Saturday, September 17, 2016

So just where does that sheriff's plane fly?

They call it the Turbo Commander.

It’s a twin-propeller, business-class airplane flying under the N911KC aircraft number that the Kern County Sheriff’s Office uses to shuttle dignitaries around the state, fly detectives to distant interviews and bus suspects and warrant subjects to Kern County from other jurisdictions.

And it has become a symbol of the budget battle between the Kern County Administrative Office and county public safety agencies.

On Aug. 30, County Administrative Officer John Nilon brought the Turbo Commander up in a Board of Supervisors meeting – using it as an example of things supervisors might want to look at when they develop a comprehensive plan to save money.

Nilon referenced some earlier statements by Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood and extrapolated – incorrectly – that the plane cost $80,000 for the county to maintain every year but only flew a couple of times a year.

Youngblood immediately blasted Nilon for the reference, saying Nilon’s inaccurate depiction of the plane’s uses had eroded his trust in the office, which is the primary source of budget advice to supervisors.

“What we have in this county is a trust issue. It isn’t just the public mistrusting our government. We don’t trust ourselves. I don’t trust this CAO,” Youngblood said at that meeting.

The exchange presents the question: What does Youngblood do with the plane?


Mostly, the Turbo Commander shuttles people around.

Usually those people are Sheriff’s Office command staff or top deputies.

There are a lot of maintenance and pilot training flights as well.

The Californian requested the flight records for the Turbo Commander from 2012 – when the Sheriff’s Office took over the plane from the Kern County Fire Department – to mid-2016.

The records lean more toward recording flight distances and maintenance problems with the plane. But information about where the plane went and who was riding in it are included as well. Older forms sometimes conveyed passenger information on an attached Post-it note.

What the forms don’t show are things like who authorized the flight, the reason for the flight and the time of the flights.

Youngblood said he is the only one now allowed to approve a flight.

“All flights are approved by me now on that airplane,” he said.

And other information about the flight should be public and might be good to be included on the flight form, he said.

“I have no problem outlining what the flight is for. It should be no secret who’s on the airplane,” Youngblood said, adding that if the information isn’t there “in the future it should be added.”

The Californian asked for details about where flights were going and their purpose. Here’s what the Sheriff’s Office told us.

The Turbo Commander has flown all over the western United States, stopping in locations including Las Vegas, Aspen, Colo., Houston, Lake Tahoe, Redding, San Diego and Sacramento.

Sacramento is the most common destination for the plane.

The most typical passengers are the Kern County sheriff’s deputies who fly the plane and pilot other Sheriff’s Office planes and helicopters.

Other top passengers are Youngblood, Undersheriff Rosemary Wahl and Chief Deputy Shelly Castaneda.

Other notable passenger names include Supervisor Mick Gleason, District Attorney Lisa Green and Kern Medical Center CEO Russell Judd.

Youngblood used the plane to attend distant meetings of the California State Sheriff’s Association.

On one occasion he took his girlfriend along, something he said county policy allows. She also could have come along if he had driven to the meeting in a car, Youngblood said.

Wahl and Castaneda attended “Seconds in Command” meetings – meetings that were similar to those Youngblood was attending.

Gleason flew to a water meeting in Ridgecrest with his staff and county administrative staffers.

Green traveled to Sacramento.


The Turbo Commander will be completely paid off after the final lease payment of $357,403 is paid this month.

But the annual cost to fly the plane will remain.

To handle all that air travel, the Sheriff’s Office budgeted $63,126 in flight and maintenance costs in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“We have $80,000 budgeted for that airplane,” Youngblood said of the current budget.

That doesn’t include the cost for maintenance staff and pilot time.

Flying the Turbo Commander is not a full-time job, the Sheriff’s Office stated in written responses to earlier inquiries about the plane.

But, for some context, the plane’s primary pilot, Christopher J. Martin, made $109,800 in base and extra pay in 2015, according to the Transparent California website and cost the county a total of $217,535 in pay and benefits in 2015.

The total cost of the sheriff’s air support unit — including all three of its fixed-wing aircraft and its helicopter fleet — is $4.1 million a year. (The other aircraft are used for surveillance and, more often, prisoner transport.)

Youngblood said he is committed to paying for the ongoing flight and maintenance costs of the Turbo Commander — as much as possible — out of asset forfeiture funds received by the county when it liquidates property owned by convicted criminals.


So do these flights benefit the county, especially given its dire budget situation?

Kern County supervisors are calling for a comprehensive investigation of all county departments’ organizational structures as they expect to see even deeper cuts to county operations over the next three years.

Nilon suggested supervisors look toward things like the sheriff’s public air force as a way to save.

But making specific cuts to the sheriff’s operations is difficult because, as an elected official, Youngblood has control over how he spends the funds supervisors give him.

Youngblood said it’s his call on when and why to use the plane.

“It’s my job to decide what to do – not the newspaper’s,” Youngblood said.

To him, he said, the true value of the Turbo Commander – and the Sheriff’s Office’s two other fixed-wing aircraft – should be measured in time, not dollars.

Driving to Northern California for a meeting, he said, would put him out of commission for at least one extra day on either side of the event he’s attending.

The plane puts him back on the job in Bakersfield much, much faster, he argued.

When he sends deputies to interview a crime suspect somewhere else in the state, he said, he wants them back in town fast, too.

“It’s not just about money, it’s about time,” he said. “I don’t want my homicide detectives out of town for three days.”


