Monday, November 17, 2014

As Hillsboro Airport looks at supplying unleaded fuel, number of Oregon airports offering product doubles

Flight training company Hillsboro Aviation recruits for new pilots at the 2014 Oregon International Air Show. The business, whose fleet requires leaded fuel, is a large user of the Hillsboro Airport. 
(Luke Hammill / The Oregonian)

The number of Oregon airports that offer unleaded motor gasoline, or "mogas," has doubled, as the Port of Portland studies the feasibility of supplying the product at Hillsboro Airport.

Until this past summer, the only place in the state where pilots could fill their single piston-engine planes with unleaded gas was Lebanon State Airport. But now, Grants Pass Airport, operated by Josephine County, also offers the fuel.

Larry Graves, the southern Oregon county's airports manager, said he was "receiving a lot of demand for mogas" at Grants Pass because the price of leaded aviation fuel was "just killing everybody," rising to over $6 per gallon for a period of time.

"I went out looking for a suitable delivery vehicle, and I found an aviation fueler...a fuel truck that's specifically designed for aviation purposes," Graves said.

On behalf of the county, Graves bought the truck and restored it with the help of volunteer labor from the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Then he called the Oregon State Fire Marshal and the state Department of Weights and Measures to have the truck inspected, and after paying a registration fee, "we were ready to go," he said.

"It's a significant source of revenue for the county," Graves said.

He described sales as "really good" and said the county sold about 2,000 gallons of mogas during the first two months of offering it.

That's only one-tenth of the amount of avgas sold at Grants Pass. "However," Graves said, "nobody knows that we've got [mogas]. And as soon as people figure out that we have it, they're starting to come in from all over the state. They're coming up from California."

Graves said "maybe a third" of single piston-engine aircraft, at least, still require leaded aviation fuel, or "avgas." But for the rest of the planes, he said, mogas is "100 percent safe." Pilots just need to obtain "supplemental type certificates" issued by the Federal Aviation Administration that show their airplanes can run on the unleaded fuel.

So why don't more airports offer it? Port of Portland General Aviation Manager Steve Nagy, who oversees Hillsboro Airport, has said only about 3 percent of airports nationwide offer the fuel.

"I think they're worried about liability. ... I don't think there is any additional liability over and above selling [avgas or unleaded jet fuel]. It's just that selling mogas for aircraft is a relatively new thing and so airport sponsors – cities, counties and port authorities – are looking at it very cautiously and very carefully because they don't want to rush into a situation that's gonna blow up in their face," Graves said.

"And it's my personal opinion that it's absolutely and totally safe. It's been thoroughly vetted."

He added that old airport infrastructure, built to sell avgas and jet fuel, is not set up to accommodate mogas. That's why he used a truck rather than investing in an expensive new self-service delivery station.

"A truck is a perfect solution," Graves said. "The only drawback is that it has to be operated by a human being, and that cuts into your margin a little bit."

Pilots are exempt from the state law against drivers filling up their own gas tanks. So if they were stopping at Grants Pass for avgas or jet fuel, they could fill up themselves, no matter the time. But the truck requires an attendant, so the mogas is not available 24 hours a day.

Graves buys the mogas from Colvin Oil and tests "every single load of fuel that we purchase...before it goes into our truck."

Lebanon State Airport has offered the product since 2006, said Lisa Switzler, the manager at LebanAir Aviation, the organization that sells the fuel. LebanAir gets its mogas from Carson Oil Company, she said.

"We sell as much of the mogas as we do the avgas," Switzler said.

Lebanon State has what Switzler called a "dual tank," with avgas on one side and mogas on the other.

"You have to have a designated tank for each fuel," Switzler said.

John Wilson, an airport operations specialist for the Oregon Department of Aviation, said Lebanon's situation was "unique."

"Lebanon just happened to have a tank with a bulkhead in the middle," he said. Most airports, he added, don't have that luxury.

"It's a business decision when you talk about how many gallons you're pushing to the consumer, versus the cost of constructing, installing and maintaining a fuel tank," Wilson said. "The product itself – that's a lot of money to fork out and for it to sit in a tank. So it really is a business decision why folks are probably not doing it as much."

The Port of Portland expects to complete a study by the end of the year that will assess the feasibility of mogas at Hillsboro Airport, which is the largest facility source of lead in Oregon and among the top 100 nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Emissions, however, are well below the limits imposed by regulators.

Switzler said Hillsboro Airport representatives have contacted LebanAir, inquiring about the process of selling unleaded mogas.

"We'd like to see another place take it up," Switzler said. "They're a big enough airport that, hopefully, maybe they do."

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