Sunday, Sept. 26, 1999 | 9:32 a.m.
When Jim Helfrich lands his Cessna 210 at the North Las Vegas Airport, he sees something far different from what was an oasis nearly 40 years ago.
What was once a small airport in the middle of nowhere has become the second busiest airport in the state in terms of takeoffs and landings, with homes and businesses butting up close against the perimeter.
The North Las Vegas Airport is experiencing a soaring amount of air traffic and is set for expansion in the coming months. According to FAA control tower operations, the number of takeoffs and landings at the North Las Vegas Airport peaked in 1995, at 124,546. The number has since fluctuated, resting at 103,828 for 1998.
In light of two recent airplane crashes, one of which killed a pilot and his wife when their single-engine Mooney crashed into a home, some northwest Las Vegas residents living under the airport's flight paths are concerned about the volume of air traffic over their homes and the likelihood of more accidents.
Elizabeth Myers, who owns a home near Decatur Boulevard and Cheyenne Avenue, says the sound of plane engines has become such an everyday part of her life that she can't help but brace herself for a possible crash.
"Those planes come roaring over my house all morning. Sometimes they're flying so low, I think they're going to clip my house," she said, pointing to her stucco roof. "Plus, there's just too much racket."
The airport in North Las Vegas provides an alternative for small aircraft owners and entices them away from McCarran (International Airport), said Randy Walker, director of aviation for Clark County.
The reason is simple: Little planes and big planes don't mix, he said.
"The goal is to provide alternatives for small-aircraft owners and to entice them away from McCarran," Walker said.
Private owners of small planes (general aviation, in airport vernacular) and owners of small commercial aircraft are the primary users of the North Las Vegas Airport, bordered by Cheyenne and Carey avenues, Decatur Boulevard, Rancho Drive, and Simmons Street. Metro Police, which operates a search and rescue helicopter, and the Bureau of Land Management, which maintains a helicopter during fire season, are among the agencies that use the airport.
What is now known as the North Las Vegas Airport has changed hands and names numerous times since it was purchased in 1941 by John and Florence Murphy. Their purchase included 200 acres, which they named Sky Haven Airport.
The airport was later sold to Wes Durston and renamed Thunderbird Field in the late 1950s. During the next 10 years, runways were paved, along with the construction of a shade hangar, an administration office and a restaurant building.
The city of North Las Vegas purchased the airfield's runway and taxi system, and the airfield was renamed the North Las Vegas Air Terminal in 1966. It was sold a year later to the Summa Corp.
On Oct. 1, 1987, Clark County purchased the airport from the Summa Corporation for $16 million. Shortly thereafter, the county spent another $7 million to buy the land surrounding the airport to ensure future compatibility, bringing the total size of the facility to its current 823 acres.
Today, 50 percent of air traffic at the North Las Vegas Airport is flight training, 25 percent is Grand Canyon tour operators, and the remaining 25 percent is private pilot flight activity.
Dan Kristiansen, line services supervisor, spends his days surveying the airport and its perimeter, displaying pride and excitement at the airport where he has worked since 1991.
He easily spouts off the names of the airplanes he passes by, including the Mooney, Cessna and Cherokee, which make up the more than 550 aircraft based at the airport. He points out the experimental aircraft and aquatic aircraft that also call the airport home.
He boasts of the high-rollers who use the corporate hangars, located on what he jokingly calls "skid row," citing Westward-Ho as the company that owns the largest hangar. Many of the corporate-size hangars have room for an office, offer ice-cold air conditioning, and phone lines. There also are T-hangars, for smaller-type airplanes.
He says the airport has the feel of a "small-town airport." The two plane crashes in August hit him hard, he says.
How safe is safe?
The month of August was rocky for the North Las Vegas Airport. There were two crashes in a nine-day period, both on landing approaches to the airport.
Two people died -- the pilot and his wife -- and a second passenger was seriously burned Aug. 20 when a private plane crashed into a northwest Las Vegas home near Torrey Pines Drive and Cheyenne Avenue.
Nine days later, a pilot was forced to put his Cessna 210 down in an unlevel field near the airport on Rancho Drive and Decatur Boulevard after the engine failed. The pilot walked away with minor injuries.
Walker said that like anything else, with an increase in traffic there is always a probability of an accident. But he's quick to point out that excessive traffic was not a factor in the crashes, as both were due to engine failure.
"There's nothing the airport could have done to prevent it (the accidents)," he said, adding that the airport has a below average-accident rate. "The important thing was that no one was injured, except those in the airplane."
