For many local families, the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport played a silent but no less critical role in today’s Christmas celebrations.
This is particularly true, according to airport officials, if one or more presents unwrapped by happy loved ones this morning was purchased online earlier this month as part of holiday shopping meant to save both time and money.
Like-minded consumers across the nation made more than $29 billion in online purchases this holiday season – $1.028 billion alone on “Cyber Monday” – and in the process set the stage for what industry insiders predicted would be record volume days for delivery services such as FedEx and UPS.
Indeed, according to statistics provided by internetretailer.com, UPS predicted Wednesday, Dec. 22 would be its busiest single day, with drivers delivering an additional 24 million packages to households and businesses, for a 60 percent increase over normal daily delivery volume.
FedEx cited Monday, Dec. 20 as its busiest day, with 16 million packages going out to consumers in that 24-hour period alone and an estimated 63.1 million expected to be delivered throughout the week.
Combined, FedEx and UPS were expected to deliver more than 653 million parcels by Christmas.
At least several thousand of those packages – thanks largely to the local online shoppers opting for the overnight and express shipping options – were funneled through the FedEx Ground, FedEx Express and UPS Air Freight offices at the ESRA, where an estimated 278,000 packages are flown in or out year-round.
According to Lead Airport Technician Ken Babione, the delivery services are but two companies utilizing the Bishop airport for commercial purposes, and just one example in which the county-operated facility fulfills a vital, behind-the-scenes service.
What’s more, the various commercial enterprises tied up in the facility make the ESRA a major – if often overlooked – contributor to the local economy via fuel sales, the tourists it brings in for recreational purposes, several businesses located on-site and taxes from sought-after hangar space.
“We certainly add to the local economy in a number of ways,” Babione said.
Buzzing with Business
While the airport accommodates daily FedEx and UPS freight flights, the ESRA is first and foremost dedicated to general aviation.
The term “general aviation” applies to the operation of civilian aircraft for purposes other than commercial passenger transport, including personal, business and instructional flying.
Many of these pilots – at present more than 60 (with plenty more on a waiting list) – rent hangar space at the airport.
But the ESRA also hosts its fair share of charter flights – planes transporting either eager tourists to the Eastern Sierra or business executives and professionals who would rather shell out the additional money for a quick flight than lose valuable time to a five- to 10-hour drive.
According to Babione, governmental agencies – whether it’s the U.S. Forest Service and its firefighting air tankers, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and its surveillance helicopters or the U.S. Military and its helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft used by pilots in training or in transit – also utilize the airport for fuel and other vital services.
The ESRA additionally plays host to annual glider exhibitions and the occasional vintage aircraft displays, in addition to public events such as the annual Fourth of July Fireworks Show.
The facility is also home to Sierra Aviation Life Flight, an air ambulance service; Thai Thai Restaurant, a popular eatery frequented by pilots, passengers and locals alike; Hangar One Aircraft Maintenance; and Black Mountain Air Service, a charter service offering passenger transport, scenic flights, aircraft rental and instruction, and assistance with wildlife surveys for the California Department of Fish and Game and Bureau of Land Management.
“Every part of the community is involved in some way with the airport,” Babione said.
In mid-January, the ESRA will host the Eastern Sierra’s second free ground school for residents interested in some day earning their pilots’ licenses. Offered by Geoff Pope of Black Mountain Air Service and Aaron Sallee of Sierra Life Flight, the first ground school in early 2009 attracted approximately 20 students, 15 of whom completed the course with five going on to take the written test. Of those, Sallee said, two or three are still taking flying lessons.
According to Sallee, the course attracted a “mix” of prospective pilots – from teenagers interested in becoming commercial pilots to retirees seeking to pursue lifelong passions.
A former FedEx pilot who also logged time flying corporate jets, Sallee said the airport’s role in the community, particularly via its many commercial endeavors, “is very subtle.”
“Most people who come to the airport are private pilots who are flying for leisure or travel,” he said. “But there’s a lot of commercial action out there, and not what people think when they hear commercial flights, which is airlines.”
