“That’s not going to work for us.”
That’s the gist of the message pilots at Pearson Field Airport (VUO) in Vancouver, Wash., had for the FAA when they learned of the agency’s plan for procedural changes at the airport.
Pearson Field, located just three miles of busy Portland International Airport (PDX), is a non-towered airport in airspace designated as Class D. The proposed procedures called for a box of airspace measuring six miles long and one mile wide beginning laterally from the centerline of PDX Runway 10R to 2,500 feet north of Runway 10L. The box begins at the surface and extends up to 2,100 feet. Only one airplane can be in the box at a time.
The proposed procedures would require pilots to contact Portland tower before takeoffs and landings at Pearson. Pilots attempting to land at Pearson and awaiting clearance from the Portland tower would have to orbit outside the Class D airspace until they received permission to land. Ostensibly, the changes were created to promote safety.
The idea of being delayed on the ground and in the air over Portland suburbs did not go over well with pilots, nor did the timing of the FAA’s announcement. Most pilots learned about the so-called Pearson Box in a letter dated Sept. 30. The new procedures were slated to take effect Oct. 1.
During a public meeting to unveil the procedures, pilots let the FAA know they didn’t like the plan. The FAA apparently listened.
“The FAA will defer implementing any airspace changes around Pearson Field for at least the next 30 days,” FAA Public Information Officer Allen Kenizter said in an email to General Aviation News. “During this time the agency will continue to engage with stakeholders to understand their concerns. Safety remains the FAA’s top priority.”
Opponents of the Pearson Box say they’ve still got work to do.
“The Pearson Box, while a solution to some of the issues in the airspace, was — and is — a bad idea. Our short-term focus was to prevent its implementation. We have been successful in getting at least a 30-day delay,” said Paul Speer, chairman of the Pearson Field Aviation Advisory Committee. “Procedures associated with the box limit use of the airspace to either a PDX aircraft or a VUO aircraft, but not both at the same time.”
Pilots are trying to get the FAA to see that a control tower, like the one that was set up temporarily at Pearson for six months, is a better option than trying to limit aircraft movement at the field.
The issue has attracted the attention of pilots and community leaders from both Oregon and Washington state. In addition to safety and traffic separation, there are concerns that the delays at Pearson Field will hurt local businesses, several of which base aircraft at Pearson.
According to Speer, ground delays of up to 20 minutes are not uncommon when the pilots have to rely on PDX for release, and time, as they say, is money.
Pearson Field began as an army base. In 1905 the facility entered into the aviation realm when Lincoln Beachey flew a dirigible to the Vancouver barracks as part of the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River. The first airplane landed at the field in 1911.
Between 1923 and 1941 the U.S. Army Air Service occupied the field, and it was visited by many famous aviators, such as Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, and Eddie Rickenbacker. Pacific Air Transport and Varney Airlines, based at the adjacent civilian field, would later join forces with two other air carriers and evolve into United Airlines.
After World War II, the airfield was declared surplus by the U.S. Army and sold to the City of Vancouver. Today, the western portion of the Pearson Field runway sits on property owned by the National Park Service. In 2010, the city and Park Service signed a 40-year lease agreement to allow Pearson to continue to operate as a general aviation airfield. The field is home to the Pearson Air Museum, which has the distinction of having the second oldest wooden hangar in the country, as well as a impressive collection of vintage airplanes.
Although it seemed that the FAA was trying to ramrod the box procedure through, Pearson Airport manager Willy Williamson said the FAA has been concerned about the proximity of the non-towered Pearson and busy PDX for years. But it was maintenance on the south runway at PDX in 2010 that made the FAA take a closer look at the PDX-Pearson relationship.
“The maintenance meant closing Portland’s south runway for six months,” Williamson explained. “The FAA decided to do a safety risk management panel to look for safety issues that might creep up because of the closure of the runway. What the FAA determined is that the airspace is out of compliance because of new rules about TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and wake turbulence issues.”
As far as Williamson knows, there haven’t been any near misses at Pearson caused by its proximity to PDX.
The airport manager noted that no fewer than 23 strategies to address the safety concerns and bring the airspace into compliance were looked at, “including the FAA’s idea of box segregation through time and airspace. But when all was said and done, the only thing that was plausible and could be done in a short time and with available technology was putting a temporary tower at Pearson to make sure that we didn’t have any additional TCAS issues. There were 15 in one year.”
The FAA oversaw the installation of a mobile control tower, like the kind that are used at airshows and firefighting camps. It was relatively easy and quick to install, said Williamson, noting it worked well.
“We reduced our TCAS issues by 54% in the six months we had the tower,” he said. “The number dropped from 15 to 7. Out of those seven one was a false indicator. There wasn’t another airplane within 10 miles of that airplane. On another occasion three pilots were learning the airspace, so really it was just two or three actual TCAS events that we learned from.”
When the runway work was completed in April, the temporary control tower was removed.
“We argued with the FAA that we needed to keep the tower for a full year, but the FAA said the tower was a failure because it didn’t reduce the TCAS issues to zero,” he said.
According to Williamson, the FAA also cited concerns about the installation and operational cost of a permanent tower as a factor in not wanting to use that alternative.
Pilots and officials at VUO have their own concerns. Chief among them is that the Pearson Box does not appear on any sectionals or TAC charts. “How will pilots who aren’t from around here know about it?” Williamson asks.
Pearson Field is a popular tourist destination because of its location on the Washington-Oregon border, as well as the Pearson Air Museum.
Both Williamson and Speer say the FAA’s decision to implement the Pearson Box was a surprise. According to Speer, during a safety recommendation meeting held in June, the consensus was that a tower was the best option for safety.
“We want the FAA to honor the recommendation that came out of their June SRMP,” he said. “The panel, which included three commercial airlines who use PDX, the Port of Portland that operates PDX, Pearson Field representatives, and the FAA, advised that the FAA immediately reinstate the temporary tower, followed by the necessary work to establish a permanent tower.”