Monday, July 24, 2017

Government warned against closing airstrips: Local pilots are concerned that a proposal to close five Yukon airstrips will lead to an erosion of aviation safety in the territory

A Yukon Aviation System Review was conducted by design and consultancy firm Stantec.

It recommends closing the Minto, Pine Lake, Braeburn, Chapman and Twin Creeks airstrips, primarily because they see “negligible activity.”

“This is aggressive and may not be popular but provides essential investments to the airports/aerodromes that require attention while removing the risk, liability and oversight to the airstrips that are not a part of a real aviation system,” reads a May 23, 2017 draft of the review obtained by the Star.

The report was put together for the Department of Highways and Public Works’ aviation branch. It also suggests selling off the airstrips as an alternative to closing them.

George Balmer, a local private pilot with a commercial licence, strongly disagrees with the report’s determinations.

He said these airstrips are used by wildfire fighters, emergency services, exploration companies, outfitting camps and more.

Craig Unterschute is president of Whitehorse-based commercial charter company Great River Air.

Though they might not see much traffic, Unterschute said, the five airstrips provide a key safety net to Yukon pilots and passengers, especially during periods of rapidly changing weather.

“Weather reporting is very few and far between in the territory, so there’s huge gaps that you really don’t know what’s going on with the weather until you go,” he told the Star Friday.

“You can get 20 miles out of Whitehorse, 10 miles out of Whitehorse, and not be able to get in because of the weather.

“So what do you do? You go turn around and you go sit in Braeburn for a few hours and have a coffee and a doughnut.”

This wouldn’t be an option if the strip at Braeburn, about 95 kilometres north of Whitehorse, closed.

Pilots also use the airstrips as refuelling spots, said Unterschute, who also tracks caribou on the Yukon’s north slope for the Department of Environment.

If not for the assurance provided by small airstrips scattered around the territory, there would be many days Unterschute wouldn’t risk flying. Knowing there are several places to land or refuel is the deciding factor.

Balmer disputes the notion that the costs of maintaining the five airstrips outweigh the benefits of keeping them in service.

Allan Nixon, the government’s assistant deputy minister of transportation, said in an interview this morning he couldn’t say offhand exactly how much it would cost to continue maintaining the five airstrips in question.

“It’s not going to be a huge sum,” he said. “It would vary from year to year.”

The government hasn’t decided yet whether it will close the airstrips, said Nixon.

The recommendations are “not written in stone,” he added. “They’re meant to start a conversation.”

The Canadian Owners and Pilot’s Association (COPA) expressed its worries about the “degradation of aviation infrastructure throughout Yukon as it applies to smaller airstrips” in a May 26 letter to Richard Mostyn, the minister of Highways and Public Works.

These airstrips support recreational and commercial, charter flying, and are important to the Yukon’s economic development, writes Yukon chapter president Rick Nielsen.

Cabinet spokespeople said Mostyn was not available for an interview before this afternoon’s press deadline.

Stantec’s review is meant to assess spending in the Yukon’s aviation system and prioritize infrastructure investments that meet the territory’s current and future needs, provide for economic development opportunities, and comply with regulations.

But Balmer said no private pilots were consulted during as part of Stantec’s review.

The draft seen by the Star does not note who was consulted.

Unterschute said Stantec made one attempt to reach out to him, but that his numerous calls in return went unanswered.

The government intends on consulting with “stakeholders,” including COPA, before making a final call on future aviation infrastructure investments, said Nixon.

According to the review, 14 airports and airstrips were visited last February, and the remaining 13 were assessed “via existing site plans and aerial mapping.

The Whitehorse and Dawson City airports were not included in the review.

Unterschute pointed out that February is not an ideal time to do a surface analysis of airstrips, as it’s difficult to see the effects of rainwater, for example.

If the assessment was done only in the summertime, than officials wouldn’t have a sense of conditions in the winter, said Nixon.

The timing of the review was “reasonable” for the government’s purposes, he said.

“There’s a lot of very good information in this report,” said Nixon, of the 75-page document.

The report cost $211,000.

“(It has) stuff we didn’t have before that could help us chart a path forward.”

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