Efforts to revitalize Mott Airport following several years of neglect is a focus of attention for the City of Dunsmuir.
A recent spike in interest followed a recommendation by interim city manager Randy Johnsen at the April 16 city council meeting to create an ad hoc airport advisory committee.
The committee of three citizen pilots and two council members has been meeting weekly for the past six months to prioritize improvement projects, determine sources of funding and establish a plan.
Some ideas for improvements that committee member have brought up at city council meetings include repairing cracks on the runway, fixing leaky hangars, supplying fuel and offering a car rental service.
Economic development, tourism and having a safe place for pilots to land in emergency situations are all reasons to maintain Dunsmuir’s airport, committee members said in separate interviews.
“From the economic development side, the council's goal of growing the city is supported by having a functioning airport that can support flights from Dunsmuir to San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento,” said council member Bruce Deutsch.
In addition to creating fast access to Silicon Valley, the airport has potential to serve as a location for car rental services.
Dunsmuir Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Richard Dinges said the city is trying to work with Caltrans to obtain a fleet of electric cars. The cars would be spread throughout the city, including the airport and Amtrak station. “The more the airport becomes self-sufficient, the more it helps the community,” Dinges said.
Ed Miller, a retired orthopedic surgeon who has kept a plane at Mott Airport for 30 years, referred to the airport as, “another gateway to the City of Dunsmuir. Properly promoted and maintained, it could provide an attractive destination for sportsmen and vacationers seeking to enjoy our mountains and streams.”
Miller said, “People who can afford an airplane often have money to spend on recreation, benefitting innkeepers, restaurants, merchants and guides in our area.”
Dinges added that Mott Airport serves not only Dunsmuir, but Mount Shasta as well. “We have to stop looking at ourselves as separate communities and look at us as a whole area that we want people to visit,” he said.
Mott Airport serves a vital role in providing firefighters, and potentially medical professionals, with a place to land.
“It has served us well on multiple occasions as a fire attack helicopter base,” Miller said.
Deutsch said the city is under contract to support firefighting with a nominal rental fee based on the number of aircraft.
“While it is not being used at the moment as a landing spot for medflights, it has been in the past, may again be in the future, and is there as necessary for that purpose,” Deutsch said.
Another safety function of Mott Airport is to provide an emergency landing site for civilian aircraft. Deutsch said that is the primary reason the airport was constructed in the 1930s.
Miller explained how the atmosphere surrounding Mount Shasta can create hazardous weather that makes landing at Weed’s airport unsafe.
“Mount Shasta can generate impressive local weather phenomena with deadly consequences for light aircraft and their pilots and passengers,” Miller said. “Local pilots have great respect for what we sometimes call the ‘Weed Wall.’ This maelstrom of clouds and severe turbulence may extend from the ground to cloud tops tens of thousands of feet above.”
He explained how poor visibility due to clouds in Dunsmuir can make retreat back down the Sacramento River canyon impossible. “Dunsmuir Airport is a life-saving rescue opportunity for pilots caught in this trap,” Miller said.
Ed Steele, Dunsmuir’s former mayor, former council member and 2014 Citizen of the Year, was on the airport committee five years ago when he said the decision was made to “pull the plug” on Mott Airport.
“The deal was we had grants from the FAA but didn’t have the matching funds that historically had been covered by state grants,” Steele said.
He was referring to an annual grant from the FAA of $150,000 to maintain the airport.
Deutsch clarified that the FAA provides 90% of that $150,000 grant. Of the remaining 10%, the state covered 5% and the city was responsible for the other 5%.
When the recession hit, Steele said the state cut back on the matching funds, “so the city was in a position where they didn’t have the money to make the match to get the grants.”
Deutsch said the state’s failure to match funding only happened once.
When asked what the city would do if a similar situation arose, Deutsch replied, “I got the firm impression that was a one-time glitch. The equation now seems fixed at 90-5-5. If we experience another shortfall like that, I can now see that all we would need to do is hold off on starting a new project until we could work out the math.”
Miller explained that abandoning the airport would be more expensive than maintaining it.
“Most citizens don’t realize that the airport is one of the city’s more valuable capital assets, with a current valuation of almost $2.5 million. It has been largely funded by state and federal grants which must be paid back at a depreciated rate of if the airport is closed,” he said. “Keeping the airport operational is far less expensive than closing it.”