Supervisor Mick Gleason, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, knows something about planes.

He has his own plane, which he uses to travel between his home in Ridgecrest and his office in Bakersfield.

Gleason only rode in the Turbo Commander once — to travel from Bakersfield to a water meeting in Ridgecrest.

He said the plane is “in top-quality shape” and made the whole trip in the time it would take his small plane to climb to proper altitude to make it over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Youngblood, he said, cannot scrimp on maintenance or pilot training for the Turbo Commander because he’s carrying passengers.

“Anytime you’re assigned the responsibility of carrying a passenger, that’s a sacred responsibility,” he said.

The pilot has an innocent life in his or her hands and needs to ensure that passenger’s safe travel.

“You need to deliver that safety. That takes money,” Gleason said. “I had a feeling of absolute certainty that I would be carried safely from point A to point B.”

Whether to offer that flight to the passenger, he said, is Youngblood’s decision.

Turbo Commander passengers

Sheriff Donny Youngblood - Six round-trips

Youngblood's significant other - One round-trip.

Undersheriff Rosemary Wahl - Three round-trips.

Chief Deputy Shelly Castaneda - Three round-trips

Supervisor Mick Gleason - one one-way trip.

Kern Medical CEO Russell Judd - one round trip.

District Attorney Lisa Green - one round trip.

Notable Turbo Commander Flights

Here are some of the most notable trips the Kern County Sheriff's Office turbo commander has taken in the past several years.

January 15, 2013

Sheriff Donny Youngblood traveled to Sacramento for a meeting.

August 22, 2014

Sheriff Donny Youngblood traveled to Sacramento.

August 26, 2014

The plane flew Undersheriff Rosemary Wahl to San Diego for a "Seconds in Command" meeting - a subset of the California State Sheriffs' Association for Sheriff departments’ second tier leaders. It then flew back to Bakersfield.

August 28, 2014

The plane flew back to San Diego to pick Undersheriff Wahl up.

Sept. 25, 2014

The plane flew two Sheriff's staff to Reno, Nevada for an Off Highway Vehicle grant meeting.

Nov. 17 , 2014

Four top Sheriff's staff were flown to Sacramento for a meeting on funding for new jail construction being planned with funding from AB900.

January 29, 2015

Three Sheriff's staff flew from Bakersfield to Needles, Arizona, St. George Utah and Henderson Nevada and back to Bakersfield to "exercise" the airplane and its pilot after a more than one month period of inactivity.

June 16 and 18

Undersheriff Rosemary Wahl and Chief Shelly Castaneda were dropped off and picked up from the Truckee Airport near Lake Tahoe for a Seconds in Command meeting.

July 14, 2015

District Attorney Lisa Green was flown to Sacramento for a meeting. On the return trip the plane also picked up Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, San Bernadino County Sheriff John McMahon, McDonnell's assistant, and two San Bernardino County Sheriff's pilots after McMahon's Turbo Commander plane had a "mechanical failure" in Sacramento. The Kern County plane shuttled Green home to Bakersfield then dropped McDonnell in Los Angeles before shuttling McMahon and his pilots home. The Kern County plane then returned to Bakersfield's Meadows Field Aiport.

August 18 and 21, 2015

The turbo commander flew Sheriff Donny Youngblood and his girlfriend to the municipal airport in Redding on Aug. 18 so they could attend the California State Sheriff’s Association Board of Directors meeting in Mt. Shasta. The plane returned on Aug. 21 to pick the pair up.

Dec. 19, 2015

Deputy C.J. Martin, the Turbo Commander's primary pilot, and Sr. Deputy Bob Riggs took off in the "late afternoon" from Indianapolis following a maintenance visit. They were forced to stop for the night in Aspen, Colorado by safety concerns and a storm in the southern Rocky Mountains. They took off for Bakersfield the next morning and were once again stopped in North Las Vegas where they had to wait out a storm over Bakersfield.


Federal Aviation Administration Says New Communication Technology Could Help Flights Arrive Faster

Federal Aviation Administration controllers and pilots are using new computer technology that could help flights get to their destinations faster and safer.

DataComm, an instantaneous communication system, will soon replace the back and forth radio conversations between pilots and controllers.

The new system sends text messages and computer file transfers about flight routes, air traffic and weather directly to the plane's cockpit. It cuts what has been at least a 15-20 minute verbal process down to just seconds of data transmission, which can make a big difference when dealing with unexpected circumstances.

"When you're trying to get re-routed, that is crucial because you're the one who will be able to get out ahead of the weather," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told NBC News.

When a major storm requires planes to reroutes their flights, it typically leaves pilots and passengers waiting on the tarmac. Rather than taking time to verbally confirm each and every reroute, air traffic controllers are able to send out new flight patterns, altitudes and air speeds with the touch of a button, the FAA said.

"With DataComm, a controller can give multiple aircraft their flight plans all at the same time," Huerta said. "What that really enables a controller to do is focus on where they need to be focused on ensuring that the airfield is operating in a safe manner."

The direct transfer of information also reduces the risk of dangerous miscommunication mistakes, aviation officials say. No more garbled radio transmissions.

"Anytime we remove the human element from something, we are definitely improving the safety of our system," said Jim McAllister, an FAA air traffic controller.

The new text transmission does not rely on radio waves, which can fail if the waves are blocked by a building or gate, he added.

