Friday, September 25, 2009

Unlikely Hues and Airport Improvement

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
25 Sep 2009 N21481 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - N66 (Oneonta, NY) - 5G0 3.1 765.8

I love this time of year.

Most of the year, farm country is entirely monochromatic.  Winter white fields melt to reveal chestnut earth waiting to produce life.  In time, signs of life arrive as a rich green carpet across the countryside.  But in fall, before succumbing to a winter blanket once more, the fields display a vast array of improbable colors.

I found myself above the planet on a quiet Friday afternoon after a long, difficult week.  I had never seen the Catskill Mountains and decided that it was time.  As I flew over the Finger Lakes, familiar fields exploded with the unlikeliest of hues.  Purple fields?  To paraphrase Ralph Wiggum, "that's unpossible!"

I fought a rare easterly headwind and simply reveled in the kaleidoscope world below.

In time, the Catskills came into sight (not pictured) and I stopped at Oneonta (N66, airport # 97) for a brief rest.  Oneonta is perched on the top of a wooded hill, a mere slot in the trees wide enough for a single runway and tightly clustered hangar buildings.

Having reached the doorstep of the Catskills, I chose to head home rather than explore further.  I promised Ray that I would take some pictures of the Le Roy airport that evening and wanted to take advantage of the golden light provided by the evening sun.

Le Roy recently completed a runway extension, lengthening from 2640' to 3855'.  With the longer runway now open for use, Ray terminated the ban on touch and go landings at Le Roy.  After nearly four years based at Le Roy, I did my first touch and go there that afternoon.

I arrived at the airport eager to experience the new runway.  Le Roy has always been subject to squirrelly winds.  With the runway 28 approach end moved farther east, I wondered what quirks the new runway microenvironment would offer approaching aircraft.  The cruel joke of the day was the rare wind from the east, forcing me to use runway 10.  As a result, Warrior 481 did not once roll upon new pavement or sample the new approach.

Completion of the runway extension project came less than a week after USA Today published a biased article on general aviation airports entitled, "Little Used Airports Cost Taxpayers Big Money".  I don't normally read USA Today, but I happened to be on a business trip September 17 and the article was waiting for me outside my hotel room door that morning.

The intended take-home message of the article is that taxpayers are being gouged by "little airports" (i.e., those shunned by American Airlines and Delta) that receive grant money from the Airport Improvement Program.  How so?  Because airline ticket taxes are an income source for this fund.  And why should taxpayers be angry?  Because they may not personally use an airport that the fund benefits.

Yes, the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) is funded by tax dollars.  Those tax dollars come from several sources, including fuel taxes paid by every pilot that buys gas.  Airports receiving AIP money are public use facilities that the FAA deems worthy of receiving grants.  Public roads, public parks, and public schools and even unpopular wars all receive tax dollars in much the same way.  In the judgment of the article (a paragon of objective journalism), little airports don't merit public funds because fewer people use them than, say, Chicago O'Hare.  It's a curious kind of logic.  Would we not build a road to a small town?  Would we not allow a suburban school district to exist because it is smaller than the New York city school system?  The fact of the matter is that little airports are training grounds for future airline pilots, they allow companies to transport personnel and equipment close to far flung sites, they provide rural access to advanced medical care, they are fueling depots for crop dusting aircraft, and they are centers of recreation.

Did Le Roy deserve funding to extend the runway?  The FAA thought so.  Le Roy is a designated reliever airport for Greater Rochester International.  This does not mean that your United 737 flight is going to divert to Le Roy if things get hairy at Rochester.  It means that Le Roy provides a place for general aviation traffic to go, thus relieving congestion at the main airport.

The runway at Le Roy was too short for even some light aircraft, meaning that it was less effective as a reliever airport.  Training flights often shunned Le Roy because touch and goes were forbidden owing to the short runway.  Ray proposed to the FAA that lengthening the runway will make Le Roy safer (I witnessed an accident earlier this year in which the relatively short runway was a factor) and a more effective reliever for Rochester.  The FAA agreed and supported the extension work through AIP money.  The project focused on practical safety and security improvements: lengthening the runway, lighting it appropriately for night landings, and fencing it all in.  Contrary to implications by USA Today, many AIP grants are just like Le Roy's: safety and security improvements intended to improve the overall national airspace system.

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