North Carolina faces cuts to aviation funds

 - January 30, 2007, 10:16 AM

Even as officials of the North Carolina Department of Transportation celebrated the centennial of manned flight at ceremonies on the Outer Banks on December 17, a state audit issued three weeks earlier was recommending some extensive cost-cutting measures with regard to the state’s aircraft operations.

Various North Carolina agencies operate 68 aircraft owned by the state. Six more medical emergency aircraft are maintained and supported by the state for the University of North Carolina’s Area Health Education Centers. The airplanes range from a Cessna Citation Bravo operated by the executive aircraft division to a fleet of 11 Bell JetRangers assigned to the Highway Patrol. The largest fleet operated by the state by far belongs to the state’s division of forest resources, which has 37 aircraft–a mix of smaller airplanes and helicopters. The total value of the aircraft owned and supported by the state is approximately $26.98 million, and annual operating costs are estimated at $8.191 million.

A source at the Department of Transportation described the audit as “sound,” and said that particular agency had already begun working on some of the cost-cutting measures recommended. “Others we will look at in depth and work with other agencies to implement,” she said.

State auditor Ralph Campbell said the state might save $5 million by selling three airplanes and merging airborne assets of other state agencies that operate aircraft. It also suggested that the state could save taxpayer money by building a state-owned hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport at a cost of $3.5 million, resulting in an annual saving of $261,000 in hangar rentals.

The audit also singled out what it described as an inefficient schedule for pilots at the Departments of Commerce and Transportation that allowed them to claim overtime for hours worked beyond the normal eight-to-five workday. “While they are on call for a 40-hour week, they do not report to work unless they have a flight scheduled. This,” said the report, “is in contrast with the pilots of other agencies who have additional duties assigned when not flying.”

Two of three Cessna Conquest IIs operated by the state DOT’s aviation division are equipped for aerial mapping by the department’s photogrammetry division, which employs about 70 people. A source at the division said the loss of the three Conquests would not affect the photogrammetry program, which could make use of aircraft operated by other North Carolina government agencies.

The history of manned flight has its earliest roots in North Carolina, beginning with the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk 100 years ago. On the state’s automobile license plates are stamped the words, “First in Flight.”