At this point, eight U.S. airlines and 17 international carriers plan to add the DataComm to their planes. The new technology roll-out began in Salt Lake City, Utah as part of the FAA's NextGen upgrade and the system is expanding across the country.

By the end of the year, 50 airports are set to have the new system in place.

Airlines expect faster re-routing around severe weather and traffic congestion with the new system, but they also expect to see major savings on fuel costs. Delta Airlines estimates that each minute they save with DataComm will result in $20 million in savings system-wide.

Huerta says flight crews love the new technology because it makes their lives a lot easier.

"It reduces controller work load, it enables us to expedite flights much more quickly and to do it all safely," he said.

As air traffic continues to grow in the U.S., the FAA works with airlines to update and implement new technology to improve safety.

"What travelers will see is fewer delays and more consistent schedules. Ultimately what we want is a very efficient system, a very predictable and reputable system that ensures that airlines can meet their schedules," Huerta said. "And ultimately, that's what travelers want." 

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'The front door to our future': City aims for federal aid for airport

ASHEBORO — City officials hope to get $3 million — or more — in federal funds to help finance a new terminal at Asheboro Regional Airport.

Toward that end, at their regular September meeting on Thursday night, members of the Asheboro City Council approved a contract to hire a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm to help find the money.

The year-long contract, effective through Aug. 31, 2017, authorizes The Franklin Partnership to provide “comprehensive federal affairs representation” for a retainer fee of $4,250 per month, plus out-of-pocket expenses.

Mayor Pro Tem Walker Moffitt said representatives of the firm came to town for a meeting held at the airport to see the current facilities, to review plans for a proposed terminal and to talk about what has been done to date, which includes courting local and state support for the project.

“They believed we had every tool they needed to help us,” Moffitt said. “… I feel very good about our chances, and I feel very good about them.”

Federal purpose

City Manager John Ogburn said Friday that an upgrade at the airport would serve a federal purpose — an important factor in seeking federal monies — because a better facility could better serve a megasite on the Randolph-Guilford border.

“It’s a regional megasite,” Ogburn said. “And I don’t mean it’s a regional site in the state. It’s a regional site in the southeastern United States.”

A second federal purpose of significance, he said, is that an improved facility also would better serve Operation Robin Sage, which already utilizes the airport in its exercises. Robin Sage is a two-week exercise run several times a year in 15 rural North Carolina counties, including Randolph, for Special Forces candidates at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School based out of Fort Bragg.

Game of addition

The city has $1.3 million toward construction of a new terminal. Members of the airport authority have pledged to raise half a million dollars in a private campaign. If the county contributes $500,000, Ogburn said, and the city can get $3 million to $3.5 million in federal funding, the effort will be closing in on the projected $7.5 million cost of terminal plans unveiled last year.

“We’re pretty much committed to build whatever we have the money for,” Ogburn said, adding that a terminal could be built in phases, if necessary.

Ogburn said the city will apply early next year for an economic development assistance grant — through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a bureau in the U.S. Department of Commerce — with an eye toward receiving funding in the fourth quarter of the 2016-17 federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2017.

A local contingent will travel to the nation’s capital early in the new year to make a presentation about the proposed terminal. If the effort is successful, he said, construction could begin in March 2018 — about 18 months from now.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” Ogburn said, “but we feel good about our chances.”

‘Front door to future’

The current terminal is more than 40 years old. A proposal for a two-story, 22,739-square-foot terminal was presented last October during a special joint meeting of the Asheboro City Council, the Randolph County Commissioners and the Asheboro Airport Authority. The proposed facility built of glass, block and stone is designed to look like an airplane wing from the air.

City staff have been working on indoor remodeling, including HVAC and bathroom upgrades, at the current terminal. If a new terminal is built, the old one would not be torn down. Plans call for using it as a base for flight instruction.

The airport on Pilots View Road, off N.C. 49 west of town, was established in its present location in the mid-1960s. It is one of 26 business class size airports in the state and sees more than 125 flights per week. The runway is more than a mile long, enough to accommodate most business jets. The facility also has a full-length taxiway.

The state completed an economic impact survey of North Carolina’s airports in 2012 and set the annual economic contribution of Asheboro’s airport at $5.9 million. The tax value of airplanes hangared at the Asheboro airport contributes to city and county coffers the tax equivalent of about 42 homes worth $121,000.

With improved facilities, proponents say, the number of planes that call the Asheboro airport home could double in a decade.

“We do think,” Ogburn said, “the airport is kind of the front door to our future.”


Amid maintenance, Dickinson airport plans for future

The oil boom took a toll on the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport with more frequent traffic and heavier aircrafts the runways were not built to support.

As a result, the airport will be closed for both general aviation traffic as well as commercial travel for an entire weekend as it conducts routine repairs as part of a large-scale, future operation to better equip the airport to handle heavier planes. The airport will be closed from Friday, Sept. 30 to Sunday, Oct. 2.

As part of a $675,000 project, the airport's runways, taxiways and general aviation ramp will undergo maintenance work over the three-day period to keep them up to safety standards, according to a news release from the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration is funding 90 percent of the project while the Dickinson Airport Authority is paying for the remaining 10 percent.

"This has been in the works for quite some time, so we've worked with the airlines and with all the airport users to make sure that the patrons of the airport, our customers, are not impacted," Airport Manager Kelly Braun said.

This year's maintenance is more extensive than the last year's, but the airport has had construction projects the last two years as well. On Oct. 8 and 9, the airport also is requiring all departures and arrivals to receive prior approval at least 45 minutes before using the runway.

