A medevac tale of two cities

During the night, a “snow event” rolled through the northwestern mountains of the U.S. At 4am, a request for a medevac came in from a hospital at one of our isolated communities. With heavy, wet snow still falling, weather was below minimums for both rotor and fixed-wing aircraft. Even ground transport had to decline, as the winding route through the mountains was reported to be icy and clogged with snow.

I came on shift as pilot for the fixed-wing at 7am, and the request for medevac was relayed to me. By now the snow was letting up and weather was forecast above minimums. I called the snowplow operator for an update on conditions. He had been plowing in the storm, the runway was acceptable, and he promised to continue working on it.

Less than an hour later, we were on approach, talking to the snowplow on CTAF, who reported conditions as 3/3/3. I landed firmly in the touchdown zone, pulled reverse and checked braking. Medium was a good report, which I relayed to the snowplow and thanked him. While on the ground there, discussions with the local crew indicated that the earlier decisions by rotor and ground to decline the trip had been wise. It had been a good snowstorm and roads were in bad shape.

King Air on snow
Investing in an airport means taking care of the runway, plowing the snow in winter, and so much more.

I was really impressed with the airport snowplow operator’s dedication, and in general with the condition in which this airport is maintained. The community clearly understands the importance of their local airport, and backs up that understanding with resources to get the job done.

It’s quite a contrast with another local airport that we frequently fly to. This other airport does have the disadvantage of being in a poor location, hemmed in by the town all around so that there’s no room for growth. For years there has been a plan to relocate. The current airport does, however, sit on enough land to make the runway lengths suitable for our operation. With proper maintenance, we could continue to serve the community well until a new airport can be built. Ground transport time to the next suitable airport is at least an hour. This is not only time lost for the patient, it means a two-hour commitment of the local ambulance resource.

Over the years I’ve watched this airport deteriorate. The pavement is in increasingly poor condition. Lighting is suspect, as the taxiway lights and VGSI’s often go out of service. Obstacles have cropped up. Not long ago, two stacks were built that encroached on the only GPS approach. This caused higher minimums, and a prohibition against flying the approach at night. The other approach is VOR, which is now planned to be taken out of service as part of the minimum operating network scheme. Soon this airport will require good VFR conditions to arrive at night. Snowplow operation also seems to be a daytime only proposition there. Trips at night during weather events are very questionable, as we have no way of knowing what runway conditions will be.

I suspect that as time goes by we will need to turn down more and more trips to this airport. I wonder if the community at large will realize what they have lost? Although there is a lot of federal and state funding involved, airports in the U.S. are managed by local authorities. The interest and commitment of a community keeps an airport open and operating. Unfortunately, some communities might not realize what they had until it’s gone.

3 Comments

  • Any reason not to go ahead and name the airports? Then send the city council this article or post in letters to the editor. Let folks know that they are making decisions that have consequences. Maybe it’s all they can afford or maybe they’ve never considered the issue.

  • This is a valid point, and something I will try to pursue. For example, I may share the article with media in the area of the second (deteriorating) airport, which happens to be KBYI. Thank you for the feedback.

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