County plans expansion of Las Vegas bizav airports

 - October 4, 2007, 11:34 AM

While many cities, counties and other agencies from coast to coast pursue policies of scaling back operations at airports they control–or in some cases even eliminating them entirely–Clark County, Nev., is flying a reciprocal course. Comprising the state’s southern tip, Clark includes the state’s two largest cities, Las Vegas and Henderson. The area’s economy is perhaps the most tourism- and convention-dependent in the nation.

In line with the arrival by air of a large number of those visitors, the county’s department of aviation anticipates issuing up to $400 million in revenue bonds to improve and expand the system of general aviation airports surrounding Las Vegas. Much of that spending authority will be focused on the two airports, Henderson Executive (HND) and North Las Vegas (VGT), that serve as major relievers to McCarran International. In the slightly longer term, Clark County is preparing to acquire land for a proposed international airport about 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas near the Nevada- California border. Preliminary plans call for that facility to open in 2017.

The Clark County airport system also includes general aviation fields at Overton, northeast of Las Vegas; Searchlight, 44 miles southeast; and Jean, 22 miles southwest of The Strip. The facility at Henderson, which recently surpassed Reno as Nevada’s second largest city, is slated to be the primary reliever for corporate aircraft operations, while North Las Vegas continues to cater to the owner-flown, flight-school and tour-operator segments.

Henderson Executive Airport
HND, explained its manager, Tom Donaldson, is in the process
of being “virtually reconstructed.” Donaldson said that at Henderson, site of this year’s NBAA aircraft static display, “everything will be new in two years.”  A more than $30 million investment to construct a terminal building, control tower, new and larger tiedown ramp and car parking lot will make HND the “corporate aircraft airport of choice” for the Las Vegas area, according to its manager. The 18-month project began in late summer.

The 24,000-sq-ft two-story terminal will contain administrative offices and customer service facilities on its first floor. Amenities for corporate flight crews will include a pilot lounge, showers, snooze rooms and flight planning facilities, in short “everything the corporate pilot would want,” noted Donaldson. The upper level will offer leased office and conference space plus “a very nice restaurant that will have an outside terrace” offering a view of the glittering Las Vegas skyline 14 miles to the north. The project will also provide on-site rental car facilities.

HND’s 6,500- by 100-foot Runway 17R-35L is the longest runway in the Clark County airport system excluding runways at McCarran. The parallel Runway 17L-35R (5,000 by 75 feet) entered service in November, replacing the single, 5,000- by 60-foot Runway 18-36 that had served HND since the early 1970s.

“The mission of this airport is to relieve McCarran International of both the smaller general aviation and larger corporate traffic,” noted Donaldson, who has prepared to host approximately 80 aircraft on the NBAA static display line. At 2,492 feet msl, HND lies 2,500 feet beneath the floor of Las Vegas Class B airspace, which simplifies arrival from the west, south or east.

The airport was established by the Alpers family, which obtained its site in the late 1960s and operated it as Las Vegas-Henderson Sky Harbor Airport until Clark County bought it in March 1996.

Under that name the airport had two hangars occupied by air-tour operators. Alpers, whom Donaldson describes as a “salvage expert,” moved the present control tower cab to Henderson from Nellis AFB but did not put it into operation before selling the field. Clark County subsequently activated the structure as an FAA contract tower. The county’s first move was to install a pair of 20,000-gallon above-ground tanks for jet-A and 100LL fuel, replacing underground storage facilities that had the potential to cause environmental problems, Donaldson said.

Henderson Executive logged 73,000 flight operations in 2003, compared with 75,000 the year before. “We’re up about 26 percent so far this year over 2003,” Donaldson noted, based on the more than 51,000 movements recorded in the first seven months of this year.

Increased flight activity is also reflected in fuel sales, with 204,700 gallons of 100LL avgas dispensed in the fiscal year that ended in July, versus 150,400 gallons dispensed just three years earlier. Jet-A volume soared in the same period, up 251 percent “despite our doing no advertising for the airport, because we don’t yet have a lot of space to rent.”

HND pumped 158,400 gallons of jet fuel, up from 63,000 gallons three years ago, evidence of a greatly increased level of turbine aircraft activity. Most of that activity was from transient traffic, since fewer than 10 of the 140 aircraft currently based at HND are turbine-powered.

Cooperative Building Program
That will change when up to 110 more airplanes, many of them kerosene consumers, arrive upon completion of an innovative cooperative program begun in August to construct 95 new hangars varying in size from 1,600 sq ft to 6,000 sq ft. The first are slated for occupancy in April.

Doug McNeeley, manager for the Clark County general aviation airports, said the program is unique to North Las Vegas and Henderson Executive. He explains, “It’s a true public-private partnership between airport management and users that has gotten more than 200 hangars constructed to date. For a long time we had been wishing we could lease people land and they could build their own hangars.”

