Among the many residents and groups watching the upcoming local election closely will be flight enthusiasts who are eager to return to the skies at Hemet-Ryan Airport.
Despite a successful challenge of Riverside County’s attempts to ban glider pilots from using Hemet-Ryan Airport, many still feel grounded.
“This is still a very sensitive issue. We may have won the legal battle, but (elected officials) are going to win at the micro-level,” said Larry Tuohino, president of the Orange County Soaring Association.
Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, whose Third District encompasses the area, led the effort to boot glider pilots from Hemet-Ryan in the fall of 2009. The then-board chairman said sailplane operations were incompatible with the county’s plans to modernize the airport and conflicted with firefighting missions – to the point of creating safety concerns.
The county’s Economic Development Agency, which manages the airfield, evicted the roughly four-dozen glider pilots who paid rent to keep their planes there.
Pilots protested the county’s moves, noting that sailplane flying had been going on at Hemet-Ryan since the mid-1960s.
Members of the Orange County Soaring Association hired an attorney, and a formal complaint was filed with the FAA, prompting an investigation, according to a City News Service report.
Federal officials determined that the county’s closure of the 2,000-foot runway dedicated to glider operations was based on “flawed or unsupported” reasons.
The victory was a hollow one, Tuohino said, noting that the new, elevated costs to rent space and structural changes to the facility have made it too difficult for pilots to pursue their passion for flight.
According to a City News Service report, the new regulations restrict glider operations — takeoffs and landings — to runway 4/22, reserving the airfield’s longer runway, 5/23, to powered aircraft.
Under the new standards, sailplane operators will be required to:
– monitor and communicate on the VHF radio frequency that all local air traffic use;
– avoid the grassy space between the two runways;
– never use the vacant space on the northeast end of runway 4/22, except in emergencies;
– park in areas specifically designated for gliders; and
– cease departures and arrivals when they conflict with Cal Fire air attack operations.
“They took a culture and obliterated it. Soaring is the first way people got into aviation. The county has lost an asset it doesn’t understand,” Tuohino said.
Colby Cataldi, assistant director for the Environmental Development Agency, said: “The airport is completely open to the community.”
Cataldi said that the glider runway is seldom used, but that tie-down or lease agreements are an option for pilots.
“We are a public airport, but it’s not for free,” Cataldi said.
Larry said: “We fought for two years and got the legal definition we wanted. Everyone has been exceedingly pleasant, but we have been stonewalled with a smile.”
For now, Tuohino said he and other soaring enthusiasts are hoping that the upcoming election will send kinder, gentler political winds their way.
“We’ll see if the political climate changes and things cool down. Maybe there will be a change in supervisors and we will have a new face that we can talk to about coming back (to Hemet-Ryan Airport),” Tuohino said.
Kerri S. Mabee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter @kerrimabee.