Grant County Regional Airport
flying into new infrastructure projects
With increased air traffic, Grant County Regional Airport has the headwinds to carry out necessary upgrades
As we put COVID and the impacts on the aviation sector slowly behind us, regional airports across the country are gearing up for anticipated upgrades and infrastructure projects to help welcome steadily increasing airline traffic. Grant County Regional Airport is no exception. With a plethora of infrastructure projects in the pipeline made possible by county, state, and FAA funding, the airport is flying ahead into 2023.
“Initially we were a state airport operated by the State of Oregon,” explains Haley Walker, Airport Manager for Grant County Regional Airport.
“In the early 1980s, the county took over ownership and operations. I would say most of our flights are medical flights and fire aviation during the summer fire season.
“We are also a general aviation airport, and our focus is to have a safe, operational airport because out here in rural Oregon those medical flights are constant and absolutely necessary for our community.”
In 1862 Mr. B.C. Trowbridge built the first homestead in the area – shortly thereafter came the trading post, a few more houses – and soon John Day City was born. Just North of what would become Canyon City. Over the years the city has been a hub for gold mining, sheep and cattle ranching, timber harvesting, and lumber milling. It continues to this day to be primarily a resource-based economy.
The airport itself covers 335 acres and has two asphalt runways: 17/35 is 5,220 by 60 feet and 9/27 is 4,471 by 60 feet. The airport offers office space for rent, large and small conference rooms, a full kitchen, courtesy cars, a pilot’s lounge with a shower and bunk bed, and an observation deck with elevator access. All are within one of the newest, most energy-efficient terminals in the Pacific Northwest.
Designed as a multi-use facility, the terminal houses two conference rooms, including a conference room upstairs and the main training room downstairs, with overhead audio-visual presentation equipment, and multiple in-floor IT terminals. There are 17 hangars, 18 based aircraft, and a waiting list.
The United States Forest Service operates a Helibase and training center each summer at Grant County. The coverage area includes the nearby Malheur National Forest and the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness – but they can also offer support to firefighters across the country. The base includes seven aircraft; one Bell 210 rappel ship, one A-star Helitack ship, one UH-60 heavy helicopter, one UH1H, two single-engine air tankers, and one light fixed-wing. It is also a training location for new and veteran rappellers.
Along with medical transport, the Grant County Air Search group also operates from the airport to provide a first-response air search unit for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon Department of Aeronautics. This unit is staffed mostly by volunteer pilots.
“We have the full support of the Grant County Court members because they see the airport is an asset because we serve the community,” explains Walker “we do this with medical flights, but also as an economic stimulator. We have a really good working relationship with the Economic Development Director for the county. She and I are working on a project right now for a fuel farm expansion.”
“We are currently working on a different project however, we have a project going to widen and reconstruct the north-south runway, 17/35. When I started six and a half years ago that was on my top three list of capital projects to focus on. It’s going to widen the runway from 60 to 75 feet and strengthen the runway to support larger planes,” Walker continues.
“We already have the medical aircraft and the fire aircraft that come in and this will create a safer runway for them as well as for those aviation folks flying. We have seen increasing flight activity, and this will certainly help stimulate economic growth here. The design is currently going on right now and construction will take place next summer.”
“Then, with money from the bipartisan infrastructure funding law we are looking at land acquisition,” she continues. “That would be to protect the runway protection zone for our North runway and will allow Grant County to guarantee the safety of folks on the ground and for the planes that land. It is our way of ensuring there won’t be any development on land in that zone, ultimately prioritizing safety. We are also looking at Helipad construction.”
Walker is quick to point out that the area experiences a significant amount of helicopter activity during the summer fire season and for this reason, having a safer place to land rather than grass and gravel will be a positive step for the users of the airport.
“It could potentially bring in more air traffic because they know it’s a safe place to operate out of. As I mentioned earlier, our biggest and most important project is the fuel farm we are working on with the Economic Development office. We rely on fuel sales to generate revenue and we have had real trouble these last two summers in getting enough fuel delivered, “ Walker elaborates.
“We currently have two 12,000-gallon fuel tanks; one is 100 low lead and the other is Jet A. We have been struggling to keep our inventory available in between deliveries and so we have been working with the state of Oregon to find funding to bring those underground storage tanks above ground, which is environmentally safer, and increase capacity to serve our customers better,” she continues.
Before Covid, Walker partnered with the Oregon State University extension office faculty, Didgette McCracken, to develop an “aviation field day” where they brought students from all the 6th-grade classes in Grant County to the airport and brought in ten different presenters that allowed the students to rotate through learning about all kinds of different career opportunities in aviation, it included everything from drone pilots to flight attendants and proved to be an excellent opportunity to engage the students in a wide variety of information. “Because if they don’t know that it’s available…” Walker adds, “Some of these kids have never been to the airport before, and we wanted to expose our students at a young age because you never know what might spark an interest.”
“We did an airport master plan that was approved and published in 2019,” says Walker, “ Within that plan, we anticipated an increase in air traffic. We conservatively looked at 1.8% increase in itinerant aircraft operations (9,315 operations) and a 1.83% increase in local aircraft operations (3,975 operations) within the next 12 years, however in general aviation in a rural area, that amount of growth is significant for our community. To have that level of growth we must be able to provide the airport infrastructure improvements to support those additional flights and aircraft. T-O Engineering has been our consulting engineers and they are excellent partners, “Walker notes.
Walker highlights that she interacts with the county constantly as well. As the owner and sponsor of the airport, they approve all the grants, funding, and budgeting. It is the county and city planning departments that need consulted when it comes to land around the airport – and sometimes it is as simple as borrowing a tool from Public Works – however, as part of the City of John Day, the airport does have extra resources to call upon.
“When I think about what will become the focus of our activity for the next few years, it is tough to answer,” Walker concludes, “but I think continuing to build positive community partnerships will be important. Without the continued support of our airport from the local groups, we cannot function and support our airport staff and operations, “ Walker summarizes.
Reflecting on her answer, Walker concludes, “Another focus will be increasing our safety and increasing our service. We have offered a summer internship to students who have recently graduated in Grant County, and we will continue that as well as our aviation days. We need to have that support from our youth to our oldest aviators and aviation enthusiasts alike to ensure we will survive.”
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AT A GLANCE
Grant County Regional Airport
WHAT: A general aviation airport that also provides significant medical and fire coverage
WHERE: John Day City, in central Oregon