Bowers Field airport in Ellensburg is at a crossroads.

Central Washington University’s flight program has ambitious plans to expand. Kittitas County, which owns and manages the airport, is facing big questions about how to fund major infrastructure repairs.

After a month of sometimes heated exchanges, both sides are planning to sit down on Wednesday to talk about how best to forge a path forward.

The issues are complex — CWU wants to invest $20 million in new aircraft over the next 20 years and will need more space to grow its programs. The county shut down the airport’s secondary runway earlier this year because of safety concerns, and hopes to make $8 million in improvements to the main runway. It also needs to evaluate lease agreements, make infrastructure repairs and update outdated rules governing airport operations.

MOVE TO YAKIMA?

Because of concerns about the state of Bowers Field, the CWU Board of Trustees approved a resolution in early November asking staff to research:

• A plan to guarantee a sustainable flight program at Bowers Field through a purchase or long-term lease, and

• A business plan to move the school’s aviation program to McAllister Field in Yakima.

In an interview last week, CWU Provost Katherine Frank said the university would like to keep its students and programs in Ellensburg, but has a responsibility to research all options.

“We would like to be able to remain at Bowers Field,” she said. “We feel that is the best for our students. It really functions as an extension of campus.”

The trustees sent a strong message with the resolution, she said, and the university will work with a consultant to prepare a business plan and financial analysis for the board for consideration in May.

“Part of that analysis is where we are in terms of operations at Bowers Field as well as alternatives should we not be able to reach an agreement that works best for both parties,” she said. “And quite honestly we need to look beyond Bowers Field, because if our growth trajectory looks like it does going forward … we’ll need some satellite operations.”

CWU’s Aviation Department now has 265 students, with 165 of them flight majors and 100 majoring in management. The goal is to increase the number of students to address a regional demand for more pilots.

Frank said it would be significant undertaking to move the aviation program, and the school needs some commitments in writing from the county about plans for the runways.

“It would be very difficult for us to move a program for a period of time and then move it back. That is something we want to avoid,” she said. “We’d like to see a commitment in writing so we’re confident in our ability to continue to operate out there without disruption to our learning environment.”

PROGRAM GROWING

CWU’s flight program has experienced some big changes in the past few years. For several decades, CWU students received flight training services with locally based Midstate Aviation. After CWU and Midstate failed to reach agreement in 2013, CWU accepted a contract from California-based IASCO Flight Training to take over flight training in 2014. IASCO was under contract through August 2019, but opted to end the contract a year early, in June 2018. In response, CWU received FAA approval to begin providing flight instruction to new students this fall, as IASCO finishes training already-enrolled students.

CWU also started leasing aircraft this fall from Midstate and moved into both large hangars at the airport. The school has purchased one plane and paid for five new Piper Archer planes which should arrive next month, said Andy McIrvin, CWU director of flight operations.

“A lot of changes have happened — new personnel, the department has grown a lot,” McIrvin said. “We’ve got full-time professional flight instructors at the airport.”

CWU wants to continue to grow the program and its students, and has plans to invest $20 million over 20 years in a fleet of 25 to 26 new aircraft, said CWU Vice President of Business and Financial Affairs Joel Klucking. Annual operation costs could be $4 million.

“That makes this a very expensive program for what really will be 260 or 300 students,” he said. “We’re making a giant investment because part of our mission is to serve the need of the region and there is a significant need for pilots, and tremendous market demand.”

CWU-COUNTY TIES

While CWU has long ties to Bowers Field, the county-operated airport is closely intertwined with CWU. About 92 percent of takeoffs and landings at the airport are from CWU’s program, and the county’s ability to qualify for Federal Aviation Administration grants for improvements is based on how much the airport is used.

Midstate recently gave notice it would be ceasing some fixed-base operator services this month, such as providing notice to airmen, a pilot’s lounge, rental car services and more. The county issued a request for proposals to see who else might be interested in providing the services, and CWU applied.

Midstate plans to retain fuel and maintenance services.

Meanwhile, county and CWU officials plan to meet on Wednesday to discuss overall issues at the airport, including infrastructure.

Frank said CWU is committed to being a good partner in that process.

“We’ve all agreed to come to the table and have conversations, and I think that is a very positive thing,” she said. “I think we have some serious work to do.”

GROWTH

The county hopes to see the airport grow, too. An aviation activity forecast from August 2017 that is part of the county’s master plan for the airport spells out different growth scenarios, including variations in CWU’s flight program. The overall summary forecasts total operations increasing from 47,950 in 2016 to 73,577 by 2035, and for the aircraft based at Bowers Field to grow from 60 to 79 in the same timeframe.

County Public Works Director Mark Cook said the forecast was recently accepted by the FAA, which is a big step toward seeking funding for infrastructure improvements.

While CWU officials have mentioned communication issues with the county, Cook said Central was included in numerous discussions as the master plan was developed, including discussions about the state of the runways at Bowers Field.

“It’s in nobody’s interest for the flight program to relocate. They are driving the flight forecast that will allow us to get the FAA to improve (the primary runway),” he said. “Without them, that’s not going to happen.”

County commissioners have expressed a strong, ongoing commitment to Bowers Field during meetings this month. Commissioner Obie O’Brien mentioned that support during an interview this week, while also acknowledging more funding is needed to cover costs and address needs.

“We have a tremendous asset. We recognize it as a tremendous asset,” he said. “The county’s position has been and will remain — we’re in this to make sure the airport can maintain and excel as we move forward.

“How we get there from here is the hard part.”

Managing Editor, Daily Record

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