The District of Kitimat and the Kitimat Flying Club have been approved for a grant by the BC Airports Access Program to help them do a major refurbishment of the Kitimat Air Park.
The refurbishment will include asphalting the runway and taxiway, as well as the construction of a helipad, something that’s been needed for a while now, after the one at Rio Tinto shut down last year due to LNG Canada construction of Terminal A.
Jim Tiviotdale and Bob Rypma, the current and former Kitimat Flying Club presidents, respectively, said that this grant has been in the works for the past five to six years, with three to four of those years involving simply talking amongst themselves of how they should go about applying.
“We had to convince the membership for three or four years that it was a venture worth following,” Tiviotdale said. “So then we finally got everybody on side with it and then we started.”
They applied last year, but were turned down due to the number of other airports that applied. However, they tried again this year and were successful.
Legally, Tiviotdale said, the grant is given to the District, as the Air Park is District land that the Kitimat Flying Club has a 27-year lease to manage.
Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth said the District decided to support this grant because of the many different users it supports within the Kitimat community.
“The Kitimat Air Park provides an additional runway in the area that supports recreational, business, and industrial users,” Germuth said. “If the runway is not upgraded, the asset would have become limited for use and eventually decommissioned. We are appreciative of the provincial government for providing this grant which will cover 75 per cent of the costs to upgrade this community resource.”
Given that the application was due in January 2020, the District and the Flying Club had been in discussions since lat fall, Tiviotdale said. It meant the District was able to include the final 25 per cent of the costs not covered by the grant in their budget for this year.
Tiviotdale and Rypma said that, based on previous years, they were expecting a response to their application this spring. However, due to COVID-19 challenges, the process was delayed and the District only heard back about their accepted application in mid-October.
“At that point in time, based on the previous years, we were expecting an answer probably in March or April which, if that had been the case, we would’ve had the construction season this summer,” Tiviotdale said.
He said that now, the refurbishment won’t be done until spring or early summer 2021, depending on weather and Kentron Construction’s schedule — which is the company that currently has the bid for the project.
Rypma and Tiviotdale said that safety and usability are the biggest concerns with the Air Park right now as, apart from this year with COVID-19, it’s usually fairly busy and could definitely use some improvements due to wear and tear over the years.
“Last summer, prior to COVID, when everything was going strong, we has six helicopter companies and the Coast Guard all at one time here,” Tiviotdale said.
“And the RCMP, and the Coast Guards, and emergency flights and so on. It was fairly busy last year, not so much this year,” Rypma added.
They said traffic picked up a bit mid-summer, but still nowhere near as much as in previous years. However, they added that overall numbers have definitely decreased over the past several years, and they hope the refurbishments will help bring numbers back up.
“If you go back in the past, [the Air Park] used to be quite busy and active. They had seasons where they had over 1,000, 1,200 take-offs and landings in one season, so it was fairly busy,” Rypma said. “Last couple years we haven’t kept track of numbers, but it’s definitely way down.”
“There’s very, very few [private] aircrafts in the Kitimat, Terrace area,” Tiviotdale added. “There’s no [private] fixed-wing aircraft based out here. And there’s none at the Terrace airport, either.”
Tiviotdale said most of the recent traffic is helicopters over airplanes, but even then, the numbers are dwindling due to lack of accessible helipads in and around Kitimat.
“And back 30 or so years ago, virtually every hospital had a helipad,” Tiviotdale said. “I mean here, right now, if you’ve got a medevac, they’re bringing them in either to here, if they can get in, or to Terrace. And then they’ve got to put them in an ambulance and then take them to the hospital.”
Kitimat used to have a helipad at the old hospital, where the current Haisla Centre is, but they added that few hospitals and municipalities have helipads in more populated areas nowadays due to noise, safety, and liability complaints.
Rio Tinto has a helipad, as well, but it’s only available to external groups for emergencies, Kevin Dobbin, Communications and Communities Manager at Rio Tinto, said.
“We did have a helipad right where the terminal A construction activity is taking place and it was closed when the work started. Now Canadian Helicopters, the company we use, lands at a helipad situated in a different area on Rio Tinto property,” Dobbin said. “The helipad has always been available for external parties in case of emergency. That is still the case.”
A helipad at the Air Park also means accessibility near town in the case of emergency.
“One of the key features that we’ve zeroed in on…is the emergency [component], whether it’s for wildfires, whether it’s for BC Ambulance, whether it’s for Search and Rescue,” Tiviotdale said. “Down here, there’s always the challenge: there’s one road in. And if anything happens to that orange bridge up there, getting stuff in and out of the area, there’s only one other way and it’s by air, helicopter or plane.”
Tiviotdale and Rypma said the club, the District and Kentron will be in talks over the next couple of months to figure out details and timing for the refurbishments.