Grant County Regional Airport
A soaring reputation
Business View Magazine interviews Haley L. Walker, Manager at Grant County Regional Airport, for our focus on U.S. General Aviation
Since the days of the Wild West, Oregon has been the rural frontier on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Folks who go there, often end up staying. Not only is the scenery breathtaking, but the region is a green paradise filled with hipsters, farmers, and foresters. Opportunities are only limited by the imagination: Visit the Painted Hills, climb snow-capped Mount Hood, ride horseback through the Wallowas, rappel down the side of Smith Rock, or swim in Crater Lake. You can go sandboarding at the many dunes and hike through the overgrown evergreen forests. And do it all while feeling away from the crowds of the modern world.
“We are still really the rural frontier,” explains Haley L. Walker, Airport Manager at the Grant County Regional Airport, “with an absolutely beautiful landscape to offer to visitors, which I think is a big part of why people love it here and end up relocating here. Essentially, what we have is an abundance of natural resources for anyone looking for an adventure, as well as large property owners such as ranchers and foresters.”
The Grant County Regional Airport is just south of John Day City, with a population of 2,200, and not far from Canyon City, with a mere 700 people. The airport covers 335 acres and has two asphalt runways: 17/35 is 5,220 by 60 feet and 9/27 is 4,471 by 60 feet.
Like many regional airports, the COVID-19 pandemic did not negatively affect traffic numbers over the last two years. In fact, in some respects, it got busier. The Emergency Operations Center for Grant County was originally based at the airport at the beginning of the pandemic. The flight activity was down a small amount at first, but even then, it was not significant. Walker chalks this up to the fact that flying is an excellent, safe, and even a solitary activity and there was growth in terms of people using the airport as time went on.
“Our latest infrastructure project has to do with widening the runways,” Walker says. “It is going to be a great safety improvement for the airport. The FAA recently moved our airport into the B-II classification due to an increase in flight operations with larger aircraft. We qualify because we had over 500 flight operations last year, but it means our runway needs to be safer to support those folks that are already flying in. We are going to be widening and rehabilitating the main runway and it will end up growing from 60 feet wide to 75. The grant should be issued in early 2022, and we are looking at design and planning beginning in the spring 2022 for construction during 2023. It is very exciting and will also help with medical and fire aviation – those are the two biggest users of the airport.”
Also onsite, the United States Forest Service operates an airbase and training center for rappeler firefighters, who are primarily ready to respond to any report of smoke in the nearby Malheur National Forest and the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness but can also mobilize for large fire support missions across the lower 48 states and Alaska. This base includes seven aircraft; one Bell 210 rappel ship, one A-star helitack ship, one UH-60 heavy helicopter, one UH1H, two single-engine air tankers, and one light fixed-wing. It is also a training location for new and veteran rappelers.
Along with medical transport, the Grant County Air Search group also operates from the airport to provide a first-response air search unit for the Grant County Sheriff\’s Office and the Oregon Department of Aeronautics. This unit is staffed mostly by volunteer pilots. Walker reports, “Depending on the time of year, we can see up to 30 flights a week. More in summer when the flying weather is good, and perhaps down to 15 a week in our nonpeak times. But there are medical flights in and out of the airport weekly. So, you can see that we need to maintain the airport to make these organizations as safe as possible.”
Winter in Oregon can be challenging, especially when it comes to keeping the runways and airport roadways clear. “Keeping the snow removal equipment up to date is definitely something on the wish list,” says Walker, “but we have an excellent partnership with our County Road Department and if we get in a situation where we have heavy snow or maybe our equipment is not keeping up, a phone call to them and they send a crew up here and help us out to get it open in a quick amount of time.”
The airport boasts a beautiful new terminal which is jointly owned by Grant County and the U.S. Forest Service. Operations-wise, the county runs its own FBO and provides both AV-Gas and Jet Fuel. The Forest Service has exclusive use of some parts of the terminal, and the rest of the facility houses a pilots’ lounge, administration, as well as a passenger area and all the related amenities.
There are 18 aircraft based at Grant County Regional, and 17 hangars – all but one of which are privately owned with land lease agreements. “There is, of course, a waiting list,” says Walker, “and we do have a designated hangar development area but that has to be privately funded. The county simply does not have the funds to build new hangars, however, we do have a couple of folks who are interested in building and we are working through that process now.”
When it comes to engaging with the wider community and reaching out to youth, the airport has important partnerships with two universities. “I work with a local partner named Didgette McCracken who liaises on behalf of Oregon State University,” explains Walker. “They partner with us to put on an aviation field day where we have all the students who are in the sixth grade in Grant County come to the airport for a day. We bring in ten different aviation career experts from engineering, to drones, pilots, search and rescue, and they also go through a program with a local educator who talks to them about the range of possibilities that career paths in aviation can provide, as well as scholarships, grants, and loans.”
Then, with Eastern Oregon University, the airport offers a yearly summer internship which typically runs from July 1st through the month of September and provides an excellent opportunity for students to learn, while also helping the airport find seasonal employees. The successful candidate has a summer job and earns up to five credits in the university’s business program.
“There are so many ways that the airport contributes to the community,” Walker chimes in, “and we work with the Grant County Chamber of Commerce, not only in terms of promotion, but even in the simple day-to-day stuff like space to meet, and borrowing a PA System. We work well together because they also see that the airport is an asset to our community.”
Another community activity that happens yearly is a fly-in and breakfast involving Air Search and Rescue. The airport invites all the students from grades one through 12 and Air Search volunteer pilots take them for a 10–15-minute flight to see the local area. Breakfast is also offered from a local restaurant to keep the crowd fed. Through all of this, Grant County Regional Airport seeks to connect to the everyday lives of everyone it can.
“Over the next few years we just want to improve everything we are doing,” Walker concludes. “We will continue being fiscally responsible, generating revenue, and offering the community a service. We will build on our record of safety and customer service so that more and more people are attracted to working with the airport, and we will continue to live up to the great reputation that we have already earned.”
AT A GLANCE
Grant County Regional Airport
What: A public-use general aviation airport
Where: Near the City of John Day, Grant County, Oregon
Grant County Chamber of Commerce – gcoregonlive.com
For much of the outside world, Grant County may seem like unchartered territory. It’s a little-known part of Oregon… a secret place. It’s a place defined by the bounty of nature – meandering rivers, open range, towering forests, stunning rock formations and abundant wildlife. We’re not just rural, but proudly frontier.
Eastern Oregon University – www.eou.edu
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