The Federal Aviation Administration is calling Riverside County’s decision to boot glider pilots out of Hemet-Ryan Airport over supposed safety concerns unjustified, adding that reasonable steps should be taken to accommodate all forms of flying at the site.
The county put glider pilots on notice this summer that they would need to vacate an 8-acre lot at the airport and cease flying out of Hemet-Ryan by Oct. 1.
According to the county’s Economic Development Agency, which manages the airfield, glider operations pose safety hazards and conflict with a redevelopment project slated to begin in the next three to five years.
Glider pilots argue they have been flying at the location, along with large powered aircraft, for more than 40 years without any major incidents and are the most active users of the space, benefiting the local economy.
“This airport is transforming itself,” said Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone during the Board of Supervisors’ meeting Sept. 1. “We’ve had more (firefighting) air attack airplanes go into Hemet-Ryan than anywhere in California. It’s strategic. We’re not going to get away from the compatibility issue.”
Stone agreed the Economic Development Agency’s Oct. 1 deadline was unreasonable and suggested pilots have another three to six months to move their sailplanes and equipment. But agency officials informed Stone the removals would need to go ahead as planned.
Agency spokesman Tom Freeman told City News Service that it received a letter from Caltrans, which has inspecting authority over airports across the state, shortly after the Sept. 1 meeting stating “in very strong language” that glider operations were to be halted immediately.
However, in a letter sent to the Orange County Sailplane Association Monday, FAA Airports Compliance Specialist Tony Garcia, based at the agency’s Los Angeles office, said the county’s “justification for a complete ban on all glider operations at (Hemet-Ryan) has not been established.”
Garcia told the association, which had requested the FAA’s input, that federal law requires a public airport such as Hemet-Ryan to be available “for all aeronautical activities, including glider operations, on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination.”
“It appears that glider operations can be accommodated in the near term if rules are established that ensure safe glider operations,” Garcia wrote. “We recognize the county has plans to redevelop the airport. However, we do not know when redevelopment will actually begin. It does not appear reasonable to end all glider operations well before redevelopment activity gets started.”
According to Freeman, the Economic Development Agency has not had an opportunity to see the letter.
“We will discuss it with Supervisor Stone,” said Freeman. “But at this point, we’re still moving forward with our plans and nothing has changed as of this moment.”
Larry Tuohino, aviator and president of the Orange County Sailplane Association, said after contacting Caltrans officials, the group learned there was no document the state agency could produce showing a recommendation to Riverside County that glider operations be stopped for safety reasons — or any other reason.
“Someone should be embarrassed and apologize,” Tuohino said.
Tuohino said his organization has demanded the county provide copies of correspondence between it and any other state or federal agencies regarding sailplane operations at Hemet-Ryan.
The airfield, located just west of Hemet, has been a hub for recreational flying and fire suppression operations for more than 40 years.
Earlier this summer, Larry Howell, who runs Sailplane Enterprises Inc., asked the county for an early termination of his lease at the airport, saying business had dropped significantly during the recent economic downturn.
The board, following the Economic Development Agency’s recommendation, agreed to end the lease — and at the same time order a halt to glider flying in general.
Freeman said too many safety hazards have cropped up, resulting in “fatalities, injury and serious violations of regulations.”
According to Tuohino, sailplane flying is no more hazardous than any other form of recreational aviation.
“Do we have our incidents? Every airport has its incidents,” Tuohino said. “We’ve had glider operations going on there since the early ’70s. Nobody has come down on us until now. Why? Because they want to redevelop the airport into a jet port.”
Tuohino questioned the wisdom of expanding Hemet-Ryan to facilitate commuter operations when French Valley Airport, 12 miles away, provides the same services.
“We are the most active operation at Hemet-Ryan,” Tuohino said. “We do more operations on the glider side than everything else on the power side.”
According to Tuohino , the hazards Caltrans has listed in connection with sailplane operations are “extremely correctable.”
Tuohino said one of the biggest issues is tow-plane pilots using a makeshift runway extension.
“The county has dug up meaningless safety issues and thrown them at us because that’s the only way they could get us off the field,” Tuohino said.
For the time being, the 30 to 50 sailplanes tied down at Hemet-Ryan are being moved to space maintained by a fixed-based operator who leases part of the airfield, Tuohino said.