VERNON - Seated on a flat landing below orchard-brushed hillsides on the west side of town, the Vernon airport is a little known nook of activity where corporate jets offload business people, ambulances airlift patients to hospital and adrenaline-hunters enjoy the rush of a freefall.
It’s small enough that curious onlookers might be treated to a closer, escorted visit to watch the planes coming in, and members of the flying club will often cut their daily 10 a.m. coffee time short to show you their plane.
Bookended by Tronson Road and Okanagan Landing Road, you might have driven by the nondescript main office and small parking lot on your way to Kin Beach on Okanagan Lake — but don’t let the airport’s humble size fool you. Its single runway is a constant flow of activity, as are the 50 hangars dotted around it, where mechanics convert aircrafts into float planes and Okanagan College students tinker away at engines.
“A lot of people don’t know, number one, that there’s an airport here, and two, what we actually do here,” airport supervisor Ian Adkins says. “It’s not just a bunch of old boys flying around for fun, there’s a lot of economic activity here.”
He has a collection of framed photos on his office wall, the oldest dated back to 1947, just nine years after it was established in 1938. In that photo, the airport is but a tiny speck and the housing developments that now colour the landscape have not yet sprung up.
Many people remain unaware of the Vernon airport simply because they have no reason to go there; it offers no scheduled, commercial flights. But many groups rely on the landing strip for a variety of services. In 2014 alone, the airport recorded some 15,482 movements — the number of landings and takeoffs.
The airport accommodates a wide range of businesses and community services, Adkins says. There are the fisheries helicopters that set off from the airport with loads of fry to be released in lakes where there is no road access. At various periods throughout the summer, the airport was home to some 14 B.C. Wildfire helicopters. B.C. Hydro bases helicopters out of the airport for use building and repairing power lines. Other helicopters are hired by farmers to hover over cherry orchards to fan the fruit dry after rainstorms. Vernon Search and Rescue depends on the airport as a rendezvous location and refuelling stop for its brand new helicopter winch rescue service, and many sick or injured people have been wheeled onto the tarmac for transport by B.C. Air Ambulance. Vernon Jubilee Hospital has no landing pad and relies on the Vernon and Kelowna airports when transferring patients.
The airport is also a hub for private business. Okanagan SkyDive operates a popular skydiving business out of a corner of the airport, and bright red or orange parachutes can often be seen drifting back to earth at their designated end of the property. In the winter, heli skiing operations use the airport to refuel and pick up passengers. Kal Tire runs two corporate jets out of the airport, bringing in CEOs from as far afield as China for meetings, Adkins says.
“As opposed to landing in Kelowna, they (private jets) like to land here because we have great service, they don’t have to wait, we’re close to the reasons they come here, and we’re cost effective,” Adkins says.
The airport is also host to various manufacturing and maintenance businesses, including an upholstery shop, float plane conversion mechanic, and engine shop. According to the city, the airport supports 97 jobs and a GDP of about $11 million.
Unlike many airports of its size, Adkins says, the facility makes enough revenue through fuel sales, landing fees and leases to cover its day to day costs. But if it wants to expand, that’s something taxpayers would need to get involved in.
THE NEXT 20 YEARS
While it can be called the little airport that could, it could do a lot more with a longer runway. That’s the crux of a new 20-year airport master plan which is currently going through a public consultation period.
Taxpayers are being presented with four options ranging from keeping things status quo, to conducting select improvements without expanding, and — the big ticket item — extending the runway. Currently stretching 3,517 feet, many aircraft, including air ambulance helicopters and some corporate jets, can only land on it when conditions are perfect. By industry standards, it’s too short for them to land if there’s any rain, ice or other ‘contaminants’ on the runway. And that basically restricts the airport to primarily seasonal activity.
Expanding the runway to 4,000 feet — a price tag of about $4,000,000 — would open all kinds of doors, city planning assistant Roy Nuriel says. It could lead to year-round charter flights for corporate jets, and enhance service for agencies like B.C. Air Ambulance. Aviation stakeholders are keen on seeing the runway expanded, Nuriel says, but the city wants feedback from the wider community as well.
“We want to know, what does the public want to see?” Nuriel says.
A bigger runway would undoubtedly lead to more activity, and while Nuriel expects the biggest concern, particularly for the surrounding community, will be noise, he insists the sound level wouldn’t be much greater than it is now.
With more activity, the airport would also have to upgrade the facility to meet demand. All in, with improvements to the terminal, added hangar space and additional property acquisition, the most expensive option on the table would run the city about $8,667,000. You can view all the options online.
Residents are invited to attend an upcoming open house about the master plan on Sept. 17 from 4-8 p.m. at the Lakers Clubhouse.
“This is an opportunity for the community to come down and learn about the operations here, because most of them do affect people in ways they don’t know about,” Adkins says.
The Lakers Clubhouse is located at 7000 Cummins Road, off Okanagan Landing Road. Anyone interested can also provide feedback through an online questionnaire.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at email@example.com or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-718-2724.