By CHARLES TWEED
The trees on the east side of the Ponoka Industrial Airport runway have once again created a stir in town.
Town councillors voted unanimously at their Jan. 26 meeting to remove the 40-year-old stand of trees.
“Those trees do not have to go, there is no reason the trees have to go,” said Ponoka County Coun. Gawney Hinkley, a member of the airport commission board (ACB).
In 1998 civil aviation authorities made seven corrective recommendations and one of them was to cut down the trees.
Since then, the issue has arisen on several occasions.
“We have letters from the Government of Canada to remove the trees and if we have any issue, the town, as the owner of the airport, is liable. We know this decision is going to be fraught with a lot of people’s opinions who want the trees to stay,” said Coun. Beva Hamilton, also a member of the ACB.
“But we want to support the safe airport and environment operation; we want to mitigate the liability to the town, the airport commission and the Ponoka Flying Club. We want to conform to the federal government’s regulations and legislation.”
One of the main reasons for cutting down the trees is to allow for a lower altitude approach from incoming planes. Essentially, the trees being removed would allow pilots to land with lesser degree of angle on descent.
“If the trees did go, all of the trees across the road, on private property would have to be topped and that’s not going to happen because no one who lives there is ever going to let someone come in and cut a tree on private property. To take the trees out without topping the trees across the road is a total lost cause, it’s absolute nonsense,” said an emphatic Hinkley.
Hamilton believes there has been some miscommunication with which private trees may need to be topped.
“To allow the airport to become a non-precision runway, allowing instrument approaches as low as 250 feet, the trees on the east side of the airport will need to be removed and some trimming of the trees on a farm to the southwest corner — not across the road, at that time they needed to be topped by three feet,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton believes the first step is removing the trees on the east side and having the airport resurveyed. After that, there is a possibility the survey could result in the trees across the road needing to be topped. She said council would discuss the topping with the landowner in a “reasonable manner.”
The removal would also allow for the use of Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS). WASS helps aid the Global Positioning System (GPS) with the goal of improving its accuracy, integrity, and availability. WAAS is intended to enable aircraft to rely on GPS for all phases of flight, including precision approaches to any airport within its coverage area.
“From what I’ve been told 95 per cent of the pilots who fly into our airport don’t use GPS anyway. Not to mention this new WAAS costs money, at least $60,000, and who is going to pay for it?” said Hinkley.
“We would want to not only put the WAAS system in, but when we get that certification back, it places us in a better position to approach Alberta Health and Wellness to help us pay for the altimeter, which we would need to make the airport much safer. We could also approach the federal and provincial government for grants for airport improvement,” said Hamilton.
Another issue with trees being so close to a runway can be birds. Large birds can cause problems landing and pose a serious safety concern to pilots.
“If people are going to say the trees are a bird hazard, that’s total B.S. because there isn’t going to be a flock of geese or ducks coming out of those trees. Once in a while, a little sparrow will come out of there but they aren’t going to hurt anything, even if they hit the windshield of a plane or a propeller. So that is totally wrong and there’s no such thing as a problem with birds in those trees,” said Hinkley.
Hamilton pointed out there had been several cases around the world where birds had caused major damage to aircraft and incidents involving birds had already come up at the Ponoka Airport.
No timetable for the removal of the trees has been given. With strong opposition mounting against the removal of the trees, the issue may soon reach a boiling point.
“The same planes landing there today are the same planes landing there 10 and 20 years ago. We’ll never land a huge airplane because the runway is too short anyway. If these people are flying into Ponoka and they’re not happy flying into Ponoka, maybe they can damn well fly into somewhere else,” said Hinkley.
“Bottom line is we want this to be the best airport we can have, we want it safe because we don’t want one of our neighbors hurt because we weren’t responsible because we didn’t take responsible action,” said Hamilton.