2005 as the airport manager.
He said the 1996 airport layout plan drawn up by Robert Peccia and Associates, with its recommendations on how to meet safety requirements and do noise abatement, was pivotal to today’s discussions.
“That’s what started the whole thing rolling,” Leistiko said. The FAA accepted the plan and pledged 95 percent funding if the city took those steps.
A tax increment district established the next year started an income stream. Also in 1997 the FAA recommended doing a feasibility and master plan study. It eventually led to the environmental assessment completed in 2002. That “ran out” in 2008, Leistiko said.
“You don’t have to do a complete new EA, you just have to update it,” he said. “You’ve got to go back to all the agencies and people to see if everything is still the same … Most will just say nothing has changed with me.”
Federal requirements for the update don’t include a new round of public hearings, “but we know we need to do one” to ease the political climate, he said.
Its a political climate that Mike Strand has been watching for years, since the day he opened Strand Aviation at the airport in 1965. He started with a Cessna 150 and a small flight school and expanded into a selling planes and helicopters, contracting for the U.S. Forest Service, doing air ambulance and air taxi work. Through Veterans Administration sponsorship he operated a program training veterans to fly.
After three decades he sold the business to Dave Hoerner who set up shop as Red Eagle Aviation, the business Pierce now runs.
Business demand was healthy, Strand recalled.
“Nobody was working very hard at generating flight schools,” he said, with students lined up for training. Kids, a Navy aviator, veterans — all from the Flathead — were his clients and eventually his friends. “It was the common, ordinary, everyday guy in town, lawyers, the grocery store owner.”
He’s a bit puzzled at the clamor against the airport today, particularly considering the economic impact it has.
“I really think it’s huge,” he said. He questions suggestions to relocate the airport a greater distance from town.
“You mean you want to tell you you’d force all that activity to go elsewhere? These people are not going to move out to a new airport. They’re just going to go away.”
To reach Leistiko, call 250-3065.
Pierce is managing a Web site at www.kalispellcityairport.com
For information on Lacy’s youth pilots program visit www.flatheadyouthaviation.org
Reporter Nancy Kimball can be reached at 758-4483 or by e-mail at email@example.com