The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Votes pass for Ontonagon airport weather system


Jan Tucker/Daily Globe

Trent Tell Lead Pilot, Valley Med Flight and pilot for  Delta Airlines, described the benefit of an AWOS III system for the Ontonagon County Airport. He described how the Med flights use  the system to determine if they can pick up patients in certain area and then safely transport patients to medical centers.


Ontonagon - The Ontonagon County Court room Tuesday was full of supporters for the installation of an Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS III) at the Ontonagon County Airport. As a result, when the final vote was tallied, the Ontonagon County Commissioners voted 4-1 to support the installation and resulting upkeep of the system. The federal share of the project would be $165,000 with the five percent of the required county total of $26,184 to come from the Carl Thornton Endowment Fund, which Thornton left to the county for airport improvements. Ontonagon County would be responsible for the $6,000 to $8,000 annual maintenance fee.

Trent Tell, lead pilot of Valley Med Flight Inc. Iron Mountain and a pilot for Delta Airlines, detailed the steps taken when called to transfer hospital patients to a medical center. He said he has five minutes to determine the weather to see if the plane can land and depart in that area and checks many weather reports. He stressed the difference in weather conditions in Houghton and Ironwood from Ontonagon. "The AWOS III is the minimum requirement as a commercial operation to depart with a patient," he said.

Tell also added that if a plane goes to Ontonagon to pick up a patient and then finds it cannot land because of weather, the 45 minutes that has elapsed is time that could have been spent driving a patient to care, or driving to another airport for passage.

While many speakers spoke on the medical reasons for the AWOS III installation, several presented other reasons the county should support the installation.

Alan Ralph, a member of the Ontonagon Economic Development Corporation and Downtown Development Corporation, pointed to the economic effects upgrades would bring. He said real estate developers have already inquired about airport facilities. He noted Aspirus Hospital has already made a big investment in the community and economic development would be helped with an open commercial airport.

Dave Anderson, Director of Environmental and Regulatory Affairs for Aquila Resources, noted that airports are part of the infrastructure that investors look at, particularly in the mining industry.

Dan Sullivan, Ontonagon, a commercial pilot, said if the weather system is installed at the airport he intends to build a 4,200 foot hanger for commercial transit and make hanger space available for rent. He noted it is a $200,000 project and will begin at once when the system is approved.

Scott Roehm, Village President Kenny Waldrop, Tony Smydra , village trustee and Rich Ernest of the Ontonagon County Chamber of Commerce all stressed the advantages in health, business and development the system could bring.

Mike Kocher, County Emergency Coordinator, cautioned the county to consider all the projects that need attention in the county. He said that while the AWOS is getting the most attention, he detailed the list of things the county should be considering as well. Kocher said he has spent 35 years as a public servant as an EMT, with fire departments, and as chief. He said public safety should be a budgeted item.

Kocher, standing with Sheriff Dale Rantala, said the Ontonagon County Jail was built in 1965 and needs major upgrades and the Sheriff Department needs another road deputy. Rantala noted the jail has a maximum load of 19 prisoners, and has been "maxed out" several times. He noted the prisoners are not like the ones in the past as they are primarily drug and meth driven and often combative. Kocher cited the need to upgrade security at the court house. He said things should be done to upgrade working conditions as well as safety for court house employees. He felt the annual $6,000 to $8,000 upkeep would reduce the money needed for these safety needs.

Commissioner Gray Webber countered that the county buys "forever" maintenance agreements for their computers, but that does not quit buying computers. He said operating the AWOS does not "bust the bank" and the board can consider security of the court house and the AWOS system.

Paula Domitrovich , 21 years as a county employee, also sounded concerns about the need to make employee safety a concern. He suggested the county look at other weather reporting equipment at a lesser commitment. Kocher made calls about other weather options and described several who he felt would be acceptable for a lesser cost and in the same mode as AWOS III.

Several present Ontonagon pilots also spoke as did businessman Scott Roehm and Norm Pestka. Pestka said he could help cut the cost of wetland mitigation which is being required for an expanded runway.

Margo Anderson, Airport manager, also spoke in favor of the system and answered questions on cost.

At the close, Commissioners Gray Webber, David and Carl Nykanen and John Cane supported the installation and maintenance of the AWOS III. Richard Bourdeau voted no.

The system is expected to be installed by the spring of 2018.


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