Protecting Aircraft Pilots, Passengers Aim of OAC Bill

By Harve Allen 

OKLAHOMA CITY – Drive west on Interstate 40 from Oklahoma City and before long you begin to run into the what seems like a never-ending sea of wind turbines dotting the western part of the state.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce website, as of December 2009 nearly 700 wind turbines, most of which are taller than a 30-story building, have either been built or are in the process of being built in the state. And more are likely in the near future.

As the number of wind turbines grows across Oklahoma, so do the concerns of business and private pilots as well as state aviation officials who contend that the giant, pinwheel-like structures, along with other similar-sized structures built near local airports, are potential hazards for the flying public.

It’s because of those concerns that the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission introduced House Bill 2919 and Senate Bill 1960, also known as the Aircraft Pilot and Passenger Protection Act, this legislative session which would limit what can or can’t be built near Oklahoma’s public-use airports. Both bills passed out of each chamber’s respective transportation committee recently and will next be considered by the full House and Senate sometime within the next two weeks.

“Encroachment upon our airports from development is becoming more and more prevalent in our state and nation. Proposing this legislation is the right thing to do because it’s all about safety and protecting the public investment in our state’s airports, as well as ensuring that future uses of the land around an airport are compatible with airport operations,” Aeronautics Commission Director Victor Bird said. “We have no problem with companies wanting to build wind turbines, cell towers or hotels, or any other tall structure in Oklahoma. We would just prefer that they not build their structures where they would be a hazard to air navigation.”

Bird pointed to a wind turbine built near a state airport in southwest Oklahoma as an example of what OAC’s proposed legislation intends to prevent. Because of the presence of the wind turbine, the local airport was forced to change its approaches, which could potentially jeopardize the safety of pilots, as well as their passengers, who are attempting to land their aircraft, especially during inclement weather.

As part of the proposed legislation that pertains to land-use compatibility near public airports, Bird said that business owners or homeowners who want to locate their noise-sensitive businesses or houses near an airport’s runway protection zone or within the noise sensitive area will first have to obtain a permit from the Aeronautics Commission before construction can begin. He said the legislation is also designed to preclude those individuals from seeking noise abatement remedies from the state or airport if they decide later that the noise levels emanating from the airport are too high.

“It shouldn’t be the airport’s responsibility or this Commission’s responsibility to do some kind of noise abatement, especially when the business or homeowner was fully aware of airport noise before construction began. They will have to accept the fact that the airport was there first,” said Bird, who emphasized that the proposed legislation is not an attempt to wrestle away zoning authority from cities or towns but rather to complement it.

The Aeronautics Commission has a lot of support from the Legislature for the Aircraft Pilot and Passenger Protection Act, according to Bird. He noted that Rep. T.W. Shannon (D-Lawton), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is serving as the bill’s author in the House, while Sen. Harry Coates (R-Seminole), who is an accomplished pilot and a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, is the Senate author.

The Aeronautics Commission has also introduced HB 1942 and SB 274 which requests $1 million for the Center for Aerospace Supplier Quality (CASQ) and $628,000 for the Oklahoma Aerospace Institute (OAI), two programs created by state lawmakers in 2006 that were transferred to the Commission in fall 2008. The bill’s authors are Rep. Mike Jackson (R-Enid) and Sen. David Myers (R-Ponca City).

CASQ helps small- to medium-sized aerospace companies in Oklahoma understand the procurement process so that they can more effectively compete for the $5 billion worth of contracts awarded annually by the Department of Defense through Tinker Air Force Base, the Federal Aviation Administration and prime contractors such as Boeing and Pratt & Whitney.

“Oklahoma aerospace companies have received approximately $500 million of that $5 billion, and that should not be the case. We know we can do better. But it’s all about knowledge, and that’s what CASQ is all about—imparting that knowledge to the smaller Oklahoma aerospace companies and helping them be more successful,” Bird said.

OAI promotes public-private partnerships to more effectively respond to the needs of the aerospace industry in areas such as education and training, research, and economic development.

Bird stressed the importance that CASQ and OAI have on the viability and growth of Oklahoma’s aerospace industry, noting several recent accomplishments and milestones for each program:

  • Since its inception, CASQ has provided consulting services to 139 Oklahoma aerospace companies.
  • Through fiscal year 2010, CASQ has helped 22 Oklahoma aerospace companies win 217 defense contracts worth $14.7 million.
  • OAI has successfully developed the state’s first-ever research agenda for the industry.
  • OAI developed a strategic plan last fall for Oklahoma’s aerospace industry and will oversee the plan’s implementation.
  • OAI is currently undertaking a workforce needs assessment for the aerospace industry.

Despite the programs’ successes, CASQ and OAI have never directly received any state appropriations but have instead survived through financial support from several state entities. To date, about $1.4 million has been contributed to keep CASQ and OAI operational; however, that continued support is tenuous at best.

“These programs are really starting to take off and seeing some positive results. So I am hopeful that legislators will get on board and fund them accordingly,” stated Bird, who said that he is also seeking federal funding for CASQ and OAI.

“I know that this has been an extremely tough time financially for the state, but CASQ and OAI are already making a difference,” he said.