MACHIAS, Maine — A group of advocates is pushing for improvements to the Machias Valley Airport that members say could save lives.
An airport committee was formed this past spring to rally support from the Machias Board of Selectmen for the municipal airport, which represents a $13,000 annual line item on the Machias town budget.
“We don’t have any money at all,” said committee Chairman Mike Radeka. “We’re counting on the town to pay the bills. … Right now, what we’re doing is just volunteering our time.”
The group is open to anyone interested in reversing the trend of “neglect” and making the airport more viable to the community, group members say.
“If the airport were to have a longer runway, better instrument approach, lighting and good surface conditions … then it drastically increases the odds of our ability to provide critical care to the people of Washington County,” said LifeFlight paramedic Josh Dickson, who is one of the airport committee members.
He said the airport needs to extend its 2,909-foot runway by 600 feet in order to accommodate LifeFlight’s new fixed-wing aircraft.
“We just put the airplane in service three months ago, but even if it had been three years ago, we still could not reliably use that airport in its current state,” he said.
Helicopters can and do take patients without the limitations of runway length. However, most civilian helicopters cannot fly in freezing conditions because they don’t have rotor blade anti-icing systems, he said.
In addition, fixed-wing aircraft fly at twice the speed of helicopters, making it more efficient to use them for longer distances such as when flying a patient to Boston.
Committee member Ben Edwards, a self-employed business consultant, said the airport also is important to businesses in the area.
Recently, Edwards, a resident of Machias, attended a business meeting in Boston. Because he had to drive to another airport and be there early, catch a flight, disembark and then travel to the destination by car, he “burned” 16 hours for that one-hour meeting, he said.
He said he believes he could make the same trip in five hours with his own plane, using the Machias airport.
Summer people fly in for a week and spend money in the area, said Radeka, adding that it’s important for the area’s economy to make it easy for them to continue.
Pilot Dale Stewart flew in from Augusta on July 16 to pick up Larry L. Barker, president and CEO of Machias Savings Bank, and Ed Hennessey, chairman of the board at Machias Savings Bank, who were on their way to Boston for a business meeting.
“This airport is definitely needed because otherwise these people would be driving however far it is to Boston,” said Stewart of Maine Instrument Flight, a charter service.
Hennessey and Barker said they need the airport for their business to exist because it’s essential for them to travel among the bank’s 18 branches, located from Caribou to Portland.
In June, the committee set a number of short-term goals for improvements such as free Wi-Fi access, portable toilets and the repair of a rotating beacon that helps pilots locate the airport at night. At a June 24 meeting, the selectmen pledged their support but did not offer any additional money.
However, the town did agree to portable toilets, and one has been installed. The town also gave the committee members permission to access the beacon, which had not been working for a year and a half, for estimates on repair or replacement.
Radeka said he and a contractor found a bird’s nest inside the beacon that was preventing it from operating properly. The nest has been removed, and the beacon works again.
The group is working with private companies to see if one will donate the Wi-Fi.
It also began a Facebook page for the airport. Radeka said he posts photos of local landmarks taken while flying and these tend to be Facebook favorites.
Lengthening the runway and improving instrumentation also are on the committee’s list of goals, though these will require more capital as well as approval from the selectmen.
Another goal requiring capital is to get hangars installed. Currently, planes are merely parked outside, some with tarps over them.
If the airport had hangars, pilots could rent them, generating income for the airport, committee members said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is willing to spend up to $150,000 per year on any airport, provided the airport can provide 5 percent matching funds and obtain another 5 percent from the state, said Dr. James Whalen, committee member and Machias selectman.
Matching funds can be in-kind services. For example, if a business were to donate time and equipment for removing trees where the runway would be extended, the value of the work could be considered part of the matching funds, Whalen said.
The airport has up to four years to spend its yearly allotment, so it could raise $600,000 in four years.
The group is looking for anyone interested in donating cash or in-kind services that could count toward the airport’s 5 percent match so it can make plans to get some of the bigger ticket items done.
“We see the airport committee talking to anybody who wants to help us with the airport,” said Whalen.
“It’s difficult to [quantify] the economic benefit of [the airport], but the lives that are saved are easy to count,” Edwards said.