By the Numbers
Situated on 800 acres of LADWP land east of the City of Bishop and west of the Owens River, the ESRA is operated 362 days a year, seven days a week by a staff of two full-time employees and one part-time employee, who are also on-call year-round, 24 hours a day.
The airport claims 7.5 miles of lighted runways – three in all – plus several taxiways, hangar space, a pilot’s lounge, fueling station and various other equipment and buildings all maintained by airport staff.
The facility’s amenities, the Owens Valley’s ideal weather conditions (“You can fly in or out 300-plus days of the year,” Babione said), the airport’s almost equidistant location between L.A. and Reno and its proximity to the Bay Area and Central Valley make it a heavily trafficked airport, not to mention a prime destination for those wanting to visit the Eastern Sierra.
Additionally, each winter sees about a couple dozen or more charter flights bound for the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport diverted to the ESRA because of inclement weather.
“One night we had 10 aircraft on the field at once and 50 passengers in the terminal,” Babione said. “They started coming in around quitting time and were here until 9 at night until we could arrange enough ground transportation to Mammoth.”
In 2009, the airport logged approximately 40 daily aircraft operations (i.e., takeoffs and landings) and 50 daily emplanements (i.e., passengers boarding and exiting), for a total of 10,400 annual aircraft operations and 13,000 annual emplanements.
According to Babione, about a third of those emplanements were commercial in nature – either charter planes or general aviation pilots flying for commercial purposes.
Geoff Pope, owner of Black Mountain Air Service, falls under both categories.
Flying the Friendly Skies – and Making Money
“I put in a whole career doing something different,” Pope said, “this was following up on something I enjoy and wanted to do.”
Pope moved to the Eastern Sierra in 1982, earned his pilot’s license in 1985 and obtained a commercial license in the mid-’90s – something he said he did in order to keep advancing in his pilot’s ratings and skill levels.
“At the time I didn’t plan on opening a business,” he said, “but now, today, you can’t do business without that commercial license.”
Pope opened Black Mountain Air Service in 2005. Today, he devotes much of his time to contract work for the DFG, helping biologists track by air radio-collared bighorn sheep, mule deer and mountain lions. Pope also conducts support flights for periodic helicopter captures of bighorns and deer by the DFG, and helps track radio-collared sage grouse in the Bodie Hills area for the DGF and BLM working in concert with one another.
Pope estimated he conducts approximately 2-3 of these types of charter flights a month.
During the fall, he takes LADWP crews and biologists on approximately six flights as they monitor local reservoirs and conduct bird counts.
Additionally, he currently provides private flight instruction to four full-time students, and has close to 10-15 active renters who take advantage of the Cessna 172 he makes available for such purposes.
Pope is also busy taking professional photographers and the like on approximately 15-20 scenic flights a year.
The more traditional charter flight portion of Pope’s business – transporting passengers to and from the Eastern Sierra for personal or business reasons – is the only side of his enterprise that appears to be slowing down.
For example, Pope said he received a call from a gentleman who needed to be flown back and forth between Mammoth and the Bay Area last winter. When Pope quoted his price, the gentleman declined as the fee was beyond his budget.
“The demand is there,” Pope said, “but the money is not.”
In general, Pope said he has seen less pilots – both private and commercial – flying the friendly skies of the Eastern Sierra.
“These are not great times economically and when people are feeling the money crunch, one of the first things to go” is expensive hobbies such as airplanes, he explained. “And if you go back several years, there were more people making a living doing what I’m doing today. It’s sad, but true.”
According to Babione, last year’s emplanement and aircraft operations numbers certainly aren’t the highest the ESRA has ever logged, but they’re not the lowest, either.
“That’s an average number in this economic climate,” Babione said. “I think all air operations have slowed down at general aviation airports.”
The cost of maintaining and flying a plane in today’s economic climate hasn’t deterred the dozens of pilots vying for hangar space at ESRA.
Of the 60 total available spaces for rent, 18 are leased out to private pilots by Sierra Aviation and 42 are leased by the ESRA.