McNeeley credits previous VGT airport manager Duane Busch with spearheading the cooperative hangar building program, recalling, “He got people who were interested in acquiring hangars together and organized a committee of them with airport management’s help. He provided them with space to meet and administrative support with things like design review, permits and environmental issues.”

The result is a system whereby the county leases land for periods of between five and 32 years, with renewal options, on which leaseholders build hangars. The structures revert to the airport after the lease periods expire if leaseholders choose not to exercise the renewal option.  At HND, Clark County has funded the project’s initial infrastructure portion, for a roadway, taxiway and underground utilities. The hangar tenants’ committee is raising the estimated $7 million to $8 million balance for infrastructure completion.

Clark County is the FBO at HND and VGT, providing all fuel and aircraft parking services. At Henderson there is currently no maintenance and repair facility. “However,” Donaldson says, “We’re in negotiation to bring one in.” The airport hosts King Airlines, a Grand Canyon tour operator flying Cessna 402s, along with two flight schools: Sheble’s Tri-State Aviation and DSA Desert Southwest Airlines.

North Las Vegas Airport
Compared with the leisurely pace of Henderson, on the other side of town North Las Vegas is a beehive of activities ranging from air tour and essential air service providers to flight schools, aeromedical, air freight and government operations. Last year, VGT recorded 227,312 flight operations, making it one of the 100 busiest airports in the nation. Of the 600 aircraft based at VGT, approximately 25 are jets and 30 are turboprops, reports McNeeley.

Its location relative to the Las Vegas Class B airspace and Nellis AFB 12 miles to the east qualifies VGT for an FAA ATC tower with, in McNeeley’s words, “all the bells and whistles.” The North Las Vegas level-2 FAA tower, in service since 2002, is the prototype for general aviation airport towers to be built in other locations. It features the standard terminal automation replacement system (Stars), whose primary benefits include radar inputs from multiple sites such as Los Angeles Center, Las Vegas Tracon and Nellis. Able to provide sophisticated flight monitoring services, VGT controllers use split local radio frequencies for flight operations on the airport’s three runways: 12R-30L (5,000 feet), 7-25 (5,000 feet) and 12L-30R (4,000 feet).

North Las Vegas was dedicated as a civil airport on Dec. 7, 1941. The morning’s ceremonies concluded abruptly when a military airplane landed carrying an order grounding all civilian flights. VGT has subsequently gone through several name and ownership changes. At one time it was the property of Howard Hughes’ Summa Corp. Clark County purchased the airport in 1987 and has operated it since.

A major generator of operations and revenue at North Las Vegas is Scenic Airlines, whose namesake pioneered sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon. Scenic is also a Part 121 operator with Essential Air Service flights to Ely, Nev., and Merced and Palmdale, Calif. The company uses specially modified de Havilland Canada Twin Otters for Grand Canyon tours, and also flies Cessna 402s and Raytheon Beech 1900Cs from its own terminal. Air-tour operators Air Vegas and Vision Air also fly from VGT. Vision Air maintains its own terminal for Part 135 operations with Dornier 228s and Jetstream 32s.

The Las Vegas-area based air-tour operators board “around three-quarters of a million passengers a year,” McNeeley estimates, noting that “The [tour provider] airlines do a tremendous group business, especially with overseas visitors. They offer a number of package tour options that include hotel accommodations, entertainment and surface trips along with the flights.”

Six flight schools keep the VGT traffic pattern busy. ATP, Embry-Riddle, First Flight Aviation, Silver State Helicopters, Silver Wing Aviation and Westair offer fixed- and rotary-wing instruction. The airport hosts a Civil Air Patrol squadron, a Bureau of Land Management firefighting dispatch center and a police air support unit. A Las Vegas television station has its headquarters at VGT.

The airport also supports high-volume overnight freight operations along with aeromedical flights by Mercy Air and Medical Flight air ambulance services. VGT-based Flying Colors of Las Vegas is an aircraft paint shop that McNeeley said is highly regarded.

North Las Vegas has been dispensing about four million gallons of fuel annually, the majority of it jet-A. With year-round conditions McNeeley describes as “severe VFR,” the Las Vegas area has few weather delays. Temperatures range from a winter day average of 55 degrees F to summer day average highs of 104 degrees F and overnight lows around 80 degrees F. The combination of a surface elevation of between 2,200 and 2,500 feet and temperatures often topping 110 between June and September produces density altitudes that limit local general aviation operations to aircraft with “good hot and high performance,” said McNeeley.

Like Henderson, North Las Vegas has plans for extensive improvements. McNeeley noted that at VGT “We’re making a tremendous investment, installing an ILS for Runway 12L and building 65 hangars.  There is also an $8 million project now under way to overlay two runways and build an 18-acre aircraft parking ramp.”

He added that, at North Las Vegas, “We’re a really friendly place. We have pilot social gatherings, with a lot of retirees who fly. And the controllers are really good.”