An international aviation consultant says Nelson’s Norman Stibbs Airport is hazardous and badly maintained.
A report commissioned by the city from WSP, an international aviation consulting company, points out deficiencies in runway maintenance, signage, obstacle marking, data collection, training, and long-term planning.
Some of the material in the report is so sensitive that the City of Nelson, which owns and operates the airport, has redacted two full pages.
Mayor John Dooley said the report is a wake-up call.
“There is no doubt we need to pull up our socks and deal with some of these things sooner rather than later,” he said.
The report (attached below) has been discussed by council in private but not at a public council meeting.
The document is based on a site visit in May by its authors and on interviews with local aviators and city employees. The recommendations are based on standards for airports set out in the Canadian Aviation Regulations.
The authors note a number of problems with the runway.
“Depressions in the runway were clearly observed due to ponding water on the otherwise dry runway surface,” the report states. “Ponding water can lead to hydroplaning, resulting in a loss of control during landing or take-off.”
The report says local pilots are aware that they must land only on the right hand side of the runway because “landing on the left-hand side of the runway resulted in significant pitching of aircraft as they passed over depressions in the runway. Pitching can lead to aircraft damage or loss of control.
“Any part of the runway that is considered unsafe should be repaired, closed or where appropriate, marked as unserviceable,” the report continues.
The consultants also noted problems with the apron, which is the area planes taxi to and from when not on the runway.
“The apron surface, and the helicopter touchdown areas in particular, show significant signs of wear. The pavement surface was uneven, and created an uneven, potentially unstable surface for aircraft. In addition, the surface was failing in multiple areas, creating a FOD [foreign object damage] hazard. There was substantial ponding in the depressions on the apron.”
The report also notes obstacles in the environment close to the airport – poles, trees, a gazebo – that require pilots to adjust their landing strategy to avoid them. These obstacles are not marked so pilots can see them, the report says.
The role of Nelson’s airport
There are currently three commercial aviation operators operating from the airport, including two helicopter companies and a flight school/fixed wing aerial services company. There is also general aviation activity including the use of private aircraft by residents and visitors.
Supporters of the airport often cite its value in wildfire protection, search and rescue, and air ambulance. These arguments are often a response to a commonly held view that such prime lakefront land should be used for something else.
“The airport becomes more and more important every day,” Dooley said, “for the safety of our community, because of wildfire, not only for the city but the surrounding area.”
He said many of the increasing number of backcountry businesses in the area use the airport regularly. He also pointed out that housing could not be built there because the ground is contaminated and unstable because the airport was built on top of a garbage dump.
“It is highly unlikely we would get a permit to even dig a hole in it, let alone build on it,” Dooley said.
But the value of the airport to the community cannot be quantified, because, according to the report, there are no records or statistics that show the volume or nature of the airport’s use.
“Aviation activity was determined based on anecdotal information provided during the consultation interviews,” the report states.
Planning for the future
The operations manual for the airport is dated 2005.
There is no system or schedule for regular maintenance of the airport, according to the report. Maintenance is done mostly by volunteers or city staff using city equipment that is not in service elsewhere, with no schedule or plan.
In addition to the lack of systems for maintenance or inspection in day-to-day operations, the consultants said there is no evidence of any planning for the future of the airport.
In addition to the need to deal with day-to-day maintenance and upkeep, the report recommends master planning, capital planning, an economic impact assessment, formalized data collection, an updated operations manual, training in regulatory requirements, and a governance review.
The city’s recently updated strategic plan for 2019 to 2022 does not mention the airport.
Dooley said council will put together a committee, including people from the aviation community, to come up with a plan for the airport. He said there is grant money available from senior governments for rural airports.
“The report is accurate”
Vic Corrie, the president of the Nelson and District Airport Society and a retired helicopter business owner, said the city needed to hear the reported information from an outside expert.
“The report is accurate. These are airport professionals,” he said.
Last year the society offered to lease the airport from the city and manage it.
Corrie said the discussion of the value of the airport also has a tourism aspect.
“Nelson is known [among aviators] across North America because you can walk uptown from the airport. Most [airports] are out of town and you have to get a taxi or rent a car, so lots of people come here, fly in, sometimes camp under their wing. It is well known.”
According to chief financial officer Colin McClure, the airport, at the current level of use and maintenance, more than pays for itself.
About $75,000 in annual revenue comes mainly from hangar rentals, landing and tie-down fees, and fuel sales.
The airport costs about $64,000 to run. The main expenses are liability insurance, equipment including operation of a snow plow, and maintenance of the terminal building.
The surplus goes into an airport reserve fund, which currently sits at $240,000. Part of this will be used to replace fuel pumps this year, McClure said.