Small Planes Could Get Big March Welcome

By 2014, the runway now frequented by fighter jets and massive C-17 military cargo planes at March Air Reserve Base near Riverside could be a more attractive destination for small, private aircraft.

Members of the March Joint Powers Authority voted unanimously Wednesday, Aug. 15, to approve an environmental report supporting a plan to build about $6 million worth of airport improvements — including a general-aviation terminal, hangars and parking area — catering to private pilots.

The goal is to have the new terminal in operation within a year and a half. Most of the money will come from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plan has been discussed for a few years and fervently opposed by nearby residents, who fear plane crashes or a repeat of the late-night noise caused by DHL cargo jets overhead.

On Wednesday, it was challenged by the March authority’s latest legal foe — March GlobalPort, the former airport developer that built a home for DHL’s shipping operations, which shut down in 2008 after three years of flights. GlobalPort is suing the authority for terminating the development contract that gave the company exclusive rights to build airport improvements.

The general-aviation plan is expected to make the base and its airspace more inviting for pilots of smaller planes. The runway has been open to general aviation flights since 1997, when March Air Force Base became an Air Force Reserve base, but few private pilots use it.

So far this year, civilian planes have landed or departed from the base 21 times. The previous year saw 26 departures and arrivals, and in 2010, there were five. Military planes took off and landed 37,297 times in 2010.

With the plan approved Wednesday, private pilots would have their own area to park planes, a terminal to relax in, hangar space to rent and easy access to refueling. They also wouldn’t need to obtain permission to land ahead of time like they do now.

While the airport’s runway can accommodate nearly any aircraft, only corporate jets, charter planes, two-seat propeller-driven planes and other smaller aircraft would be permitted to park near the new terminal, said Lori Stone, the authority’s executive director.

Included in the plans are a 5,000-square-foot terminal and two 10,000-square-foot hangars for private planes. It also may add a 10,000-gallon fuel storage tank to serve smaller aircraft.

The agency will use $1.3 million from the FAA for the first phase of engineering and design work and spend $132,323 to match the grant, according to a resolution approved Aug. 15.

The March JPA commission, which is made up of representatives from Riverside County, Moreno Valley, Riverside and Perris to oversee the redevelopment of former military property, first voted to embrace general aviation flights in mid-2008 and began working on a terminal design in December 2009.

The plan doesn’t allow for any flight schools or for more than 21,000 civilian take-offs or landings annually, according to an agreement the authority signed with the Air Force.

Airport officials and a consultant for the authority estimate that far fewer civilian pilots will land at the airport — 5,850 annual departures and arrivals by 2016 and 8,400 by 2025, or about 23 a day, according to a forecast.

Word that the authority wanted to welcome general aviation fliers raised the ire of residents in Riverside’s Orangecrest and Mission Grove neighborhoods, who complained in public meetings about noisy late-night flights by DHL.

Mission Grove resident Chris Bardeen, reached by telephone, said he fears the approval Wednesday could open the door to more cargo flights. And Jon Christensen, who moved to get away from the noise, said he’s still concerned about safety, since he sees news reports of small plane crashes often.

Riverside Councilman Paul Davis, who represents the neighborhoods, said he hasn’t heard any complaints recently.

He said the former March commander talked to a group of residents last year about the general aviation plan.

Col. Karl McGregor was clear in July 2011 when he told the crowd that the Air Force didn’t mind sharing the runway with general aviation flights and actually encouraged the flights because it could defray the costs to the military to keep the airport running. He told the crowd that the military would be able to maintain security even with civilian flights sharing the runway.

“I’m just hoping they made the right decision and there are no accidents,” Davis said of the authority’s vote this week.

The Air Force operates the runway’s control tower with a full staff from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily except holidays, essentially closing overnight. If a civilian flight were to land during off hours, the authority would have to reimburse the military for the extra cost.

Commission member and Perris Councilman Mark Yarbrough said he has heard from private pilots who are eagerly looking forward to the base being more open to private planes. March had good space and visibility, they told him.

“Honestly, I’m really tired of hearing about the noise,” he said, adding that he’s lived under the flight path since the 1990s. “You’ve got to get over it.”

The March authority isn’t likely to make a lot of money from general aviation, although some money can be earned from fuel sales or hangar rentals. The airport has to be open to public flights if the authority wants to qualify for FAA funding for any projects.

Plus, the agency’s leaders have said it could be a selling point for business people interested in flying in to visit the Meridian business park across the freeway or the proposed medical campus nearby.