"It's the busiest weekend of the year for us," Braun said. "It's opening pheasant season, so the (general aviation) traffic in and out of our airport is numerous. What we ask is that anyone that's planning a takeoff or a landing call us on our aviation radio ... and inform us of their intent to depart or arrive so that we can pull equipment and personnel off the active runway, so they can get in and out safely."

Sanford Health uses the Dickinson Airport to transport critically injured or sick patients to and from other hospitals. But Sanford's AirMed Base Operations Manager Adam Parker said he was not concerned about the closure.

"We've been working with the airport manager to just kind of work out the details to ensure that there's not any interruption in our service," Parker said. "So doing so might require us to reposition the aircraft periodically during those three days to other airports in western North Dakota just to ensure that we can still complete patient flights out of the referral hospitals out in that area."

He said the aircraft and crew may stay at the Bismarck, Watford City, Bowman or Hettinger airports, though they have not picked one yet. Ground ambulances or the Valley Med Flight helicopter at CHI St. Alexius Health are two other options for patients needing immediate transportation out of Dickinson.

"There's often times that we have different airports in our area, in our service area, that undergo maintenance and we just have to make accommodations for when that happens," Parker said. "But we just look at them on a case-by-case basis and make a plan, so that we can always provide service to that area as best as we can."

The routine maintenance is also part of a larger plan that is in the works to revamp the main runway, Braun said.

The oil boom brought in more commercial and private traffic through the airport, which wore on the runways. There was also an increase in heavier traffic, which sped up the rate of wear and tear. This goal of this larger plan is to build a runway strong enough to withstand larger planes and more frequent traffic so less work needs to be done in the future.

The plan, which has not yet received approval and is still awaiting an environmental assessment, is to build a parallel taxiway to the main runway which would also be up to standards to use as a temporary runway. Upon completion of that taxiway/temporary runway, the airport would tear out the main runway and build a larger replacement. Once that was finished, the temporary runway would be repainted and used as a taxiway again.

"We're kind of killing three birds with one stone," said Jon Frantsvog, chairman of the Dickinson Airport Authority. "First bird is being able to allow airport operations to continue without any interruptions. ... Secondly, the ideal arrangement for safely moving aircrafts on and off the runway is through what's called a parallel taxiway, so the temporary runway will then be repainted and be used as a parallel taxiway so safer aircraft movement operations on the field. Lastly, because that taxiway is built to runway standards, if we have to do a project like we have coming up we can repaint the taxiway, make it a runway again and then have a runway while we do the work on the main runway."

Braun said he is hoping to start the design part of the plan at the beginning of 2017 with the entire project completed and fully operational by the end of 2021.

Building for bigger planes

The maintenance in October is expected to have a three-year lifespan, but the runway will then need more than just patches, Frantsvog said.

A new runway usually can last 20 to 30 years, depending on how well it is maintained, Braun said. Aircraft landings do the most damage to runways, followed closely by the weather, and then takeoffs, he said. A 70,000 pound plane coming in at about 150 mph has an impact.

Each runway has a maximum weight threshold, the maximum amount of weight that it's designed to support. Dickinson Airport's main runway has a threshold of 30,000 pounds dual-wheel and is 100 feet wide and 6,400 feet long, Braun said.

The master plan would shift the runway about 1,500 feet to the northwest and then extend it to 7,300-feet long, widen it to 150 feet and make it thicker to withstand more weight.

The largest plane the runways can currently withstand at a higher frequency are 50-seat regional jets, he said. These aircrafts are actually heavier than the runways are designed to handle, so the airport issues a waiver basically saying it accepts responsibility for the added damage these planes cause.

"We want commercial service in Dickinson, so without that there would be no United Airlines," Braun said.

Many airlines, including United—the only commercial airline that still flies into Dickinson—want start phasing out those 50-seat regional planes in favor of larger ones because of their better fuel-efficiency, though this will probably be a gradual transition, Frantsvog said. That means the airport may have to host even larger planes down the line.

Though the traffic through the airport is down from last year, it is still higher than in the years preceding the oil boom, he said. Oil will continue to draw people and businesses to Dickinson in the years to come, making these projects necessary.

Braun estimated that in 2016, about 20,000 people will have flown out of Dickinson, a number that is recorded to determine the level of federal funding the airport receives. If less than 10,000 people fly out of an airport in a year, the federal government guarantees only $100,000 a year, about the cost of two loads of asphalt, Braun said. Airports exceeding 10,000 customers are guaranteed to receive $1 million a year.

If approved, the master plan will cost about $60 million to complete. Braun said federal funds should cover about 55 percent of that cost, the state covering about 40 percent and the remaining 5 percent being paid for locally.

First, the airport must pass the environmental assessment, then the master plan and airport layout have to be complete and approved by the FAA. The federal and state government have to justify the expense as well in order to allocate the funds.

Ultimately, the airport and board are trying to cause the least amount of inconvenience to their customers and to plan ahead to meet current traffic demands in addition to planning for the future.

"This is not something unusual," Frantsvog said. "There are airports doing this all over the country every day, and this is not the first time that we've done it at Dickinson. The problem is we can't put cones down the middle of the runway and have you just land on the one side. I'm a pilot. I like to have the whole runway available to me."

