To Sham or Not to Sham? Ah, yes, another Aurora Airport Master Plan Process…

The current Master Plan process for Aurora Airport is a classic case study, showing how aviation interests work to suppress airport expansion opposition and force their own self-serving pro-expansion agenda. And the aviation interests are not just a few pilots or operators at Aurora. This is a state airport, run by the state of Oregon, via the Oregon Department of Aviation (ODAV). Oversight comes from two entities with a long history of taking care of pilots while making a mess for the rest of us: the ‘Oregon State Aviation Board’ (OSAB) oversees ODAV, and FAA ‘signs off’ on the key steps of the work product, the eventual ‘Aurora Airport Master Plan Update’.

The previous Master Plan process blew up almost twelve years ago. At that time, the contractor and ODAV had a rare moment of good judgment, when on 3/10/2011 they presented a recommendation to the OSAB for no runway extension. The reaction by pilots on OSAB quickly nudged an aggressive campaign by a beehive of other Oregon pilots, and by Fall the ‘preferred alternative’ morphed into a 1,000-ft runway extension. It was a sham. Years later it was realized that, in all the commotion, authorities never got around to formally adopting the plan. Embarrassing, but not a problem; FAA stepped in and is now spending nearly a million dollars in public money, to have a contractor, Century West, create a new Master Plan. The process today and the many returning players echo strongly the horrible events around the 2011 process. It is hard to shake off the feeling this is yet another sham.

“It is beyond dispute that a lengthening of the runway, to allow larger and heavier fuel loads, benefits an elite core of operators and adjacent landowners who sell aviation fuel. Their goal is clearly to make more money selling larger volumes of fuel… and ODAV collects more
airport revenues in the process.”

So, what’s in this Aurora Airport Master Plan, for people impacted by airports elsewhere in the United States? A LOT!! So often, for someone being run around by rogue pilots and out-of-control airports, one of the most empowering tools is simply understanding the process. Not just the process as written up ad nauseam in boring FAA and contractor prose, but also HOW the process is played by the critical players: the airport authority, the FAA, and the pro-airport community (mostly pilots and aviation commercial interests).

This aiREFORM Post is the first in a series that will dive into the history and details of Aurora Airport, not just to help a few Oregonians seeking to tamp down over-expansion at Aurora, but also to educate others far from the rich farmlands of the Willamette Valley.

Click here to view a letter sent to two people seeking citizen engagement in this Master Plan process: Sarah Lucas (an ODAV aviation planner) and Brandy Steffen (a contractor at JLA Public Involvement).

“Unfit for Flight” news investigation wins the NPF ‘Feddie’ Award

National Press Foundation recognized Thomas Frank for his USA Today investigative series about aviation fatalities and regulatory capture.

A non-profit foundation, NPF cited Mr. Frank for his “extraordinary investigation” in his series, ‘Unfit for Flight’, which appeared in June. He was given the ‘Feddie’ award, recognizing that his writing helps to show how federal policy affects local government. Judges were also impressed with how the presentation of the  news series “…effectively uses the techniques of digital journalism: video, animation and responsive design. This is modern journalism at its best.”

The series revealed how design defects have been allowed to persist in private airplanes and helicopters for decades, often because of cover-ups by manufacturers. The stories also showed how National Transportation Safety Board crash investigations often overlook the causes of aircraft crashes and deaths, and how the Federal Aviation Administration allows brand-new aircraft to be manufactured under safety regulations that are decades old, thus perpetuating known design flaws.

FAA Needs to Improve Safety for Commercial Balloon Operators

20140509.. Commercial balloon fire, Richmond, VAA short Friday evening flight at a balloon festival in Richmond, VA ended tragically when the passenger basket impacted a powerline and burst into flames. Three died. The pilot was a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who had been flying balloons commercially for ten years. One of the passengers was the director of women’s basketball operations; the other passenger was the  assistant head coach for women’s basketball.

Just one month earlier, NTSB had issued a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, containing safety recommendations A-14-011 and A-14-012. The two recommendations called on FAA to implement the following safety improvements:

  1. require commercial balloon operators to obtain a Letter of Authorization (LOA) from FAA; and
  2. have FAA’s principal operations inspectors include in their general surveillance activities commercial balloon operators that hold LOA’s, especially upon initial issuance of the LOA and then as necessary, particularly if the operator is involved in an accident.

As is typical for NTSB Safety Recommendations, the letter went far beyond just listing the recommendations. It also detailed the recent accident history, to explain WHY FAA needs to implement the Safety Recommendations. One example was a February 2013 accident in Egypt, where 19 of 21 on board died after the passenger basket caught fire. Two other examples cited cases where fuel control levers were accidentally jarred or fuel fittings were knocked loose on hard landings, causing fire-related injuries.

Bear in mind, the NTSB Safety Recommendations were issued a full month prior to the fatal accident in Richmond. The trade organization that advocates for commercial balloon operators, the Balloon Federation of America, responded to NTSB. So, weeks before the Richmond accident, here is part of BFA’s response to NTSB:

“…NTSB’s recommendation will not enhance safety, but will add another layer of unnecessary federal oversight to an already challenged FAA. Such a regulation would prove burdensome to the tour flight business owners and their pilots in both time and money to comply with the regulation. It would likewise stretch the FAA’s already thin resources of inspectors required to initially implement the program and then oversee its ongoing compliance and enforcement. Additionally such a regulation could require significant financial expenditure and investment of FAA personnel resources for the education and training of its inspector ranks, many of whom lack an extensive knowledge base of hot air ballooning and the unique business of balloon sight-seeing tour flights….”