The Town of Vermilion hosted their second Airport Engagement session on April 15, with approximately 35 people in attendance. They had previously released an online survey and as of April 14, had received 670 responses. Councillor Kevin Martin said there was good engagement from people as a whole, including town residents, as well as residents from the County of Vermilion River, M.D. of Wainwright, the County of Minburn, and the County of Two Hills. "It's definitely a lot of wisdom to take in. Even outside the 100 km radius we have travellers who come through Vermilion who may need that life saving ability with the medi-vac service. There was definitely passion in the room; from people that are flyers, to residents that were passionate for it. Every scenario was thrown in, and some were 100 per cent in favour, while some were on the fence but open to options. It was good to have people come forward and ask questions,” said Martin.
He noted that long time resident. Jack Seewalt was in attendance and remembers going down this road 15 years ago, but since then the airport always got put on the back burner. At the forefront once again, he said, “We have to look at the evolution of our airport over the next 5, 10, or 20 years; it doesn't mean it's shut down tomorrow. We recommend that people reach out to their local MLA or MPs. We want to make a collaborative effort and a group effort is easier to take and present to the government than individually. As new council members we are meeting the surrounding representatives and building that collaboration. We have to make it a viable business plan to apply for the grant.”
The Town’s borrowing limit allows another approximately three million dollars and Director of Infrastructure, Ben McPhee, said because they are already at 75 per cent of their limit, there will be special regulations they will have to go through in order to ask for the funding. This project would potentially be in next year's budget and the first step would be a Geo-technical study. "The Geo-technical study will help us make a better, more informed budgetary decision," said Mayor Greg Throndson.
Because Vermilion is a community with road, rail, and air access, various industries could be utilizing the expansive trade market. When discussing the potential impact, people noted commercial warehouses could fly in staff or product. For example, Highway 16 runs from Prince Rupert to Winnipeg, and Highway 41 from east of St. Paul to Medicine Hat with accessible travel routes from Fort McMurray to Texas. CN Rail runs from either Prince Rupert or Vancouver through Vermilion to Toronto or Halifax and New Orleans. Indirectly, they could access ports on the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Essentially the potential for businesses in Vermilion to access worldwide markets is limitless.
Garth George runs a mixed grain and cattle farm in the County of Vermilion River near Marwayne. He has used the Vermilion Airport in other years for crop dusting. He is also an airline pilot who flies Boeing 747s to hot destinations during the winter. In the past, he has flown medi-vacs and noted that his vested interest in the Vermilion Airport is that it is a place used to protect his farm and his family. He noted it could have a huge impact when dealing with an injured person, terrible grass fire, or massive outbreak of bugs.
“A lot of the rural people don’t realize if you get in a wreck, the Vermilion Airport is there to get you out. Urban people don’t always realize that using air can keep their ambulances in town. Vermilion Airport is ideal because there is a hospital right there. It supports a larger area; Mannville, Marwayne, Kitscoty, and Dewberry residents already come to the hospital there. It is life and death and you can’t put a value on that. If a farmer falls of a tractor and breaks his back in the Derwent, Marwayne or Mannnville areas, we can get him in and potentially take him to a special unit in Calgary, etc. that saves a person’s life. There are so many people that have utilized it; people’s babies have been saved by the Vermilion Airport,” said George.
He noted that when stationed in Edmonton or Lac La Biche that flying to Vermilion is closer than flying to Lloydminster, and for ambulances to drive 40 minutes to Lloydminster or 40 minutes to Vegreville, or all the way to Edmonton. As medi-vac pilot he worked 12 hour shifts and could end up anywhere in Alberta at any time. For example, he said if leaving Lac La Biche from the point of call to landing in Vermilion would probably take an hour. To continue on to Edmonton with a patient would take an additional 35 minutes.
“These people are on call. With Medi-vac pilots the plane is fuelled up, and when you get a call you go. The ambulance driver cannot get to Edmonton in that time,” said George. “When someone is hurt, a baby is born who needs to be taken to Edmonton, a bad accident or burn victim; when bringing them in from say Marwyane in a volunteer fire truck or ambulance I’m not sure how they determine when they want to trigger a medi-vac, but when they do that airplane is already on its way. They often will be landing in Vermilion by the time the patient is arriving there and will be to Edmonton in 35 minutes. Minutes can be a person’s life. And it’s such a large area; approximately 100 km radius from Elk Point to Wainwright and Lloydminster to Vegreville.”
He said the two aircraft used for medi-vac services are the King Air 200 and King Air 250, and that the Vermilion Airport is large enough to support both, that it is still a “beautiful” airport. Unlike other strips because the Vermilion Airport is paved and plowed it is accessible in all weather. Aside from medi-vacs flying in all weather conditions, they travel faster, and can reach further distances going four hours in the air without re-fuelling. He estimated that from Edmonton to Vermilion would be just about a helicopter’s limit.
In past years several areas in southern Alberta have declared a state of Emergency from out of control grass fires. If that was ever the case in the surrounding area, he said the Vermilion Airport would be the perfect size for water bombers, and could be set up in a matter of minutes.
When asked what the challenges are with using Lloydminster Airport instead of Vermilion Airport, he said Lloydminster has a lot more regulations for agricultural use. Crop dusting has to be done in a timely manner and is weather dependant.
“Lloydminster is a secure airport with a scheduled airline, so as a farmer I can’t take out my truck with chemical at any time. I don’t have a plane myself but hire a crop dusting pilot to come in to Vermilion where I can meet them to reload more chemical to spray my farm,” said George.
He noted the town’s presentation outlined the cost of maintaining and re-paving it, but not the cost for taking it down. He estimated removing it would likely be double to paving it with the environmental implications that haven’t yet been researched from the landfill underneath.
“You can take an example of the past downtown Edmonton airport where they can’t put houses from contamination,” said George.
Community members also noted that the cost could be spread over several years rather than being paid all in one year.
“Vermilion in 20 - 30 years could be a whole different town. The airport infrastructure is already there, and to take it away would be detrimental to the community and the area (kind of like losing your hospital). In the future this could really benefit the community and the area putting it on the map. Every community has a volunteer fire fighting base all helping one another when necessary,” said George. “In the same way, why don’t we work together on having a regional airport? I wish the town council could look further for help because paving the airport is great for Vermilion, but it’s also great for the county and surrounding communities, and then the cost would be minimal and everyone will have the benefit.”