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Blue Grass Airport to make about $35 million in upgrades


Officials say Blue Grass Airport in Lexington is planning nearly $35 million in upgrades to allow the regional airport to serve a growing number of passengers.

Upgrades will include additional hangars for private planes, a new baggage system, a new rental car maintenance garage and more parking.

Eric J. Frankl, the executive director of the airport, said the improvements will take two to three years to complete.

Frankl says the airport had 637,000 departures last year, a record.

Bonds for the project were approved Thursday by the Lexington Urban County Council. The airport generates its own revenue and doesn't receive any local tax dollars, but its bonds must be issued by the city.


Thousands turn out for HOT Air Show

Though temperatures approaching the mid-90s turned the tarmac into a griddle Saturday, thousands of aerobatics fans turned out for the annual Heart of Texas Air Show at the Texas State Technical College Waco Airport.

Several spectators said they had hoped to see the Air Force’s Thunderbirds or the Navy’s Blue Angels flight teams, but show director Debby Standefer, President of D&D Marketing Concepts, pointed to several new attractions she said should make up the difference. She said the Thunderbirds are expected at next year’s show March 18 and 19.

The new attractions include the Air Force’s F-16 Viper demonstration team, pairing the state-of-the-art jet fighters with a “heritage flight” by the P-47 Thunderbolt vintage propeller fighter; a performance of F-18 Super Hornets by a Navy tactical team; a search and rescue demonstration by a Coast Guard team from Corpus Christi; a demonstration of the Marines’ MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor helicopter; and appearances by the Shock Wave jet-powered semi built by Darnell Racing Enterprises. The truck raced airplanes down the runway at 375 miles per hour.

Another attraction is the A-26 Invader dubbed “The Spirit of Waco,” a World War II and Vietnam era aircraft that offers flights to spectators for $650 or $450. The Commemorative Air Force is offering flights for $150 per passenger, and helicopter rides are available for $25 per passenger.

Gates are open again from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Aerobatic shows start at 1 p.m.

Kate Kyer, a 20-year veteran of air shows who was flying a Pitts S-2B biplane, said one of the best things about the shows at TSTC is that spectators are facing away from the sun in the afternoon. She and her husband Pat keep several aircraft at their farm at Honey Grove. He is a pilot with Southwest Airlines.

Air shows involving the military typically draw many veterans among the crowds. Waco certified public accountant John W. McAnally, who was in charge of howitzers and nuclear-tipped shells in Europe in the mid-20th Century, said he was disappointed not to see the Blue Angels, “but I really like coming here to see all the facility’s capabilities. I’m amazed all the aircraft they can land here. My son is an operations officer at the Addison airport, and they have shows there but they can’t do nearly as much.”

L3 Communications, one of the show’s sponsors, made the show a picnic celebration for about 2,500 employees and family members, Standefer said.

As in previous years, the Texas Air National Guard conducted tours in a four-engine C-130 transport plane from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, formerly Carswell Air Force Base. Like a giant mother hen, it sheltered dozens of spectators from the sun under each wing. Every few minutes, announcers exhorted spectators to stay hydrated with water from the many food stands behind the viewing area.

A grass fire broke out in the vicinity of the show about 4 p.m. Saturday, but Lacy Lakeview Police Chief John Truehitt said it was easily contained. The TSTC airport is in the jurisdiction of the Waco Fire Department, but official information from Waco officials was not available late Saturday afternoon.

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No more ultralight aircraft for Wisconsin whooping crane migration

A major shift in strategy in managing endangered whooping cranes begins this week with the arrival in Wisconsin of juvenile cranes that no longer will rely on ultralight aircraft to guide them during fall migration.

The slow-moving aircraft will be absent for the first time since 2001, when a public-private partnership launched a novel reintroduction plan involving ultralights and humans dressed to look like cranes.

Instead, nine young cranes flown to Wisconsin on Wednesday by private plane from a federal facility in Patuxent, Md., will be paired with adult cranes in the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County and other areas.

Three other cranes hatched at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo will be released in the coming weeks — all with the hope they bond with adults and follow them south for the winter.

Efforts to bring back whooping cranes to the eastern United States has cost more than $20 million and has resulted in a population of about 100. Most of the 5-foot-tall birds spend their spring, summer and fall in Wisconsin.

But cranes have struggled with reproduction, and experts have questioned whether extensive human interaction has been detrimental to parenting.

“They know how to survive in the wild,” said Davin Lopez, a conservation biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, one of the government agencies involved in crane reintroduction.

“But what they are not doing is raising chicks.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in January it would not support the use of ultralights in migrations and wanted to de-emphasize the use of humans dressed in baggy, crane-like outfits who tended to the birds until they were old enough to join adults in the wild.

Starting this year, the reintroduction is relying on parent rearing — not human caretakers. When the chicks hatched in Baraboo and at the federal Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, they lived in captivity with adult cranes until they are released.

The idea is to employ a more natural method of raising birds where the chicks learn behaviors and skills directly from adults — and not human surrogates, say those involved in the project.

Operation Migration, the nonprofit group that pioneered the use of ultralights, will remain involved in crane reintroduction.

The group’s co-founder, Joe Duff, said Operation Migration is working with other groups to bring young cranes to locations where adult cranes are living and are closely monitored with telemetry.

Knowing their habits and parenting experience, Duff said the chicks will be introduced to adults thought to be the most capable of teaching them to survive and migrate.

