Rifle airport looking good into the future | PostIndependent.com

Rifle airport looking good into the future

Planes sit in a hangar at Rifle Garfield County Airport
Will Grandbois / Post Independent |

Brian Condie sees the world coming to the Rifle airport.

With the airport having been selected as the location for Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, Condie, director of the Rifle Garfield County Airport, sees huge economic and safety benefits on the horizon.

The center, which will research and test firefighting techniques, is meant to be up and running by August. The goal is to have a firefighting approach developed at the center implemented statewide by the 2017 fire season.

“Academics are doing great research, but they’re not getting it into the hands of firefighters,” the center’s interim director, Melissa Lineberger, said last week. “What we want to do is sort of be that mediator.”

While the center will hire only eight full-time workers initially, Condie said the research will generate spinoff industries locating near the airport.

“If they develop a new nozzle, a company that makes it will want to be here,” he said. “If they use GPS materials, those companies will locate here.”

He compared the center to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which hosts eight agencies and supports wildland firefighting across the country.

“Boise is the ground training center,” he said. “We want to become the Boise of aerial firefighting.”

In addition to spinoff industries over time, Rifle will benefit because it will be a training center, drawing firefighters for varying periods of time.

“It will bring people in from around the world,” he predicted.

Rifle Mayor Randy Winkler looks forward to the center’s cutting-edge work reflecting well on the city.

“The immediate economic changes to Rifle will be subtle in the beginning,” Winkler said. “However, the Center of Excellence falls right in line with our city’s slogan, ‘Real Western Innovation.’”

Besides the economic benefit, Condie said the center “will improve the safety and security of every single Garfield County resident.”

“They will be right on every wildfire” using the latest tools and tactics, Condie said. “We will be very well-protected.”

Overall, the airport is very well-positioned. GarCo commissioners see it as an economic engine for the county, Condie said.

The commissioners are investing nearly $4 million in capital improvements at the airport this year and next on the airport entrance, a fuel farm and deicing capability. Another $2.5 million is projected for fiscal 2017.

The airport sees 24,000 total takeoffs and landings a year, including light general aviation, the area residents with private aircraft. That traffic is falling, “but we need to keep that,” Condie said.

The facility isn’t as dependent on natural gas as might be assumed — Condie said only about 5 percent of the airport’s traffic is related to that industry.

Condie said the county is in talks with businesses to locate nearby. Without providing specifics, he said the airport, at 5,544 feet, is a good spot for high-altitude testing, and can be used for steep approach tests.

Aircraft modified for specific uses need such testing, he said.

A lot of planes end up there unintentionally, resulting in the bulk of the airport’s revenue. When weather is bad at Aspen or Eagle County airports, resort-bound flights are diverted to Rifle, where they wait until they can go on.

A key part of the airport’s 10-year plan, adopted last summer, is investing in improved navigation and communication equipment to make it easier for pilots to locate the airport in bad weather, to enhance that revenue.

But the airport will never have commercial flights, Condie said.

“We’re too close to three other commercial airports,” he said. “Airlines have to invest in terminals. … it would never pay for itself.”

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