County defines new airport weight limits
Based on an Applied Research Associates engineering report completed in the fall of 2005, Minden-Tahoe Airport’s main runway will support aircraft weighing 110,000 pounds. County officials are proposing a solution that would allow larger aircraft, but not on a daily basis.
The new limits, which are counter to voter-imposed weight restrictions, could mean about 25 operations annually for planes over the current 50,000-pound dual wheel limit, like the Gulfstream IV and V, as well as 200 operations annually for the 105,000-pound P3 Orion fire bombers.
“The limitations aren’t much different than we had before,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Morris said. “The 2002 Ecrose Green study said 75,000-pound planes could land without difficulty, and the pavement was only slightly deficient for the occasional use of 100,000-pound aircraft.
“Apparently the runway has been strong all along, so the question has been, how do we reconcile the weight limits with the tested capacity of the airport,” he said.”It’s surprising how difficult this issue has become. I understand why people are apprehensive about making a decision, but the engineering hasn’t changed significantly.”
Some taxiways and ramp areas at the airport won’t accommodate the extra weight, but the runway, ramp and taxiway used by the bombers is built to accommodate heavier planes, Morris said.
Concerns for county officials with respect to weight limits came after Hutt Aviation, a local airport-based business, filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration in September 2004.
The complaint charges the airport’s weight ordinance, 30,000 pounds for single-wheel and 50,000 pounds for dual-wheel aircraft, is antiquated and unreasonable. The limits violate FAA regulations, which require the airport be available for public use without unjust discrimination, when local officials accept federal funding for maintenance.
Since 1984, the county has received about $17.5 million in federal dollars to maintain airport operations, including overlays critical to maintaining the runway that ultimately enhanced its strength.
The Hutt complaint was subsequently dismissed without prejudice by the FAA, which means they can reinstate the complaint at any time, according to Morris.
“It’s hanging over our heads if we don’t take action, or get the FAA to agree on what action to take,” said commission chairman Jim Baushke. “People in this community want to save the airport on their terms and keep it small, but those aren’t the terms we’re dealing with. We have contractual commitments with the federal government.”
The complaint filed by Hutt concerned a Gulfstream jet with a gross weight of 74,600 pounds. Owned by Starbucks, the plane occasionally flew to the Minden-Tahoe airport. Starbucks did not join Hutt in the complaint, Morris said.
Starbucks has been flying its Gulfstream into Reno rather than Minden-Tahoe for about six months, said Airport Manager Jim Braswell.
FAA officials will not consider Hutt’s initial complaint unless a “substantial and reasonable effort” has been made to resolve the issue informally. Hutt tried to produce that information by filing an amended complaint in January 2005 without success, Morris said.
“There were no supporting documents to show this informal effort had been made so the complaint was dismissed without prejudice as being incomplete,” Morris said.
That doesn’t mean the pressure is off.
In August 2004, the FAA asked county officials to modify the airport’s layout plan, which contains the weight limitation.
FAA representative Racior Cavole expressed two concerns: the complaint filed by Hutt and a suggestion that the airport layout be based on the capacity of the runway as reported, Morris said.
“In a second request in June 2005, FAA officials wrote a letter pointing out the incompatibility between the pavement strength listed and the Eckrose-Green pavement capacity report in 2002,” Morris said. “They said any reference limiting the takeoff weight to 30,000-50,000 pounds should be corrected.”
In February 2005, the National Business Aviation Association wrote a letter to Airport Manager Jim Braswell, stating that the Minden-Tahoe Airport’s may be user discrimination.
“I have talked with their attorney, and they are monitoring our work on the ordinance,” Morris said.
Runway overlays provide the maintenance needed to repair weathering and cracks, but these overlays often add strength. Grinding was considered in 2004 to avoid strengthening the airport’s runway, but it proved too expensive given the price of oil. The standard overlay minus the grinding procedure was approved by commissioners in April 2005 to maintain the runway, Morris said.
In an effort to reconcile the weight limits, Douglas County’s board of commissioners approved three ways to arrive at a pavement capacity weight.
John Morgan, president of the Minden Airport Association said a lot of suspicion in the community at large with respect to the weight limits has been generated by business decisions made at the airport.
“There have been a lot of big land leases to developers and those have been speculative,” he said. “There are no buildings on 187 acres reserved for a jet center. Not a spade has been turned.”
Deals like these are squeezing out soaring enthusiasts, the use of that land lost for tie-down spaces, camping areas, and ultimately tourism dollars that would have been spent by the soaring community, Morgan said.
“I don’t mind a few business jets, but I don’t want the airport to become a jet mecca. That would be the antithesis of glider operations,” he said. “If that happens, both the soaring community and the county lose.”
To avoid a confrontation with the FAA, voters could be asked to increase runway weight limits in the upcoming election. The second option being considered is delaying that request until the following election, in another two years.
Susie Vasquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 782-5121, ext. 211.
Commissioners could approve placement of the weight ordinance question on the November ballot or delay that vote until the following election at Thursday’s Douglas County Commissioners meeting, scheduled for 1 p.m. in the courtroom of the Douglas County Administration Building, 1616 Eighth St. in Minden.