There are limitations, however. Duff said many adult cranes with the best reputations for parenting live in or near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Tomah. Crane crew won’t place chicks there because of longstanding problems with black flies. The flies are known to force cranes to abandon nests.

The whooping crane community will likely learn a lot in this next phase of reintroduction.

“This has been considered a transition year,” Duff said.

In more ways than one.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service, which controls most captive egg production, said they were considering not supporting ultralights, Operation Migration was not pleased.

The group launched an online protest nearly a year ago on, and in a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Duff said, “To be blunt, we feel as if you are looking a gift horse in the mouth.”

With a finite number of eggs, groups like Operation Migration “were kind of competing for birds — it made for this division among friends,” Duff said Wednesday.

This fall, he is emphasizing cooperation.

“Our ambition is to safeguard whooping cranes and make them a self-sustaining population,” Duff said.

They disappeared from the region in the late 19th century — victims of over-hunting and other factors.

More than 250 whooping cranes have been released into the wild since 2001. The current population in the wild is about 100, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

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Ready for takeoff; Ada Municipal Airport seen as critical long-term economic development strategy

Ada Municipal Airport runway. 

The city of Ada, and its partners at the state and federal levels, are investing in the Ada Municipal Airport because they see the facility as a long-term driver of economic growth. 

The airport, located two miles north of downtown Ada, just east of North Broadway at 2800 Airport Road, was created in 1929 and is owned and operated by the city.

The city has spent more than $1 million on improvements at the airport since 2002, but state and federal grants have added an additional $10 million.

Of the money spent on improvement projects, the overwhelming amount comes from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Oklahoma Aeronautical Commission — about 90 percent.

The city must furnish its share, about 10 percent, or it can’t receive grant money. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it deal.

“You get a certain amount of grant (money) a year,” said Yancy Wood, Ada Municipal Airport manager. “And you can bank it for two or three years, but if you don’t spend it, you lose it. And if you can’t match it, you lose it.”

According to the city, the airport provides fueling services, storage hangars and a fixed-base operator. It is the only jet-capable airport in Pontotoc County. The airport was recognized as the state’s best in 1999 and again in 2009. Two aeronautical industries — General Aviation Modifications, Inc. and Tornado Alley Turbo — are based there. It is also home to “one of the region’s best annual air shows,” according to the city.

There are about 50 hangars at the airport, and many people and businesses rent them from the city. New private hangar owners don’t lease hangars, but they do lease the land upon which they sit. It’s 16 cents per square foot per year.

In the latest fiscal year, hanger rent and lease revenue combined to generate about $125,000. The revenue stays in the city’s airport fund to help offset the cost of operations. Total cost of operations last year was $153,850.


Advocates say general-aviation airports, such as Ada Municipal Airport, open access to communities and provide economic development opportunities.

“I think a municipal airport is very important for growth,” said Lisa Bratcher, public information officer for the city. “Especially in more rural areas like ours. Economic development is a big part of Ada right now, and those people need to fly in.”

Don Childers, chairman of the Ada Municipal Airport Commission, agrees the airport is a critical component for economic growth.

“A lot of people don’t realize the importance of the airport, but it’s really vital for economic development,” Childers said. “Victor Bird, Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission chairman, always said, ‘Industry doesn’t come to town in a Greyhound bus.’”

Yancy Wood, a highly decorated combat pilot who retired from the U.S. Army in 2011 after 20 years of service, said there are a quarter of a million private planes in the United States.

“And they fly almost 200 million people around a year,” he said. “So, it’s like the biggest airline. We have 62 private planes here in Ada.”

Wood said some of those private planes are just used by residents for recreation, but the majority are used for business.

“When we invest, It’s nice to have the general public and their private planes, but really, we’re looking at business and economic growth,” he said. “Especially with Ada not having a four-lane highway. In that context, we’re isolated. We’re kind of an island. We are one of the largest cities in Oklahoma, probably, without a four-lane highway. So that makes the airport even more important for someone traveling here for a meeting or a conference or looking to invest. The airport is important.”


There is an immense amount of construction going on at the airport right now. That includes construction of a new terminal and new entrance road and parking area. New water lines and sewer lines are being installed. Chickasaw Nation is building a new hangar, and Air Evac Lifeteam just relocated to Ada and is based at the airport.

“The more improvements we make to the airport, it comes full circle,” Lisa Bratcher said. “Some of it’s long range, some of it’s shorter range, but you have those companies and prospects. We have a lot of people looking at Ada. We are enticing businesses...(and) this enables them to come to a nice facility and stay. And it brings tax dollars into our town by them staying in they’re searching and looking at Ada. The more we do to improve this area, it will benefit all of us. It’s a full-circle, long-term thing.”

A major project is the new terminal building, which was funded in 2014. The cost for the project is $1,295,305. The state provided $500,000, while the cost to local taxpayers was $545,305. The city furnished $295,305. Ada Jobs Foundation provided $250,000. Ada Jobs Foundation is funded by Proposition 2, a one-fourth of a cent sales tax that is dedicated to economic development activities. The Chickasaw Nation also contributed $250,000.

Officials said the old terminal building is fraught with problems, and would be a very expensive refurbishment. The new terminal is nearing completion.

The ability to create a new terminal came from a windfall of sorts. Wood said when other cities were offered money from the FAA, they were not prepared to build, so they lost the funds.

He said Ada is always prepared for improvements, so it was granted the money.

A new road to the terminal is also nearing completion, as is a new parking/drop-off area.

