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County pitches Beatty Airport for new drone testing program

Nye County Community Development Director Darrell Lacy thinks Beatty Airport could tap into the lucrative unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone testing program in Nevada.

Nevada was one of six states to be awarded the Federal Aviation Administration testing program to research the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace as the FAA transitions to a system featuring NextGen technologies. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the FAA to establish the test program. The FAA, in consultation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense was directed to consider geographic diversity, climate diversity, location of ground infrastructure and research needs in choosing the sites.

Four Nevada airports for drone testing in Boulder City, Steed, Fallon and the Desert Rock Air Base on the Nevada National Security Site in Mercury, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, are less than 40 miles from Beatty.

“We’re interested in economic development so the things we’re hearing, it’s kind of expensive and difficult to operate on the Nevada Test Site. We’re trying to make an easier place for them to operate,” Lacy said. “We’d like to get some jobs and economic development out of it.”

Nevada already has a history of military drone operations for two decades, unmanned predator aircraft are operated from Creech Air Force Base. The plan is for drones to share airspace with commercial and general aviation by September 2015.

Nevada officials see it as a huge economic development opportunity, drones are expected to become an $11 billion a year industry nationwide with 70,000 jobs, in Nevada 15,000 people could be employed in the industry, about the workforce of the mining industry.

Lacy hopes if people will use Beatty Airport as a supplemental location, companies will build hangars and office space. A certificate of authorization is necessary to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle, he said the easiest way to do that is for a governmental entity to do it.

“In general a UAV has to be within line of sight from the operator,” Lacy said. “Every time one’s flying you’re going to have one (person) who’s operating it and one who’s a spotter, so at least two people operating every UAV,” Lacy said.

Lacy said the Governor’s Office on Economic Development concurs with Nye County that the Beatty Airport would be convenient, for the UAV program, with a nice runway, a couple hangars and a location reasonably close to Las Vegas and Desert Rock Air Strip.

They’re actually the ones that filed the application with the FAA that allows this to happen,” Lacy said.

There have been discussions with the Nevada Institution of Autonomous Systems, which runs the program, he said, adding there are still some shortcomings with the rural airport.

“We’ve sent comments back and forth on an agreement. It’s not something we have done just yet. Our Beatty Airport is something we think is a real good area but we don’t have a fixed-based operator, we don’t have anybody that works there full time, we don’t have water and sewer available for office space. It’s kind of a chicken and the egg situation. We’re not going to spend money to get it to operate until we get potential business,” Lacy said.

“One of the things we could see might be a big benefit they could fly between the two airports. The town of Beatty and Amargosa were excited about this,” he said. “You have to have a chaser plane which is why having a small airport is good. They can follow it with a Cessna.”

Lacy said the Amargosa Valley Town Board was investigating the Jackass Flats Aeropark as a possible landing strip, an old airport at Lathrop Wells that’s been shut down for years but the runway is still there.

“We think we’ve got a good spot for it and we’re open to expressions of interest,” he said.

Rupert Bragg-Smith, who owns 360 acres just east of the Beatty airport, said he’s in the process of negotiating with Nye County about splitting up part of his property for airport development, keeping some of the land for his proposed Beatty racetrack. Bragg-Smith was the builder of the original Corvette driving school in Pahrump that is now home to the huge Spring Mountain Motor Sports Ranch.

“I stated to the county this is a good piece of property for this and if they want to get on their economic development wagon and use their brain trust they can go along and find people, encouraging people to do development, R and D testing in that area,” Bragg-Smith said. But he added, “Sometimes the bureaucracy takes too long for the wheels to turn and I’m chomping at the bit.”

Bragg-Smith said Beatty is along the flight corridor from Reno to Boulder City. His property used to be a man camp for the Bullfrog Mine and has potable water and three-phase power, he said. Bragg-Smith has plans to drill an irrigation well.

The Beatty airport features a 5,600-foot long runway, with a turn around area and taxi way as well as an existing tie-down apron. In January 2013 Nye County submitted a request for $5.5 million in improvements to Beatty Airport under the Airports Capital Improvement Program, with the FAA picking up $5.22 million of the cost. The proposed projects include constructing a parallel taxiway, grading a drainage berm, constructing an airport beacon, building an automated weather observation station (AWOS) and rehabilitating a tie-down apron.

Lacy conceded for big defense contractors it’s not an issue operating at Desert Rock Airport but smaller operators may find the requirements difficult to comply with.

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