Barry Marsden, the president and chief executive officer of Conair, said last week that he chose Spokane as the new base for his U.S. jet firefighter planes because of the training and skill of aircraft mechanics in the region, among other reasons.
Marsden came to Spokane for a formal announcement on Thursday that his Aero-Flite Inc. operation will be based at Spokane International Airport in a former Air National Guard hangar renovated by the airport for $2.2 million.
The company will have an anticipated workforce of 65 employees in Spokane and plans to hire about 50 locally. Aero-Flite will be able to draw from graduates of Spokane Community College’s aviation maintenance technology program as well as veteran military mechanics from Fairchild Air Force Base.
Marsden said the airport’s facilities and its convenient connections to major airline routes was another reason for choosing Spokane. He said his employees will be able to travel easily between jobs, and then can enjoy the convenience of air travel to and from Spokane during their off time. Marsden also said Spokane’s lifestyle was appealing.
“We really do feel the warmth and welcome of Spokane,” he told a crowd that gathered in the Aero-Flite hangar for the company announcement.
Gov. Jay Inslee said Aero-Flite’s arrival is part of a statewide effort to recruit aerospace employers and diversify the state’s aviation sector. Global climate change may bring more wildfires to the region like the devastating fires last summer, Inslee said.
Aero-Flite will overhaul between six and 10 of its air tankers during late fall and winter in Spokane. During firefighting season, the hangar will be a base for repairs and parts distribution.
Conair, based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, operates Aero-Flite under contract with the U.S. Forest Service for wildfire suppression.
This year, it deployed its modified Avro RJ85 air tanker for the first time. As many as five of those four-engine jets will come to Spokane by next spring.
The aircraft is equipped with a tank that curves around the lower fuselage fore and aft of the main landing gear.
The RJ85 was used to fight the devastating Carlton Complex fires in the Methow Valley last summer, the largest wildfire in state history. The aircraft flew out of Moses Lake, Marsden said.
The RJ85 can dump 3,000 gallons of phosphate fertilizer mixed with water on each flight. The mix is loaded from an air base closest to the fire.
The mix lowers the combustion temperature of gases coming off burning trees and brush and then coats the fuel with a char that prevents it from reigniting. That allows ground crews to enter the area safely for a time, said Jeff Barry, manager of business development for Aero-Flite.
The retardant, he said, “tricks the fuel into releasing its gas early.”
The modified commuter jet is capable of dropping retardant at a relatively slow speed of 138 mph, but it travels to and from fires at a cruising speed of about 438 mph.
That speed allows the aircraft to be dispatched over long distances and reduces the amount of time it takes to get a tanker over a new wildfire.
Marsden said one of the jets recently went to Australia for firefighting.
He said the Spokane base will be used in the company’s aggressive maintenance schedule. “The airplanes are over-maintained,” he said. “We are like a firetruck.”
A critical element in attracting Aero-Flite to Spokane was a ruling from the state’s Department of Commerce that its fleet would not be subject to the state’s leasehold property tax, said Spokane County Commissioner Al French, chairman of the Airport Board. He said the exemption is allowed because the company is contracting its firefighting service instead of renting aircraft.
Thanksgiving travel expected to be down
A sluggish economy is being cited by AAA for an expected decline in travel this Thanksgiving holiday.
AAA said in its holiday travel forecast that 43.4 million Americans are likely to travel 50 miles or more from home over the five-day period starting Wednesday.
That represents a decline of 1.5 percent over the 44 million who ventured out last Thanksgiving.
The decline is even greater for air travel, which is expected to be down by 3.7 percent to 3.14 million air travelers this year.
Automobiles will carry 38.9 million travelers, down from 39.5 million last year.
AAA said lower gasoline prices might entice travelers, but a lot of Americans are still uncertain about the direction of the economy and that is causing more of them to forgo travel this holiday.
Thanksgiving has a history of being the least expensive for holiday spending, and this year’s spending will be even less, AAA said.
The survey showed that average travel spending will be down 7 percent to $465 this year. That compares with $804 for Labor Day, $749 for Independence Day and $659 for Memorial Day.
Wednesday will be the busiest day on the roads and in the skies as 37 percent of holiday travelers will depart for their journeys then.
The average trip will be 601 miles, which represents an increase of 2.2 percent from last year’s 588 miles.
AAA projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Global Insight.
Region likely to get decent holiday weather
In the Inland Northwest, travelers can expect reasonably good travel weather, according to the National Weather Service.
Higher air pressure is expected to develop over the region at midweek and hold off any major storms until the end of the week or early next week.
The weather should range from cloudy to partly sunny with highs in the lower 40s and lows near freezing in Spokane.
Traffic congestion, restrictions in store
In Spokane, expect lane restrictions westbound on Spokane Falls Boulevard at River Park Square on Fridays and Saturdays through the holiday shopping season.
State highways south of Spokane may see traffic congestion on Saturday as football fans travel to Pullman for the Apple Cup. Congestion is likely on state Highways 26 and 27 as well as U.S. Highway 195. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
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