Uncertainty stifling operations at VUO

Pilots and tenants at Pearson Field (VUO) in Vancouver, Wash., are wondering if the new year will bring a resolution to airspace safety concerns at the airport located northwest of Portland International Airport (PDX).

In December a Safety Risk Management Panel made up of FAA representatives, air traffic controllers, airport tenants, and other airport stakeholders met to discuss alternatives to the so-called Pearson Box that would limit traffic in the area.

The airports are within three miles of each other on either side of the Columbia River. Although it is in Class D airspace, VUO does not have a control tower. When maintenance on the runways at PDX called for more traffic to come into potential conflict of Pearson traffic, the FAA installed a temporary tower. When the work was completed in the spring of 2010, the tower was removed.

Since then, the FAA’s solution to mitigate potential traffic problems is the creation of a box of airspace measuring six miles long and a mile wide beginning laterally from the centerline of PDX runway 10R to 2,500 feet north of runway 10L. It 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, 2012. The new procedures were slated to take effect Oct. 1, 2012.

During a public meeting to unveil the procedures, pilots let the FAA know they didn’t like the plan. The FAA listened and the box concept was tabled for further study.

According to FAA Spokesman Allen Kenitzer, the new panel is tasked with investigating all potential mitigations to the Traffic Collision Alert System (TCAS) alerts that inbound Portland pilots occasionally receive. The process is expected to take up to 90 days.

One of the suggestions that keeps resurfacing is building a control tower at Pearson Field. But the FAA says that VUO does not have enough annual operations to meet the criteria for the federal government to build a tower. However, the FAA would support the city’s decision to build a tower, according to a letter from FAA Vice President of Terminal Services Walter Chochran to Pearson Field Airport Manager Willly Williamson. “The responsibility for construction, maintenance and staffing would fall on Pearson Field Airport and the City of Vancouver,” Chochran noted, adding, “If, in the future, the airport meets specific criteria, you can then apply to the FAA Contract Tower programs.”

According to Jan Bader, program and policy development manager for the city of Vancouver, the city does not have the money to build or operate a control tower.

“The airport operates as an enterprise fund. It does not get money from the city,” she explained, adding that the December meetings went well, and that city officials are “cautiously optimistic that a user-friendly solution will be implemented when the FAA panel reaches its conclusion.”

In the meantime, pilots and tenants at Pearson Field are trying to make plans for their uncertain future.

“This has been highly unsettling,” said Paul Speer, chairman of the Pearson Field Aviation Advisory Committee. “There is great concern over the viability of the field. Tenants are reconsidering their leases. The local EAA chapter is doing contingency planning in case the airport is shut down. The FAA has caused material damage in hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars of time spent on this issue. This issue may not kill the airport, but it is certainly bleeding it to death.”

“Unnerving is a nice way to put it,” Williamson said. “When all this started up, our FBO was due to sign a new lease, then the owner said he was not going to sign if the box went into place since the flight school would likely go out of business. Now he’s on a month-to-month lease with us. We have lost three tenants because of this. They found hangars at other airports.”

What is perplexing to Williamson is that for the past 75 years the airports have safely coexisted.

“There haven’t been any near-mid-air accidents, and no wake turbulence events documented,” he said.

He noted that prior to the 2010 maintenance at PDX, the FAA was aware that the Pearson-PDX airspace was out of compliance.

“The maintenance meant closing Portland’s south runway for six months,” he 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 and wake turbulence issues.”

He 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,” he said. “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.”

The FAA oversaw the installation of a mobile control tower, like the kind that are used at airshows. It was relatively easy and quick to install, said Williamson, and worked well, noting than in six months the number of TCAS issues dropped from 15 to seven.

When the work was completed in April 2012, the temporary control tower was removed, despite arguments that it should remain.

As to when the FAA will reach a decision on what should be done — and thus determine the future of the airport — none of the people involved, including representatives from the FAA, could give a definitive date, noting that the issue is “so complex and of such high stakes that careful review is necessary.”

For more information: FAA.gov, CityofVancouver.us

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