Tonopah Airport in running for private venture to aid military

The Tonopah Airport is under consideration for a proposed military-related business expansion, one that could bring hundreds of jobs, dozens of fighter jets and large-scale construction at the airport.

The initiative is led by Lakeland, Florida-based Draken International, which already provides a training partner to the military at Nellis Air Force Base in North Las Vegas. Draken officials visited the Tonopah Airport and briefed the Nye County Commission with a presentation on Feb. 7.

“We’d like to start a cooperative partnership with Nye County,” Scott Poteet, Draken’s director of business development, told county commissioners.

“There is a lot of potential there for both parties,” he said. “Just based on its geographical location, it can support the Navy at Fallon, as well as Nellis and the Edwards training airspace” in Southern California.

No price tag or target date is set for a decision by Draken, though the private contractor indicated it was looking to expand “ASAP” with Nellis running out of land.

“What we’re looking to establish is a location where we can support somewhere between 30-50-70 aircraft to provide the resources necessary to support the training mission for Nellis,” Poteet said.

“Tonopah is an excellent location,” he said. “Based on our research, geographical location, resources, it provides the framework necessary to hopefully provide the training element for that (Air Force) customer.”

Under the proposal, the Tonopah Airport would be used as a staging area for the aircraft. They would take off, land and be kept at the Tonopah Airport but train elsewhere with military members within the Nellis range, officials said.

Other sites, economic impact

The Tonopah Airport, about eight miles east of Tonopah off U.S. Highway 6, is among multiple communities under consideration for a Draken expansion. The others, officials later told the Times-Bonanza, include St. George, Utah; Mesquite, Nevada; Mammoth, California; Fallon, Nevada; and potentially Kingman, Arizona.

“It’s our first stop,” Poteet said of Tonopah in comments to commissioners.

Poteet estimates that bringing 40 to 50 aircraft to Tonopah would potentially produce 250 to 300 additional jobs for the community. Bringing in 70 aircraft “only increases that outcome,” he said.

Required resources, he said, would include hangars to hold up to 10 aircraft, a storage facility, an office building, sunshades to protect aircraft and living quarters. Those are in addition to a runway overrun or potential runway extension of 2,000 to 3,000 feet and potential resurfacing of a portion, if not all, of old B-24 ramp space.

“What we’re potentially proposing is an excellent opportunity, not only for ourselves, but hopefully for the county,” Poteet said.

Former Thunderbirds, expertise

Draken’s team is made up former U.S. military pilots, including three ex-Air Force Thunderbird team members.

“We have the largest privately owned fleet of tactical fighters in the entire world,” Poteet said of Draken. “Right now, we’re sitting at about 80 aircraft….We’re hoping that will double here in the near future as far as allocation of resources.”

Draken pilots fly aircraft, including from Italy and the Czech Republic, that the American military trains against to prepare for potential real-life U.S. combat missions.

“We have some MiG-21s currently sitting in the hangar back at Lakeland, Florida, awaiting a potential contract to regenerate those aircraft,” Poteet said.

“We’re in the process of increasing the size of our fleets,” he said. “We’re working through potential procurement of 19 to 51 additional supersonic fighters that are radar-equipped, which brings a huge asset, a viable competitor to our customer (U.S. military).”

The Draken team members fly as training partners for U.S. military pilots.

“What we do is replicate the adversary,” Poteet said. “Whether that’s a viable threat from Russia, China, whatever the customer is looking for.”

“We take our aircraft and based on the experiences that we have — we’re all retired fighter pilots — we provide that replication so they (U.S. military) can train against a cost-effective solution,” he said.

Draken works with the Air Force at Nellis, the Navy and U.S. coalition partners. “We support test missions out at Edwards (in California), as well as missions up north of Fallon with our aircraft,” Poteet said.

Contact reporter David Jacobs at djacobs@tonopahtimes.com