Friday, April 27, 2018

Emergency Services Chief Dave Cox asks for Pincher Creek Municipal Airport upgrades

File photo: Acting Landing Zone Officer Nichole Boissoneault January 2014 at Pincher Creek Municipal Airport
Chris Davis - Pincher Creek Emergency Services (PCES) Chief David Cox made a presentation to council for the MD of Pincher Creek on April 10, and to council for the Town of Pincher Creek on April 23. Cox aired concerns related to Pincher Creek Municipal Airport (CZPC). The airport is owned by the MD.

"We would prefer a proactive rather than a reactive approach." - PCES Chief David Cox

Chief Cox asked MD council to consider an improved level of snow removal prioritization and a backup generator to keep the lights running during power outages. Cox expressed concern that the airport is sometimes listed officially as open for traffic when it's not, creating potentially dangerous situations.  "It's not discretionary to do that properly," he clarified during a follow-up interview.  He also suggested to MD council that it consider installing potable water as a potential asset for future growth.

Cox told Town council he was filling them in on what the MD council heard as a courtesy.  The Town and the MD work together to provide emergency services to the two municipalities' combined 6600+ inhabitants. PCES and other first responders rely upon the airport year-round.

Both councils decided to discuss the concerns raised by Cox at respective upcoming council meetings.

Snow removal

According to Chief Cox, there are some ongoing challenges related to availability and access to the airport in the winter months.  MD Director of Operations Leo Reedyk said it can take up to three hours to clear the runway after heavy snowfall events.  Reedyk presents the MD council with an annual snow ploughing map that provides MD Operations with a priorities scale they use to schedule where and when the ploughs go to specific areas. MD Council then approves or amends that document.  In general the highways are the top priority, followed by school bus routes, followed by other more active sections of roadway.

Cox urged MD council to give the airport an equivalent priority to school bus routes.


Cox was also concerned about the lack of a portable generator onsite. "If we have a power outage, we have no running equipment." That includes runway lights.  He said a power plant is available from the MD shop, but the response time to move it and set it up is 1.5 to 2 hours.

Although the system is wired for backup power there is no generator onsite to provide that power. "There used to be an auxilliary power unit there."

He added that bringing an auxiliary generator to the airport from the MD's shop during a power outage was not likely feasible due to the time that would be required for setup and the fuel limits of circling aircraft.

He said a plan to install a backup generator has been on hold for six or seven years.


Cox said two of the ways our airport can be rendered out of safe service is the lack of running lights or snow on the runway.  He added that a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) is required any time an airport is out of service because pilots are under the assumption airports are ready to use otherwise.  Failure to issue that notice in a timely fashion has created potentially dangerous situations at CZPC, according to Cox.  Cox said the lengthy process of moving a generator from the MD's shop was less feasible due to the fuel limits of circling aircraft.

"We have some challenges to its availability." - PCES Chief Dave Cox

"We have to do what we can to make our airport more available,"  said Cox in a follow-up interview.  He said PCES cannot just ask for extra snow cleaning at the spur of a moment, because "they don't ask us our opinion ahead of time".  PCES may not get much heads up to have the airport ready.  Emergencies happen with no notice.  Dispatch has its own processes, AHS has its own processes.  STARS has its own process A fundamental part of the overall process is the filing of a flight plan, which includes checking (and relying upon) NOTAM to see if the destination airport is open. 

If the lights are not on at night the pilot may not be able to land, any time of the year. If the pilot doesn't know the airport is closed in the winter, there's a risk he or she may have to land in the snow, with potential damage to the aircraft as well as the risk of injury. PCES's common contribution to the process is to pick up responding crew and equipment at the airport, transport them to the hospital, and then transport them and the patient(s) back to the airport.

In the course of my background research I was reminded that Cowley airport/glider strip has a NOTAM file too.

Potable water

According to Cox, while water is not needed for air tanker operations, potable water at the airport would be an asset to its potential growth.  "I think there is a business case to be made to water out there."

Hospital helipad

The helipad at Pincher Creek Health Centre is managed by Alberta Health Services. It is too small to accommodate the larger STARS AW139 helicopter that was introduced in 2014, which results in some patients being transferred from the local hospital to the airport before STARS can transport them to a Calgary hospital. That larger helicopter can carry more passengers and/or equipment and is tough enough to stand up to most southern Alberta winds. Mayor Don Anderberg said the Town of Pincher Creek and the MD of Pincher Creek are working toward a solution. "We should pursue getting that helipad done."

Larger STARS

New STARS AW139 lands at Pincher Creek Municipal Airport in 2014

AW139 pilot Gary Bergen said it's January 2014 debut landing at Pincher Creek Municipal Airport was challenged with the wind measured at "28 knots, gusting to 37. Call that 50 km/hour, gusting 60, 65. The upper limit is 50 knots."

Travel time and load limits

According to Chief Cox, "Fixed-wing ambulance is sometimes the only air option due to the load limits on helicopters." Airplanes can carry a significantly greater weight of personnel, equipment, and patients per trip.

Cox said a fixed-wing aircraft travelling from Calgary takes approximately an hour and a half from all to arrive.  Helicopters are quicker to take to the air but fixed-wing aircraft basically make up for that with extra speed once they're in the air.

According to Cox, the smaller STARS helicopter can travel from Calgary to CZPC and back without refuelling, but if it travels to Cardston it has to refuel, increasing the time it takes to get patients to hospital in Calgary from there.

About the airport

"From my point of view, for Emergency Services, I think it's a very valuable resource." - 
PCES Chief David Cox

According to the MD's website, Pincher Creek Municipal airport "is situated 2 miles north and 2 miles west of the town of Pincher Creek, just south of Highway 3". It is unmanned, with a 6600x100 foot paved runway with various approaches and limited winter maintenance. There are numerous wind turbines in the vicinity of the airport.

According to Wikipedia it's 3.0 nautical miles (5.6 km; 3.5 mi) northwest of Pincher Creek.

According to the 2003 Inventory of Alberta Regional and Local Airports, CZPC is 379 acres in size.

Originally the Department of Highways ran the airport as a provincially owned facility.  It was turned over to the MD in the mid-1990s, a time when 40 former provincial airports were transferred to local airport authority or municipal control.  

The airport is owned and operated by the MD and is the only fixed-wing aircraft airport in the area, serving the MD of Pincher Creek, the Town of Pincher Creek, Cowley, and Crowsnest Pass.  The airport also serves Cardston to some extent because the other airport close to Cardston is Springbank's, and Springbank's shorter runway limits its tanker aircraft capability.

The airport generates a significant revenue from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, who uses it as a primary water tanker base for the region. To that purpose, at the east end of the runway there is fuel storage, fire retardent mixing facilities, etc. A 10-year air tanker base lease was signed in the spring of 2015.

The airport is used day or night by STARS and other first-responders, private aircraft owners, companies such as Shell Waterton, GOA, the RCMP, and the Canadian military on occasion. It is often a staging area for wildfire response aircraft.  Tankers stationed at the Pincher airport respond to regional agriculture and forestry fire situations.   The airport serves a wide swathe, covering all of southern Alberta, into Southeastern BC, and into the United States as well if needed.  "Because of our mutual aid concepts, they respond into BC, they respond into the US with this airport," said Chief Cox.

There is also a modest revenue from hangar space rentals.

Chief Cox said there are approximately 15 to 20 flights a year between Pincher Creek and the Crowsnest Pass.

CZPC is busiest during the summer months according to a 2003 survey. 

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