“In the 10 years that I’ve been here, we haven’t had any vacant hangar space,” Babione said.
The 40-50 outside tie-down spaces are also full, with some aircraft tied down on a permanent basis.
Michael House, a resident of Paradise, has been on the waiting list for hangar space for seven years.
Much like Peter Tracy, legal counsel for the City of Bishop and private practice attorney, House pursued flying as a passion and soon found it an invaluable business tool.
“I’d always wanted to fly and had been looking for a good instructor for a long time, and like most pilots, there came a time for me when I had the money, time and interest simultaneously and I was blessed to meet (instructor) Rod Philbrook,” said House, who earned his license in 2004, two years after relocating to the Eastern Sierra from Southern California to accommodate his wife’s new job.
An electrical engineer by trade whose consultant work with railroads and electrical distributors resulted in 1,000-page technical “handbooks,” House had by then started his own company, Time Rider Technologies, Inc.
He telecommuted as much as possible from the couple’s home, but found that frequent face-to-face meetings with clients all over the country were unavoidable.
Instead of driving to the Reno Airport and catching a flight to Pueblo, Colo., for instance, House finds he can fly there himself for about the same cost but in far less time. A five-hour drive to the Central Valley, meanwhile, takes an hour by plane, and is both faster and less expense.
Basically, House said, he prefers to fly himself to business meetings located anywhere “west of the Mississippi.”
On most trips, House can “go to a meeting and back in the same day, sleep in my own bed and skip hotel costs,” he said. “Once you make the decision to live in the Owens Valley you have to find a way to make it work, and flying is one of the ways you can make it work.”
And from a personal standpoint, flying allows House to visit his family, especially his elderly parents, more often and even permitted him to attend loved ones’ funerals during a particularly busy period in his life.
“This plane makes it possible to be there and I’m really appreciative of that part,” House said.
Pumping Money into County Coffers
Much like the demand for hangar space, fuel sales at ESRA shouldn’t decline any time soon.
Earlier this year, and thanks to some top-notch work by Inyo County Account Technician Cindy Truelson, the Department of Defense renewed a four-year contract with the ESRA worth an estimated 163,400 gallons of fuel through May 2014.
According to Babione, aircraft from San Diego, Camp Pendleton and Edwards Air Force Base regularly stop in to refuel at the ESRA on training missions and other flights.
The airport’s somewhat central location also makes it a prime refueling spot for other aircraft.
In 2009, according to Inyo County Public Works Director Ted Pedersen, the airport sold approximately 90,532 gallons of Jet A fuel to non-military entities and 43,107 gallons to the military. The ESRA sold approximately 45,019 gallons of 100 low lead in 2009.
From May to Nov. 30 of this year, the ESRA sold 50,205 gallons of Jet A to the military and approximately 60,000 gallons of Jet A to non-military entities, Babione said.
It’s difficult to quantify the county’s profits based on these fuel sales in dollar amounts, Babione said, because fuel prices fluctuate. Pedersen said the county adds a mark-up on whatever the fuel was originally purchased for.
Babione said the sales should basically be viewed as revenue for the county.
An Invaluable Resource
“It’s a great airport and a great location for an airport,” Pope said, perhaps best summarizing the ESRA’s appeal to both pilots and commercial entities.
Whatever their reason for stopping at the Bishop facility, or storing their planes in one of the coveted hangars there, passengers and pilots alike are helping to keep alive what Babione, Pedersen, Pope, Sallee and House agree is one of Inyo County’s most overlooked resources – economic and otherwise
On the day of his interview at the airport, House noted a Sierra Life Flight plane had landed shortly after 5:30 a.m., presumably returning from transporting a patient to a Reno area hospital.
“That kind of stuff is going on all the time and people just don’t realize it,” House said.
“You hear the occasional plane flying over town but you’d be amazed how much action is really going on out here,” Babione said. “I know I certainly pay more attention now that I work here. When I hear a plane overhead, now I always look up.”