New aircraft to be tested at Gunnison airport this spring

Exercises starting in May will bring economic boost

The Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport will play host to some unusual guests this spring when Boeing and QinetiQ take to the skies to test their newest hovering aircraft.



At a regular meeting on Tuesday, December 9, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the tests, which are scheduled to start in May and last until June. Boeing will test the low-altitude load capacity of its newly developed Osprey “tiltrotocraft,” which takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like a propeller-driven airplane at altitude.
At the same time QinetiQ (pronounced kinetic) will test the same capabilities of an undisclosed aircraft in the final stages of development. Both aircraft will be tethered to the runway while the testing is taking place.
QinetiQ made an appearance at the airport in 2006 for a similar testing exercise that raised some hackles in the community due to the noise, which airport manager John DeVore said “would rattle your teeth when it started.”
To avoid the same trouble this time around, DeVore has included time restrictions in the contract with the two companies, requiring that testing be done only after 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday, excluding holidays. Boeing has said their tests will take three to five hours each day. QinetiQ has indicated it would spend two to four hours testing each day.
“QinetiQ doesn’t want to test their aircraft in the heat, so they’re trying to go as early in the day as they can, and Boeing doesn’t care. The hotter the better for their tests and they can work around one another,” said DeVore, explaining that the turbulence created by hot air rising from the runway could affect the testing.
To support the testing operations, both companies have requested that Aircraft Rescue Firefighters (ARFF) be onsite in case they are needed.
Because Boeing doesn’t need the same level of ARFF personnel present for the testing, they will pay the airport $150 per hour when a firefighter is available while a test is taking place. When they want someone ready with equipment, the price will increase to $350 per hour.
QinetiQ has requested a firefighter be present with equipment and ready to act if needed for the entirety of their testing, at the same $350 per hour rate.
Between the two companies, DeVore says, the airport stands to make between $85,000 and $95,000 from the testing, and that is just at the airport. During the testing period in 2006 when QinetiQ brought a Sea King helicopter, the community saw a direct economic benefit of around $1.6 million, according to the county.
This time, the impact could be two-fold, with Boeing estimating between 35 and 45 members of a support crew coming along and QinetiQ bringing another 25 to 35 people, all of whom will be staying in hotels and eating at local restaurants.
Although the aircraft shouldn’t go far from the runway during testing, to mitigate the effects the sound will have on surrounding neighborhoods, the county commissioners asked DeVore to direct the companies to use the east end of the runways and, should they fly anywhere, to approach from and take off to the south.
The runways will not be closed during the testing, which was set for those months because only two commercial flights are scheduled to land during the day.

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