A final approach? 

30 years after the Pemberton Airport began as a dirt strip its future is still up for debate, and study

click to enlarge The Pemberton Airport began as a gravel strip 30 years ago. The strip's now paved.
  • The Pemberton Airport began as a gravel strip 30 years ago. The strip's now paved.

Imagine that you are flying your small airplane to Whistler for a vacation and the closest airport is Pemberton. You have called the Pemberton airport ahead of time to make arrangements to have the runway cleared of snow, at your own expense. Not long after as you begin your descent in the long narrow valley, you realize there is too much fog to land safely. You change your plans and fly on to Vancouver.

This situation is a common occurrence in winter, according to Rudy Rozsypalek, owner of the Pemberton Soaring Centre, who has been operating aircraft at the Pemberton airport for 14 years.

“We have a great deal of adverse weather during the winter months here in Pemberton,” he said. He is skeptical of plans by the Village of Pemberton Council to expand the airport to allow regular scheduled flight service into the valley. “Too many foggy days in a very narrow valley,” he says.

The result? Very few pilots fly to Pemberton in the winter months. While it is not impossible to land planes in Pemberton in winter, a scheduled service is difficult if you don’t know what the weather is going to do. Why take the chance if you may not be able to land?

“It may be a question of ‘If you build it, they will come’,” said Pemberton Search and Rescue member Russell McNolty. “The village has spent $100,000 on studies. Why not spend that money on making the airport work instead of grants to study the airport, which basically tell you that the airport needs a reliable fuel supply and a regularly plowed runway? Anyone on the street could have told them that, let alone a $100,000 study.”

While Rozsypalek acknowledges that regular flight service may not become a reality (“If there was money to be made, it would be happening already!”), he would like to see improvements to the airport. The municipal facility currently operates at a loss to the village.

“It is an obvious challenge to support idle assets,” said Councillor Jennie Helmer. “We have limited resources and many competing interests.”

Sheena Fraser, the Village of Pemberton’s Deputy Clerk, said that in past town meetings, “the general consensus is that the residents of Pemberton would like to see the airport expand.”

The question revolves around the extent of expansion. There have been numerous studies conducted over the years. Most recently, an archaeological study, to determine whether the airport lands are of a culturally sensitive nature to the Lil’wat Nation (it was determined that part of the airport lands are, which will likely lead to further studies), was published in October. A study by InterVistas of Vancouver was also done recently to determine whether scheduled flight service to the valley would be feasible.

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