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Port considers ‘water runway’ again

Resurrecting an old plan, the Port of Bremerton Commissioners on Tuesday heard testimony on the feasibility of constructing a freshwater “runway” for seaplanes.

The primary speaker was John Kittleson, former president of the Washington Seaplane Pilots Association, who lobbied hard for the idea, emphasizing the significant seaplane traffic in the port’s vicinity, the dearth of suitable landing and tie-up areas and the possible financial benefit to both the port and surrounding community.

“There’s a lot of seaplane traffic that goes past Bremerton,” Kittleson said. “(A runway) would certainly enhance all the businesses that are here, including the restaurant.”

Kittleson envisions Bremerton National as a full-service stopover point for seaplanes traveling between Portland and Canada. He said there aren’t many publicly owned seaplane ports, and those in western Washington are mostly over-capacity. Kittleson suggested the port develop businesses around the seaplane runway — mechanic shops, rental storage for planes, even seaplane dealers and float manufacturers — in nearby Olympic View Industrial Park.

“It would put Bremerton on the map as being the first in the area to offers these sort of services,” Kittleson said.

Port COO Tim Thompson questioned the need for a man-made runway. He suggested using the water off Port Orchard’s port-owned marina to land seaplanes and then create a tie to businesses in the airport’s vicinity.

Kittleson, however, said the freshwater aspect of the plan was crucial to attracting users. He said seawater can be very hard on seaplanes, and most pilots will opt to land in freshwater whenever possible.

“A lot of our costs on seaplane operations is because of the saltwater,” Kittleson said.

Both Thompson and Airport Manager Fred Salisbury also brought up the issue of birds and airplanes — mostly how the two don’t mix. Many are concerned the large, open body of water needed to land seaplanes would also serve as an irresistible attraction to waterfowl such as geese and seagulls.

Salisbury, in particular, pointed out the port’s current problem with birds getting on the runway and creating a serious aircraft hazard.

“We’ve got about eight (Canada) geese that like to find their way over here,” Salisbury said.

Others didn’t see the bird problem as significant, though. Kittleson said bird traffic tends to increase as air traffic increases. Therefore, he said, more planes landing at Bremerton National means fewer avian trespassers. Commissioner Bill Mahan even suggested building a Safeco Field-like mechanical cover which would close off the surface of the runway at night.

“To me, it’s an engineering problem more than anything else,” he said.

The FAA representative who attended the meeting tended to agree.

Jeff Winter, who was there to discuss potential FAA involvement in such a project, said there were several serious issues which needed to be addressed. He said the FAA took the bird issue very seriously and said he was equally concerned over having such a large body of water in close proximity to the runway.

In order to safely accommodate planes, Salisbury estimates the water runway would need to be more than 1,000 feet long and several hundred feet wide. However, Salisbury said those numbers were raw guesses at best — no one at the port has done the math yet to see what would be necessary.

For that and other reasons, Winter saw the possibility of the water runway actually hurting the airport, rather than benefiting it.

“Obviously, we’ve invested money in your hard runway and other facilities and we wouldn’t want to see them degrade because of something else,” he said.

Winter said the FAA, which has gotten financially involved in several port projects over the years, has never funded the construction of a land-based water runway before. He said he thought it unlikely the FAA would fund one in this case, but emphasized the need for FAA officials to see a full project schematic before making a final decision.

If the FAA did support the port’s proposed water runway, it would set a precedent in other airports’ future requests. For that reason, Winter said, he didn’t feel comfortable making any predictions with certainty. As an addendum, Winter also pointed out most seaplane landing sites are privately owned and therefore not under the FAA’s jurisdiction — the FAA deals mostly with land-based landing fields.

“If the FAA hasn’t funded one, we probably haven’t encouraged them either,” he said. “This would be a national decision.”

Most members of the port staff emphasized the need for further study, but many were optimistic over the potential benefits of accommodating a whole new type of aircraft. (The airport’s single main runway can handle nearly every size of airplane, from single-engine Cessnas to a commercial 747 — as long as the 747 isn’t fully loaded, port staff point out.)

“I think it’s something that should be looked at,” said Commissioner Mary Ann Huntington. “If it’s taking place in other parts of the U.S., it could take place here.”

Others took a more wait-and-see approach to the project’s potential.

“It comes at a good time, but there needs to be some analysis done,” Salisbury said. “Once you put hole in the ground, it’s there.”

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