For those who may not realize it, the Ponoka airport is a very important piece in keeping Ponoka sustainable, states one group.
That is the message coming from the Ponoka Flying Club with the recent developments of the town liquidating some of its physical assets.
“We think it’s important for people to know it is not just a strip that consumes money. It’s a resource for the town, so we are hoping to inform the community,” said club representative Drew Watson.
A couple of advantages of having the airport includes the numerous medivac flights, both fixed wing aircraft and STARS helicopters, as well as the number of businesses that utilize the services of charter flights or their own private aircraft.
According to statistics gathered from Alberta Health Services and STARS, there have been seven fixed wing medivac flights out of Ponoka and three flights bringing patients into Ponoka as well as three STARS landings in Ponoka during the 2017-18 fiscal year ending March 31.
Those numbers differ from the observances of the club, who estimate there could be as many as 100 medivac flights in and out of the airport annually.
“We believe that could be a very conservative estimate. Sometimes we get two or more a week and sometimes we don’t get any,” said club member Blaine Carlson. “And because the hospital helipad isn’t big enough, the larger STARS helicopters are having to land at the airport.”
Watson noted the estimate is based on what the club members have seen.
“This doesn’t include flights made in the evening or overnight. We tried to find hard numbers, but it was very difficult,” he said, adding the medivac flights, most of which are privately operated, are not tracked by air traffic control.
Club member Blaine Carlson feels there is a disconnect between the residents and the airport.
“Most people don’t see the value of the airport until they have someone they know is injured or in hospital and needing a medivac, then all of a sudden it becomes a very important item. To me, that is the disconnect. People only realize the value when it becomes personal,” he said.
“We see that the town has a budget and has to stay somewhat within that, so its hard for them to justify to the public that they should be spending money on the airport because people really don’t see the value.”
Two other positives for Ponoka are the fact the airport is very close to town and that it is a CANPASS customs entry point — one of five small airports in the province with this designation. The others are Springbank near Calgary, Milk River plus Villeneuve and Cooking Lake near Edmonton.
“CANPASS is great, but what does it do for the community? The natural one is the Stampede, while the other is the airport being the only one with a loaner car,” Watson said.
“Pilots are inherently cheap, so they will try the path of least resistance. The flying club has a loaner car, so after they land usually for fuel as most don’t want to stop again, the car allows them to go into town and eat or get a hotel and wait for customs. That’s just one small part of what gets added to the community. It may seem negligible, but the busier the airport gets, the more it will be used.”
“We are outside the Red Deer and Edmonton aerodromes, so flights here won’t interfere with the large domestic and international flight paths,” he said.
Two examples presented were that Dr. Hilgard Goosen who flies to Whitecourt and back at least a few times each month to help operate the endoscopy program at that hospital plus Watson just recently shuttled some people to Melfort, Sask. for a job.
“I flew some guys out, getting them there in an hour and a half versus them taking a day away from their families to drive out there,” stated Watson.
He added the extension of the runway, while allowing larger aircraft to land, would also help by leveraging the CANPASS program and would bring more people that would use local hotels, restaurants and other amenities.