Howard Vaughn, Federal Aviation Administration office manager for Southern Nevada and the Grand Canyon, cites the airport's accident rate as below average.
But there are no accident statistics specifically for the North Las Vegas Airport, he said, because the numbers are by district, not airport. According to the FAA administrators fact book, for every 100,000 hours in flight in 1998, the accident rate was .071, for the area including the airports in North Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Tonopah, Henderson, Jean and Kingman.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board web site, the national average for general aviation in 1998 was 7.12 accidents for every 100,000 flight hours.
Kristiansen said that because he knows most of the pilots who fly in and out of the airport, the crashes affected him personally.
"Anytime something like that happens, it gets me in the pit (of my stomach) because we know the people," he said about the highly publicized accidents. "We don't care about the airplane, we're worried about the people.
"It's definitely out of the ordinary. General aviation is very safe."
Vaughn admits there is more manpower and emphasis placed on commercial aircraft, such as the airlines at McCarran and the Grand Canyon Tours in and out of the North Las Vegas Airport.
He said more flight checks are done at McCarran, where there are nearly 800 daily scheduled flights. There are FAA inspectors on hand daily at McCarran, inspecting aircraft, but there are less stringent requirements for general aviation, with only 54 FAA spot checks conducted at the North Las Vegas Airport last year.
"Most of our energy goes into commercial aviation," he said. "That's where the taxpayers want us to spend their money. With our limited resources, we try to do the best we can."
Vaughn says that as operating funds decrease, there aren't as many resources available to put as much emphasis toward general aviation.
"Twenty years ago, we used to do the same thing for general aviation," Vaughn said. "But everyone's downsizing and we have to target our resources."
And bringing an FAA office to the North Las Vegas Airport is just impossible, he said.
"We're responsible for half of the state of Nevada and the Grand Canyon Airport," he said. "There's just no way we could be based at all those airports. It would be great if I could have a satellite office at North Las Vegas, but it's just not going to happen."
Because of the dwindling relationship between the FAA and the general aviation airport, the FAA presents seminars and training programs to pilots. The pilots aren't required to attend, but they are offered incentives if they do participate.
Who's behind the controls?
Because the FAA only conducts random spot checks on planes at the North Las Vegas Airport, safety is left to the responsibility of the pilots.
Jim Hlavaty, chief instructor for the North Las Vegas Flying Club, said pilots conduct a handful of checks before they leave the airport runway.
Before takeoff, he said, the pilot checks the weather conditions and then conducts a pre-flight check, examining the aircraft, nose to tail, for any mechanical damage. The last step is to brief passengers on procedures.
Private pilots must go also through a demanding process to get their license, he said.
To receive a private pilot's license, applicants must have a minimum of 40 hours instruction with a certified flight instructor. Hlavaty said the average is usually 60 hours. At least 20 of those hours must be spent flying with an instructor and a minimum of 10 hours solo time.
The soon-to-be pilots are given extensive training, including three hours of instrument training, two cross country trips of at least 100 miles and five hours of solo cross country flying.
After they have satisfied the training, they are given a written test and a flight test.
While a private pilot's license is good "forever," Hlavaty said, general aviation pilots must submit to medical exams every 36 months if they are under 40. Every 24 months, the pilot is required to get together with a flight instructor for ground and flight review.
"I think it is a very adequate system," Hlavaty said. "Everyone here is very passionate about flying. We do have aggressive and adventurous pilots, but we don't have any reckless individuals."
The North Las Vegas Airport is preparing to undergo more changes in the next year, with plans for construction of a third but shorter runway, and possible expansions on the east side of the airport.
"The future is more of what's already there," Walker said. "As the community grows, there will be more of a demand for (general aviation) services."
He said that residents need not worry about larger-type aircraft ever becoming a staple at the airport.
"You can rest assured that there won't be any large, commercial jets on the runway," he said, laughing.
The types of planes that will continue to be common at the airport will remain small, private aircraft for pilots like Helfrich, who fly for enjoyment and as a hobby.
During the early mornings, Helfrich, who works for Twin Otter International, spends time in an airport hangar with co-worker Leonard Shina, working on one of his hobbies -- building planes. The two are building a replica of a 1917 wooden, vintage plane as part of a display for Grand Canyon Tours.
Since the late '50s, Helfrich has been flying his plane out of the North Las Vegas Airport, and he has witnessed many changes.
"Improvements have really changed the airport," he said. "Since the county took over the airport, they fixed runways, taxiways and hangars that we never had before. Now, we have a lot of facilities, and it's a really nice airport."