Comment: Regional airports, small planes a lifeline for state

Our state has long depended on general aviation. That importance has only grown during the pandemic.

By Alan Barnard / For The Herald

The covid pandemic has forced our nation to face unprecedented challenges with regard to monitoring and treatment delivery.

With vaccines rolling out, we can finally begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel; however, this roll-out hasn’t been without its challenges. The first two vaccines that were approved in the U.S. are very fragile. One must be used within 30 days, when refrigerated, and another must be kept at freezer temperatures of minus-60 degrees Celsius. Poor road conditions can threaten the transportation of these vaccines, and if they fall outside of the specific time or temperature window, they are unusable. This is a particular threat to rural communities, which often depend heavily on ground transportation.

Thankfully, our nation is home to a vast network of airports, as well as general aviation aircraft, which can serve as an important part of our national transportation network.

General aviation aircraft are typically used by business, agriculture and emergency services alike, but during this pandemic they have served a vital purpose in the distribution of vaccines. Just recently it was reported that the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, has been leveraging its network of pilots and general aviation aircraft to transport vaccines all across the country.

In Alaska, general aviation aircraft have been at the forefront of vaccine distribution to some of the most remote parts of the state. Even in normal times, general aviation is critical to helping people during natural disasters and emergencies.

In Clallam County, for example, we have a trained and experienced volunteer aerial response group ready to spring to action. Our group, the Clallam County Disaster Airlift Response Team, or DART, is a volunteer group of pilots who utilize small aircraft to transport supplies and personnel whenever a disaster strikes. The Clallam County DART’s primary objectives are to assist aerial reconnaissance, and transporting personnel and resources, such as food, medicine, and other supplies.

During this pandemic, we are prepared to transport supplies, including vaccines, to different parts of the county on a moment’s notice, should a disaster strike or the roads become unusable. When disasters do occur, our pilots can directly reach communities in need, and make multiple trips if needed. Several other areas in Washington have DARTs as well with similar missions.

It’s not just emergency services, however; there are more than 5,000 airports across the country, and each one of them plays an important role in supporting commerce, food production, agriculture, companies large and small and communities of all sizes.

For example here in Washington, MagniX is developing electric-powered aircraft engines, which will support local jobs and economic growth. Six airports were recently named by the state Department of Transportation as test sites for electric aircraft. Northwest Advanced Bio-Fuels is researching ways to use forest bio-mass to make sustainable aviation fuel, a bio-fuel blend, available to operators as a means to support air travel. Even today, sustainable aviation fuel is available at Boeing Field-King County International Airport.

As our national and local leaders consider transportation needs and priorities in the months ahead, let’s be sure to keep in mind the importance of airports large and small, all sectors of aviation, as well as the critical need to invest in our future so our communities and economy can not only recover but grow during this critical time.

Alan Barnard is chairman and founder of the Clallam County Disaster Airlift Response Team in Port Angeles.

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