City workers constructed the road, parking area, stairs and a wheelchair ramp at the airport, which the city said saves money over hiring an outside contractor to do the work.

Roy Cosar, project director, praised the work city employees have done.

“City employees did it all, except for (the new terminal building),” Cosar said. “But every single infrastructure, they’ve done an excellent job. People need to know that this saved the city a lot of money. Plus, you’re putting local guys to work instead of bringing contractors in. You’re feeding families in town.”

Wood said grant money from the FAA was acquired to pay for materials to construct the parking area and entrance road. The city’s 10 percent contribution was in the form of manned labor.

“It’s going to save the city about $300,000 doing it that way, rather than paying a contractor $600,000,” Wood said.

The Chickasaw Nation is building a state-of-the-art hangar near the new terminal, which will house four planes.

Air Evac Lifeteam has relocated to Ada. It has a helipad at the airport and its hangar building is made of the same materials as the new terminal. Air Evac plans to hire 14 additional employees.

Air Evac moved to Ada so it will be closer to the source of most of its calls, senior program manager Steven Bates told The Ada News in April. He said the move would reduce the air ambulance service’s response time, which is critical for patients suffering a heart attack or other medical emergency.

The financials

Since 2002, the total amount of money spent on airport projects — from federal, state and local sources — is $11,189,294. Of that total, the cost to local taxpayers was a little more than $1 million. Most of the funds came from federal ($8,449,351) and state ($1,438,758) sources.

In 2002, there were two major projects at the airport. First was the installation of perimeter fencing. The total cost was $166,667. Of that amount, the local share was $16,667. Grants funded the remaining $150,000.

The second project improved the runway safety area at a total cost of $770,334. The federal share was $693,300. State funds of $38,517 were also used with a matching local share of the same amount.

In 2003, several improvements cost a total of $439,740. Federal, state and local shares were $393,984, $18,730 and $27,026 respectively.

Those improvements included the reconstruction of Taxiway C, installation of a omni-directional lighting System at the end of Runway 17, installing reflective taxiway signs through the airport and removal of the visual approach path indicator and replacing it with a precision approach path indicator at Runway 17.

An asphalt overlay and remarking the primary runway in 2005 cost a total of $1,217,490. The local cost was $191,370, with federal money at $402,354 and the largest share coming from the state at $624,216.

However, the city later sued two companies who worked on the primary runway — Horizon Engineering and Cummins Construction Co. The FAA and the OAC provided the funds for the project, but stipulated the city should use a certain type of asphalt, which was specified in the city’s contract with the two companies.

The companies did not use that kind of asphalt for the project or conduct required sampling and tests, according to the lawsuit. As a result, the FAA and the OAC required the city to reimburse the agencies for the grant funds, which has since been repaid.

The city filed suit in 200, and settled with the two companies in 2015 for $700,000.

Mayor Guy Sewell said at the time of the settlement — which was the result of several months of negotiations — if the city continued to pursue the case, the resulting court costs would consume any additional settlement funds.

“So I think most of us agree that $700,000 is the best outcome that we can expect,” he said in 2015.

However, the total amount the city spent in legal fees was $230,462.11.

A two-phase airport project was conducted in 2007 and 2008.

Phase one in 2007 was the reconstruction of the main apron and parallel taxiway system at a cost of $3,458,309.

The federal share was $3,283,969, the state contributed $86,420 and the city contributed $87,920.

Phase two in 2008 was reconstruction of and realigning the parallel taxiway system and installing medium intensity taxiway lights. The cost was $3,160,426. Federal money provided the bulk of the funding at $3,000,979. The state contributed $78,973, while local tax money of $80,473 rounded out the rest.

In 2010, the city acquired land for approaches (an engineering study for future land acquisition for approach protection). The cost to the city was $3,745, while federal funding of $71,165 provided the rest for a total of $74,910.

In 2012, an update of the airport master plan study cost $200,000. The federal cost was $180,000, while the city of Ada spent $20,000.

Reconstruction of the taxi lane pavement in 2013 cost $102,119. The state provided $91,902, while the city provided $10,211.

As well as the construction of the new terminal building, another 2014 project was slated at a total cost of $304,000. Federal funding provided $273,600, while the city’s cost was $30,400. The project included a preliminary design of apron construction (An apron is a defined area on an airport intended to accommodate aircraft for purposes of loading or unloading passengers or cargo, refueling, parking or maintenance), improving the runway safety area, rehabilitation of runway and rehabilitate runway lighting.

The future

City and airport officials are always preparing for future growth at the airport, which sits on about 750 acres of land.

“A lot of it is just sitting there, not being used,” Yancy Wood said. “We have a plan for an industrial park. There have been some economic studies. Ada Airport is kind of unique in that we have all this land, and the aviation industry is a growing industry, and this would be a perfect place for maintenance and parts, some studies have shown.”

The area where the industrial park would be is on the east side of the airport. And it doesn’t have to be aviation only. Any manufacturing entity could be located there.

Additionally, officials are preparing for growth on the west side of the airport, along North Broadway Avenue. Airport officials are planning to accommodate businesses and development in front of the airport along Broadway.

The city is also installing new water lines and sewer pipes at the airport, which will not only accommodate current businesses, but new businesses which might spring up in front of the airport.

The old entrance road will stay for the businesses currently there. In fact, after construction is complete, the old road will get an asphalt overlay. It is currently in poor shape, due to all the heavy vehicles going back and forth.

