Glider enthusiasts at Hemet-Ryan Airport have reluctantly packed up and moved out. But as they rushed to meet the Riverside County Economic Development Agency’s deadline to vacate the airport by today, many pilots held out hope they’ll be allowed to return.
On Tuesday, Larry Tuohino, president of the Orange County Sailplane Association, appealed the eviction to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, saying the glider pilots want to remain, but now may have no alternative but to file a formal complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration to regain access to the mid-county airport.
“As I stepped away from the podium, I was pretty much overcome with despair,” Tuohino said.
Later Tuohino said glider pilots’ hopes were rekindled when several county officials said they would be open to meeting to further examine whether gliders should be given more time.
The Economic Development Agency operates the facility and ordered engine-free pilots out by Thursday to move forward with expansion. Tom Freeman, agency spokesman, said the decision was made after the Sailplane Enterprises glider school operation opted not to renew an airport lease.
Among the county’s plans are to expand the state fire agency Cal Fire’s fire-suppression operations at the airport and push ahead with other airport redevelopment.
“This is a multimillion-dollar investment in public safety,” Freeman said. “Superintendent (Jeff) Stone has fought to keep Cal Fire tanker operations at Hemet-Ryan.”
By ordering glider pilots to leave, the county also is addressing safety issues by ensuring gliders don’t interfere with other aviation operations, Freeman said.
The rationale that gliders pose serious safety concerns and should cease operations immediately is “baseless and disingenuous,” according to state and federal accident studies and reports, said Chris Mannion, a Winchester resident and vice president of the Orange County Sailplane Association.
Last month, Stone recommended gliders be given at least a six-month extension on the deadline. But Freeman said an Aug. 28 letter from Caltrans Division Aeronautics, the inspecting authority over airports, noted safety violations related to glider operations. The letter prompted county officials to stick with the original Oct. 1 deadline.
Caltrans inspectors told county officials that gliders were not complying with runway restrictions and that safety violations needed to be resolved, Freeman said.
But the Caltrans letter does not order gliders to permanently leave the airport, instead merely pointing out some safety violations that can be easily fixed, Mannion said. The Oct. 1 deadline has irked gliders, who said it could take three, five or more years for the county to break ground on any development. Glider pilots had to scramble to move dozens of gliders and other equipment to Lake Elsinore, Tehachapi and elsewhere, Mannion said.
A single training glider remains on a vacant stretch where dozens of gliders once stood. The glider club has until the end of October to remove it, said Tuohino, a Costa Mesa resident who drives to the airport roughly 40 weekends a year.
Sailplane operators and owners say they’re frustrated they have been unable to get the county to engage in any meaningful discussions regarding what they consider to be an “unreasonable” deadline. Tony Garcia, a compliance specialist with the FAA, said the Oct. 1 deadline “does not appear reasonable.” He urged the county to allow glider operations as long as they comply with reasonable safety rules.
If the association does file a formal complaint with the FAA, Riverside County faces the possibility that the federal government could withhold federal funding for airport transportation projects, said Ronald Cozad, an attorney (Editor’s Note: California Pilots Association VP of Region 5) who is representing the glider enthusiasts.
The county gets federal grant money on the condition that the airport provides access to all classes of aviation activity, including glider operations, Cozad said.
Glider pilots such as Menifee resident Tim Guckes, a retired Newport Beach firefighter, said he and other glider pilots are adamant about operating safely alongside other aircraft.
“Safety is the No. 1 thing when you’re flying,” said Guckes, who fears losing access to Hemet-Ryan Airport will greatly limit his ability to fly gliders.
County officials say it makes sense to remove gliders to create safer operations for firefighting aircraft, Riverside County sheriff’s helicopters and other general aviation pilots.
“As we seem to suffer from living in a constant state of wildland fire threats, the supervisor’s decision to protect the majority over a handful of glider pilots is rock-solid public policy,” Freeman said.