Osprey will return in May for two months of testing
Homeowners near the airport should batten down the hatches and shopkeepers should throw open their doors: the Boeing Corporation will get its contract with Gunnison County for the high-altitude testing of an Osprey aircraft at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport next year.
The Gunnison Board of County Commissioners didn’t come by the decision to approve the contract easily, after several members of the communities surrounding the airport expressed concern at a public hearing last month about the noise generated by the testing.
But at a work session on Tuesday, December 8, the economic incentive to continue the county’s relationship with Boeing prevailed and the contract was approved in concept. The commissioners will adopt a final draft of the contract during the last regular meeting in December. That should pave the way for testing to start in the first week of May 2010.
In the contract’s defense, airport manager John DeVore reminded the commissioners that Boeing reportedly spends $250,000 a week in the city of Gunnison and Gunnison County during its testing, along with the economic impact of 30 well-paid employees who spend their free time and money in the area as well.
Some of the money paid out by Boeing will, of course, go to the airport and it couldn’t come at a better time. The airport’s budget is showing an $180,000 deficit for 2010.
“Boeing wants two fire-fighting trucks and crews for May and June at $450 an hour,” DeVore said. “Do the math for 80 hours a month, which would be normal, and that is about $72,000. So between that and the contract with QinetiQ (which was recently extended through February) the revenues should fill the void.”
Commissioners Hap Channell and Jim Starr said they understood DeVore’s budgeting worries but didn’t want to forget members of the public who had spoken out against another summer of testing.
“Have you done any decibel level tests on the various activities that the Osprey does?” asked Channell. “It might help us understand how loud the testing is at various points around the airport and it would give us more information to share with the public.”
A decibel meter would measure the noise generated by the aircraft, but DeVore argued that it isn’t the noise that affects people—it’s the vibration that rattles windows and walls in nearby homes.
Don Janney, who lives near the airport in the Dos Rios subdivision, told DeVore he didn’t care what the disturbance was called, as long as DeVore understood that it was annoying.
“We are being shaken up and disturbed. It doesn’t make a darn bit of difference if it is the noise or the vibration,” Janney said. “It’s just plain disturbing to a person living there and I’m probably at least three-quarters of a mile from the area that you’re talking about for the tests.”
This time, Boeing’s hybrid jet-helicopter will be tethered to a concrete column buried in the ground, the purpose of which will be to measure the lifting capacity of the aircraft. DeVore said that would cut down on all of the runway landings and takeoffs related to the testing.
But the airport is public and open to anyone who needs, or wants, to use it, with or without the county’s permission.
“When these companies come in with these contracts, this board has the ability to say they will or they will not provide services” like fire fighters and equipment, DeVore said. “You do not have the authority to say they cannot come.”
He told the commissioners about a small public airport that refused to offer QinetiQ services. QinetiQ responded by flying in a C-130 cargo plane with the fire-fighting equipment and team and proceeded with their testing anyway.
County Manager Matthew Birnie understood the commissioner’s concerns with the public perception of the testing but urged the commissioners to look at the broader picture, including the economics and the public nature of the airport.
“Folks come here to use the airport and make noise as it is. Not taking advantage of the economic benefit but still dealing with the impacts is the worst of both worlds,” Birnie said.
“If you were to subtract out the cost to the airport and the revenue it generates over the three years I’ve been here, that balance sheet and those reserves look considerably different and some serious decisions would have to be made about operations at the airport,” he said.
After hearing the recommendations from staff, the commissioners voted to approve a contract at their next regular meeting on December 15. Still, commissioners Starr and Channell asked DeVore to ask Boeing if the company would object to being allowed to work only on weekdays.
The current contract restricts the company from testing only before 8 a.m. or on federal holidays and Sundays. Granting such the request to work on weekdays only could cost Boeing a significant amount of money, by extending the time it will take to complete the testing, but DeVore said he would ask.