The road also leads to several hangars and two businesses. Tornado Alley Turbo, Inc., manufactures and installs turbonormalizing systems. General Aviation Modifications Inc. makes GAMIjector fuel injectors and other airplane improvement products. Both companies have planes flying in every day.

Nuts and bolts

The Ada Municipal Airport is an uncontrolled airport, which means there is no traffic control. Air traffic control is used at larger, much busier airports.

“There’s a common frequency, and we all talk on it and cooperate and know what the other guy is doing,” Wood said. “And that’s common. Most airports across the country are not controlled.”

Mack Smith, vice chairman of the Airport Commission, said Ada has one of the best airports in the state.

“We’ve got the best airport in the southern part of the state,” he said. “Other than Oklahoma City and Tulsa, this airport’s facilities and runway, we just outdo everybody in the state. And most people don’t even know it. That’s one of the reasons the Chickasaws located here (at the airport.) Because of the jet-capable runway, all its clearances on both ends and its proximity to town.”

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Tuskegee Airmen fighter plane soars above Gary Aquatorium

97-year-old Tuskegee Airman Robert Martin, left, speaks to Tom Breese about the Tuskegee fighter plane replica that Breese helped paint at Republic Frame & Axle in Gary.

GARY – A two-thirds scale replica Tuskegee Airmen fighter plane will permanently soar over Gary.

A replica of the P-51 fighter planes the pioneering African-American fighter group flew during World War II was elevated this weekend on a steel pole 35 feet into the air at Marquette Park. The plane was installed at the Gary Aquatorium, a National Historic Landmark that's often rented out for weddings because of its sweeping view of Lake Michigan.

The nonprofit Chanute Aquatorium Society, which saved the former Gary Bathhouse from demolition in the early 1990s, raised the funds for the tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen at the historic special events venue in the Miller section of Gary, which complements a bronze statue of a Tuskegee Airman there. 

More than 150 people contributed to the project, Chanute Aquatorium Society President George Rogge said. A dedication will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday. 

"It's kind of spectacular," he said. "It has a 24-foot-long fuselage with a 24-foot-wide wingspan and it looks like it's taking off to the east." 

The plane is supported by a 7,000-pound steel pole and 6-foot-by-6-foot steel rods that go more than 20 feet deep into the ground.

"There's more money in the ground than on the plane," Rogge said. "When it's attached to the ground, the plane can't lift or dive, so we have to make sure a 100-mile wind can't rip it apart. It's rated for up to a 182-mile wind."

The new plane is one of two bookends at the Gary Aquatorium — on the other side, there's a life-size replica of the biplane hang glider that local aviation pioneer Octave Chanute flew over the sand dunes in 1896, inspiring Wilbur and Orville Wright.

The replica Tuskegee plane was made in Ohio and painted at Republic Frame & Axle in Gary, which war hero Robert Martin — a Tuskegee airman who won the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart — visited earlier this week.

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Flexjet fractional plane ownership company coming to Westchester County Airport

WHITE PLAINS - If you've always wanted to own a plane at Westchester County Airport, you'll soon get the chance — part of one, anyway.

Flexjet, a Cleveland-based fractional private jet service, is set to expand its presence at the county-owned and operated airport this fall, when its renovated private terminal opens in Hangar F.

The service allows customers to purchase as little as 1/16th of an airplane, which gives the customer the right to fly 50 hours per year in that aircraft or a similar one if they give 10 hours notice for a domestic flight and 48 hours notice for an international fight.

Rates are slightly over $1 million over five years for the smallest available share of the company's newest aircraft, the Embraer Legacy 450, plus $7,000 per month in maintenance fees.

“You can use those hours at any given time and you have those hours every year," said Flexjet's Senior Vice President of Sales Matt Doyle, who showed off the Legacy 450 this week at a National Business Aviation Association regional forum at the airport. "If your particular aircraft that you own isn’t available, you’ll be flying on an identically-equipped aircraft within the fleet.”

Flexjet — which will acquire four more of the Legacy 450s this year — currently runs its New York metropolitan area operations out of Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, but was lured to Westchester in February 2015 by the county Industrial Development Agency. The agency issued incentives to help defray the cost of the move and the hangar renovation.

Once completed, the hangar will have 30,000 square feet of maintenance space plus a 4,000 square foot passenger lounge.

"Our owners are landing there or departing there; it allows the group to get together have a private meeting, we have services even for the dogs. We have a lot of people who travel with pets," Doyle said.

“When we see the opportunity for a good spot, this was a good spot, (and we took it)," he added.

Private aviation services have grown at the county airport in recent months.

In February, Hopscotch Air, an air taxi service that takes passengers on short flights to other regional airports, said they were expanding their fleet by 30 percent.

In May, Million Air agreed to extend its lease with the county and pay substantially more in rent while building a new hangar and a new terminal.

And in July, BlissJet announced they would begin flying weekly between Westchester County Airport to Biggin Hill Airport outside of London this fall.

That is a boon for the county, which gets a cut of the revenue for every plane that takes off or leaves.

Mike Nichols, the vice president for operational excellence and professional development for the NBAA, which represents companies that rely on aviation for business, said the county airport is good because it has enough space for both commercial flights and private ones.

“As operators of business aircraft, we try to stay out of the way of the airlines. If their operations are efficient, our operations are efficient," he said.

The growth of private aviation companies is "something we’re not only seeing here," he said, "but we’re seeing across the nation as well.”

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