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Pilots adamant trees lining airport runway stay

By George Brown

A group of pilots using Ponoka Industrial Airport are challenging the airport commission’s recommendation town council cut down a stand of majestic spruce trees that parallel the runway.

The recommendation has been on the books for a couple of years, and council is on record as having postponed the trees’ removal but the pilots now want council to remove all doubt.

The pilots approached Ponoka County council for support at their Sept. 14 morning meeting because their efforts to get on that evening’s town council agenda were initially rebuffed by the town’s administration.

They told the county the trees do not have to be removed to allow GPS navigation upgrades, nor for pilot safety concerns.

After hearing a brief presentation, CAO Charlie Cutforth put in a call to the town’s CAO, Brad Watson, and permission was granted to the group to appear as a delegation and ask to be heard by town council.

On Sept. 15, the issue of cutting down the 40-year-old trees bordering Labrie Field and Highway 2A south of Ponoka also made it onto the agenda of the citizens group that is challenging council on a number of decisions, including annexation and the cost of 38th Street utilities.

Ponoka County Coun. Gawney Hinkley, a member of the airport commission, told the pilots he supports their efforts to save the trees. “I’ve tried to rescind that motion twice and I’ve lost the motion every time.”

County council has no jurisdiction to save the trees because although the airport is in Ponoka County, the land is actually owned by the Town of Ponoka.

“We’re the taxing authority on the hangar part of it but the town actually has title to the runway and the property,” Cutforth explained.

Pilots touch down at council meeting

Ponoka town council was split on whether to allow the delegation of pilots to be heard at their meeting. Mayor Larry Henkelman cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision. Some councillors wanted the matter held over to their Sept. 28 meeting so the question raised by the pilots could be researched and addressed by administration.

Coun. John Jacobs said council also needs to hear from the airport commission and the flying club members who proposed cutting down the trees in the first place.

It was explained a handful of pilots with the flying club said the trees had to be cut down to improve all-weather access to the airport with GPS navigation. Since the issue was dealt with by the airport commission, the delegation learned that GPS system has not been activated and the new wide area augmentation system (WAAS) under consideration wouldn’t require removal of the trees to be effective.

“The trees are not a safety hazard,” Wayne Gee told council. And because owners of the private residences across the highway will refuse to cut down their trees, “it’s a dead issue.”

Pilots said the row of trees is an identifiable landmark for airplanes returning to Ponoka. They also provide protection from winds blowing across the north-south runway.

“The trees are absolutely an asset to the airport,” added Glen Crandall, a pilot with more than 60 years of flying experience. “They’re not a hazard.”

Citizens meeting hears report

Vern Bruns wrote a letter to town council suggesting several questions would have to be answered before cutting down the trees could be justified, including who is paying the cost to cut down the trees and replace them with lilacs; and who would pay to upgrade or replace the current navigation system?

“Who will foot the bill?” he asked rhetorically at the meeting of the citizens group. “Is it the Ponoka taxpayers or the people who want the GPS put in?”

He said the GPS at the airport now is about three years old “and nobody can use it because it has not be approved by Nav Canada.”

Bruns explained the pilots who want the trees cut down want to be able to come in lower and closer to the runway in poor weather when they have to fly with instrumentation. A better satellite-based navigation system would allow them to approach the runway in Ponoka rather than be waved off.

Town council is expected to deal with the issue at its Sept. 28 meeting.