Bowerman Field on endangered airports list: Washington’s Port of Grays Harbor wants out of the airport game

Is there a difference between making plans to close an airport and asking the FAA to release a sponsor from the covenants on its deed? That’s what the users of Bowerman Field (HQM) in Hoquiam, Wash., want to know.

Last month the news that the Port of Grays Harbor was seeking a way to be relieved of the responsibility of running the coastal airport sent a shock wave through the aviation community.

General Aviation News received several telephone calls and emails from pilots who asserted the airport was about to be closed.

“The Port Commission is not closing the airport,” says Gary Nelson, executive director of the Port of Grays Harbor. “The only action that has been taken is that the Port Commission has directed me to draft a letter to the FAA requesting a release from the covenants on the deed of airport,” he said, then added, “I will be very surprised if the FAA allows that to happen.”

The FAA received the letter on Nov. 1 and by Nov. 6 sent back a letter denying the request. Among the reasons for denial, the FAA noted that Bowerman Field is a vital and integral part of the Harbor’s transportation infrastructure, not only for the communities of Hoquiam and Aberdeen, but the entire coast of Washington. The airport is also a vital part of the national aviation system of airports and obligated federally.

The airport sports a 5,000 x 150-foot runway oriented 06/24. Bowerman Field is coastal Washington’s only jet-capable airport. Corporate jets and light twins go in and out of the airport, mixing with the piston-powered GA crowd. The airport is a popular destination for cross-country training flights and its restaurant, Lana’s Hangar Café, is known for its milkshakes.

The airport, named after Lt. Robert C. Bowerman, a local man killed in the Korean War, has ILS, VOR and GPS approaches and a 24-hour fuel farm. Approximately 30 aircraft are based there.

The airport was built as a military installation during World War II, then deeded to the city after the war with the understanding that it remain in operation in perpetuity. The Port of Grays Harbor has been subsidizing operations at the airport since taking over its operation in 1962.

Faced with a continual operating deficit (totaling $901,693 over the last 10 years) and a growing list of maintenance needs, the Port is at a crossroads in deciding what Bowerman’s role in aviation and economic development will be in the region, officials say.

“To fully understand the financial and economic impacts of operating or closure of the airport, we must examine all options, including a release from operations,” Nelson says. “The issue is finding out what the process would be to be relieved of operating the airport and alternatives to providing aviation services to the community.”

The only way the FAA would allow Bowerman Field to close is if an equal or better facility was built within a 15-minute drive of the existing airport and opened prior to the Bowerman Field closure.

In an economically depressed area like Grays Harbor, new airport construction is not likely to happen, notes Billie Klein, a long-time airport user and the AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer at Bowerman Field.

“Recently our local newspaper conducted a poll and 71% of the people who responded — they are not all pilots, mind you — said for the Port to keep the airport open and leave it where it is,” said Klein. “We understand that the FAA will tell the Port that they can’t close the airport, but we also understand that there is a way that the FAA’s decision could be overridden by Congress. To that end we are asking everyone in the community to write to their Congressman and tell them how important the airport is to the community.”

According to Klein, the airport has approximately 25,000 operations a year. A majority, 15,000, are transient traffic.

“The airport is used for a lot of training by both civilian pilots and the military,” she said.

Klein, who has been part of the Hoquiam airport community since 1994, says part of the aviation community’s frustration with the Port is the perceived lack of maintenance at the airport.

“They take their time,” she explained. “When I first came here in 1994, repairs to the rotating beacon was high on my list. The rotating beacon was scheduled for replacement in the 1995 or 1996 Master Plan, but it hasn’t been done. It is ready to fall down. One of the port employees says he won’t climb up there anymore because the ladder, which we think is from the 1940s, is too rickety. But what is most critical at this time is the striping on the airport. They need to redo the striping on the runway threshold and the hash marks for the ILS have all but disappeared. The paint is just peeling off. Also there are small cracks in the runway that need to be taken care of before they become severe.”

Airport users also complain about the ropes that the Port installed for tie-downs, saying they are not long enough for many aircraft to use.

“We have been after them to put down chains instead of ropes, but it hasn’t happened yet,” says Klein. “Also the Port does not try to attract new business to the airport and the businesses that are there are on month-to-month leases. That doesn’t make any sense economically.”

“There is a feeling of neglect,” agrees Lyle Green, who runs Fatboy Aviation, the FBO at the airport. “Once we had eight runway lights out and it took me three months to get bulbs for them.”

Green accuses the Port Commission of dragging their collective feet on the creation of a Master Plan which, he alleges, has kept the airport from qualifying for grants that would enable it to make necessary repairs and improve security at the airport.

“I keep asking the Port for fencing for security because we have people coming out here to walk their dogs and there are people who play on the runway,” he says. “But because the Port didn’t have a Master Plan, they couldn’t get the grant money. Now we have trees on the hill near the airport encroaching into the protected airspace of the ILS. The Port has spent half a million dollars researching and surveying how to cut those trees.”

During a recent meeting of the Port Commission Klein suggested that instead of spending so much money on study after study, the Port Commission could use those funds to make repairs at the airport.

When asked about the allegations of delayed maintenance and neglect at the airport, Nelson declined to comment, stating that he “was not going to get into it with those people.” However, according to Nelson, the airport does have a Master Plan that includes maintenance projects such as repainting the runway.

The FAA’s decision should not have come as a surprise to anyone notes Allen Kenitzer, an FAA spokesman, since the airport is under long-term obligation because of acceptance of federal grants and surplus property adjacent to the airport.

“When an airport accepts a grant from the FAA, that is a 20-year obligation to keep the airport open. Accepting surplus property means the airport must stay open forever,” he explained. “It is my understanding that the airport did accept surplus property many years ago, so it has to remain open forever unless the airport is moved to another location of similar or equal value.”According to a presentation Port officials made to airport stakeholders in July, the Port has accepted approximately $2,808,169 in FAA grants over the years.

Kenitzer adds that the FAA is in the business of protecting airports and the corporate culture dictates that closure of an airport is anathema.

“We are advocates of aviation and this situation is one that we are watching very closely,” he says.

This is not the first time the 145-acre airport has been eyed for redevelopment.

According to Michael Tracy, president and CEO of the Grays Harbor Economic Development Council, a prime piece of real estate for industrial development is on the east side of the airport in the approach zone to Runway 24.

“I have been here for eight years and in that time several companies have looked at the land,” he said. “Some seriously, some not so seriously, because of the height limitations and because of its location. You can’t build anything over 45 feet high because it’s in the approach path to the runway.”

Over the years companies looking at the property have included an electronics assembly company and the Nucor Steel Co. All would bring much-needed jobs to the area, he noted.

Tracy noted that one of the options being considered by the Port Commission is the relocation of aviation activities to one of the other airports in the county.

“There is land to build on and we already have four other airports in the county,” he said. “They are Ocean Shores, Westport, Elma and a private airport.”

Ocean Shores Municipal Airport (W04) is located nine nautical miles to the west of Bowerman Field and has a 2,700 x 50-foot runway orientated 15/33. The airport does not have fuel or an FBO. There are two aircraft based at the airport.

Westport Airport (14S) is located eight miles southwest of Bowerman Field and sports a 2,318 x 50-foot runway orientated 12/30. It is a daytime only, VFR airport. It is unattended.

Elma Municipal Airport (4W8) is 21 nautical miles east of Bowerman Field. The runway measures 2,289 x 30 feet with obstacles at both ends. There are 28 aircraft based at the field.

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