Saturday, July 22, 2017

Eclipse will drive heavy air traffic to Salem Municipal Airport - McNary Field (KSLE)

With a million visitors destined for Oregon to view the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, gridlock is a guarantee.

Not just in our cities and on our highways, but also in our skies and on our runways.

Salem Municipal Airport is bracing for one of its biggest traffic days in recent history, maybe ever.

At least 115 private and chartered aircraft from up and down the West Coast are scheduled to descend on McNary Field — with 20 on a waiting list — and that’s in addition to the 175 aircraft that are based at McNary Field.

Independence State Airport is expecting a capacity crowd of about 250 airplanes carrying on after a regularly scheduled fly-in.

No viewing parties are being staged at either airport, and no camping is allowed on either property. 

“The big event,” Salem airport manager John Paskell said, “is up in the sky.”

Local airports are in uncharted territory, alongside all the other municipalities, businesses, and organizations preparing for the first total solar eclipse on U.S. mainland in nearly four decades (1979) and the first coast-to-coast one in nearly a century (1918).

The last time we experienced the eclipse, Salem was on the edge of the path of totality, the path the moon's shadow traces on the Earth during a solar eclipse. This time we’re in the sweet spot.

Paskell has been working closely with Ron Peters, manager of Salem Aviation Fueling, and Robert Broyhill, the air traffic manager for the Salem Control Tower, to coordinate a plan for accommodating more aircraft, more takeoffs and landings, plus all the pilots and passengers who come along for the ride.

Getting extra assistance

They want to put their best wing forward, so they brought in a consultant, Greg Miller, who has been involved with staging large-scale events such as the Super Bowl.

“There’s not a lot of experienced folks out there we can contact about how to manage an event like this,” Paskell said.

Salem airport capped capacity based on a number of factors, including the limited number of tie-downs, which is where visiting aircraft can park and be secure.

“From a customer service standpoint, we want to invite everybody,” Paskell said. “We’d like as many aircraft to come to Salem as possible, but the reality is we’ve got limited space and limited resources.”

The increased traffic on the runways, and in the air, will be “super compressed” into a short window of just a few hours because most visitors will fly in the morning of the eclipse and fly out early that same afternoon.

Salem airport will have all hands on deck to handle the flock of aircraft coming from California, Washington and Idaho and the hundreds of passengers who will be stepping out of those aircraft and onto the apron, the official term according to the FAA for what many of us refer to as the tarmac.

More services for a variety of planes

Officials will bring in a dozen portable bathrooms and some dumpsters for garbage. The Flight Deck Restaurant will serve an outdoor breakfast buffet the morning of the eclipse.

Among the visitors will be a group of scientists from California that will be shuttled in on a corporate jet, and members of a flying club from Washington that will be traveling in 30 small aircraft.

While most of the incoming will be what Peters calls “mom and pop” planes, some of the larger aircraft expected to land at McNary Field for the eclipse include a Beechcraft 1900, a Gulfstream 450, a Learjet 35, and maybe even a Boeing 737.

Although Salem doesn’t have commercial service and hasn’t since 2008, it can handle a twinjet airliner. It did just a few months ago when an Alaska Airlines flight was diverted here, refueled, and then took off. The airport is filed as an alternative when needed by Alaska and Southwest Airlines.

The 58-foot tower at McNary Field will be staffed more than usual on the day of the eclipse, although I’m told the crew won’t approach it any differently than the other 364 days this year.

Ron Peters

Most everyone who works on site, including airport management and fuel services, will be clocking in on the eve of the eclipse so no one has to fret about getting stuck in traffic or not being able to make it in.

No one can or will say how quickly the tower will be able to shuffle aircraft on and off the runways and taxiways because there are so many variables. It depends on the size and speed of the aircraft, for example, and how many aircraft are outside Salem’s airspace.

Salem’s airspace is roughly a five-mile radius and up to 2,500 feet. Anyone who enters that airspace is required to communicate with the tower at McNary Field.

The airport has two runways, giving it an advantage when it comes to traffic flow. Paskell said both will be used simultaneously, allowing one aircraft to be taxiing off while another is landing, and also keeping a path clear for local tenants to get in and out of their hangars.

John Paskell

Many local pilots plan to fly that day just so they can enter “2017 Solar Eclipse” in their log book. Some want to be in the air when the moon obscures the sun and creates total darkness in Salem for just under 2 minutes.

Airport management can control access and parking. The airport has a security fence and a limited number of tie-downs, all of which are expected to be utilized that day.

Salem Aviation Fueling will manage the parking and fueling of aircraft. Peters said all storage tanks would be topped off ahead of time and that he has the capacity for 30,000 gallons of fuel. He expects to have plenty to go around but is planning for an additional fueling vehicle or two to better service that many aircraft.

Some aircraft may only need 5-10 gallons of fuel, others 35-40 gallons, but a jet might need 3,000 gallons.

“We’re setup to handle what’s coming,” Peters said. “We’re certified, we have the staff, and we can do it in a safe manner.”

"It'll be the busiest day"

Still, he’s never experienced anything quite like what he anticipates that Monday, Aug. 21.

“In the 13 years I’ve been here, it’ll be the busiest day,” Peters said.

Dozens of choppers flying out of McNary Field in August 1996, for the World Helicopter Championships, might compare, or one of the big air shows in the 1970s and 1980s.

Back in 1963, on a mid-January Monday, Portland fog turned Salem into a busy “international” airport for most of the day. At one point, there were seven big airliners on the ground, another was landing, and another was taxiing for takeoff.

Today, Salem airport averages 200 operations a day. Each takeoff and landing is one operation. If every aircraft expected at the airport the day of the eclipse were to take off and land, including those based there, that would be nearly three times the average number of operations.

Independence State Airport will have a larger-than-normal turnout for its annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in the weekend before.

“Traditionally, this was the weekend it’s always been held on,” said Al Cleveland, president of EAA Chapter 292 of the Mid-Willamette Valley. “It just so happens the following Monday is an eclipse.”

Organizers must plan for an extra day because most of the 250 participants will stay through the solar event. While there is no tower at the airport in Independence, Cleveland said two veteran air traffic control personnel will be on the ground offering traffic advisories.

With their event at capacity, Cleveland had been sending inquiries to Salem airport, until he found out it was booked, too. The next-best option for anyone still hoping to find space at an area airport, he said, would be Corvallis or McMinnville.

If an aircraft were to approach Salem on the morning of the eclipse, without having secured a reservation, it could be diverted to another airport, although Paskell said that is unlikely.

He also said the FAA wouldn't restrict air traffic in most cases — unless President Donald Trump decides to come to Salem to view the eclipse.

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