News

Yuma, Airport In Focus At Conference

By Joyce Lobeck

Yuma and its airport are in the spotlight this week as the host for the Arizona Airports Association spring 2014 conference that brought more than 140 people to the community.

And they’re both getting great reviews.

“Each airport has a different story,” said Jordan Feld, president of the organization that was formed in 1979 to bring together representatives of public and private airports and those who support the state’s aviation industry.

Yuma International Airport’s story is one of reinvention to meet the needs of the community and the three major legs of its economy: agriculture, the military and tourism.

Through the vision of the Yuma County Airport Authority and its investment in developing the Defense Contractor’s Complex, the airport is generating revenue while serving as a huge boost to the community’s economic development and creation of good-paying aviation jobs, Feld noted. And it stands out for its commitment to using local engineers and contractors for its projects.

But the community has a story as well, one of particular interest to Feld, who in private life is an urban planner for the Tucson Airport Authority. Skipping Sunday’s golf tournament that opened the four-day AzAA conference, he went running along the Yuma East Wetlands, explored the restored Main Street and learned about the community’s fledgling eco-tourism.

“Yuma has a good story to tell,” he said. “There’s a lot going on here. And it’s all being showcased.”

Feld explained that AzAA holds two conferences a year, with the fall event held each year in the Phoenix area and the spring one in different communities around the state. It’s been some 20 years since Yuma was the host; that it is this year is in part a tribute to the presence and activity by Airport Manager Gladys Wiggins on the AzAA board.

It’s also a nod to the unusual status of Yuma’s airport as a shared use facility with Marine Corps Air Station Yuma and its many partnerships with the military, federal agencies and local organizations, said Gen Grosse, corporate account manager for the airport.

“Most airports don’t have military aircraft parked alongside civilian planes,” she said. “That’s an everyday occurrence here. A lot of people don’t understand how Yuma works … how we share a runway with the Marines.”

Yuma is well-known for its perfect flying weather, but its strength lies in the partnerships among those who share its airspace. Hence Monday’s conference sessions led off with a panel titled “Unique Partnerships in Aviation: The Yuma Structure.”

Col. Robert Kuckuk, commanding officer of MCAS Yuma, said during his three tours in Yuma he’s probably flown into all the airports represented at the conference. “Many of you have great coffee.”

But the “u” in Yuma stands for unique, he said. “The only reason we have a base in Yuma is because of the access to some of the finest flying ranges in the world.”

That’s why 80 percent of all Marines – some 9,000 of them a year – come here to train, especially before they deploy, he said. It’s a very busy place, in particular during the bi-annual WTI (Weapons and Tactical Instructors Course).

“The relationship here allows the non-military and military to work closely together,” he said. That includes general aviation, whose presence provides valuable training opportunities for the military air traffic controllers, he noted.

Kuckuk also provided an update on the Joint Striker Fighter Jet – the F-35B. MCAS Yuma now has a full squadron with 16 planes and more are coming as they can be built. He expects the transition to be complete by 2018, but the harriers that will be replaced will continue to be used for a few more years as they’re transferred to other bases. Some may be sold to other countries and others may end up being stored for parts.

Yuma Proving Ground is located a few miles away from the airport, but it, too, “has truly a phenomenal partnership … a tremendous relationship,” said Col. Reed Young, commanding officer of the Army’s testing facility. For example, he noted, NASA, which has been testing parachutes at YPG, leases a hanger at the airport in the Defense Contractors Complex.

Young also talked about the long history of the testing at YPG of unmanned aviation systems for military use from the size of a hand to full-size aircraft. Now YPG has been approved as a Class D airspace to give it tighter control to ensure safe operations as testing of both manned and unmanned aircraft increases there.

“It will be a busy air field in the future of aviation,” Young said.

Another partner is the Customs and Border Patrol Office of Air and Marine, said Martin Miles, director of air operations. The agency now occupies a two-year-old facility built through the efforts of the airport.

OAM provides support for Customs and Border Patrol, particularly in the apprehension of drugs and drug traffickers, Miles said. But it also works closely with the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies.

“We couldn’t function without the partnerships we have,” he concluded.

Wrapping up the panel, Julie Engel said she has the “greatest job in the world” as president and CEO of Greater Economic Development Corporation. “I get to work with these great people and exposure to their resources. It’s an amazing day to be an economic developer with these assets.”