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Airport braces for solar eclipse boom

Aug 16, 2017 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

One charter group called wanting to fly a Boeing 737 to Riverton Regional with 120 eclipse tourists aboard

Airport managers in Fremont County are getting ready for an influx of private planes leading up to Monday's total solar eclipse.

At Riverton Regional Airport, manager Paul Griffin said he's already turning pilots away, referring them instead to Rock Springs.

"We have so far right around 100 airplanes scheduled to come in," Griffin said Wednesday.

Most of the arrivals will be small, private, four- to six-seat aircraft, he said, but some are charter flights that typically carry about 20 passengers.

One charter group even called wanting to fly a Boeing 737 into Riverton.

"That'll hold about 120 people," Griffin said.

The group may opt for Casper's airport instead, however.

"They're requesting air stairs to unload their passengers, and we don't have that type of equipment," Griffin explained.

A lot of other pilots will be making last-minute decisions about where to bring their passengers, too, based on the weather on the day of the eclipse.

Griffin said most flights are coming in Monday morning and leaving soon after the moon obscures the sun.

Many will spend of all of their time at the airport, he added.

"(They'll) just land, step out, put on their glasses, put out their lawn chairs, view it and get right back out of here," Griffin said.

If they want to venture into Fremont County, he continued, there will be vehicles for them at the airport. Griffin said Hertz will have about 65 cars on hand for the eclipse - well above the normal fleet of 12-18.

"They're already starting to deliver them to the airport," Griffin said. "(Hertz) has a lot of reservations already."

The Wind River Transit Authority will provide shuttles as well, with buses bringing airplane passengers to Riverton City Park, the Wind River Casino and Walmart, Griffin said. He will make sure the shuttle information is available to air arrivals so they are able to take advantage of the eclipse-related events taking place in town.

Capacity

Griffin limited the number of planes coming in to Riverton to 100 due to fuel and space restrictions.

Local airport crews have topped off their refueling trucks and storage tanks in preparation for the extra visitors, Griffin said, but he anticipates those will all be empty by Monday afternoon, so he has ordered an extra delivery for that day to make sure there is enough fuel to keep air ambulances and firefighting equipment running.

Normally, Griffin said, the airport goes through one load of fuel a month, or even every two months.

Parking will be an issue Monday, too.

"We're going to have wingtip-to-wingtip aircraft parked up there," Griffin said.

On a normal day, he said, only six or seven general aviation aircraft park at the airport.

Airport employees have shut down one taxiway to make more parking spaces this weekend, and they have mowed a five-acre area of grass to accommodate smaller planes.

Griffin said slots will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

"We'll have one guy manning the radio talking to (pilots) and telling them which truck to follow," he said. "We'll lead them over (to a spot) and kind of control it once they're on the ground."

Riverton Regional doesn't have a control tower, he noted, so landing logistics are going to be up to the pilots themselves.

"(That's) one of the concerns for me," Griffin said. "If you figure 100 airplanes, and a majority are trying to get here in a two-hour period, that's 30-some airplanes landing every hour. ... They'll have to coordinate their landings (by) communicating with each other."

Meanwhile, he said, the airport has to stay open for normal operations involving commercial airlines and emergency responders.

Griffin said the air ambulance area will be roped off so those flights aren't encumbered by the crowds.

Riverton Regional also has been serving as a backup hub for general aviators who normally use Lander's airport, which is currently closed for construction.

"We actually have quite a few of the Lander aircraft over here on our parking ramp," Griffin said.

He has extra UPS planes right now, too.

"Three of them are normally stationed in Casper, but Casper is so full," he explained. "I guess those three planes will be coming here, and we'll accommodate them also."

Benefits

The additional arrivals - filled with passengers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Montana and even New York - will bring money to the county in the form of fuel purchases, Griffin said.

They'll also help bolster Riverton's annual enplanement totals.

They won't pay landing or parking fees, though, for liability reasons.

"If a chain breaks or an aircraft hits another one the city's not liable," Griffin said. "Each individual is responsible for their own aircraft."

Dubois

The municipal airport in Dubois is charging a landing and use fee for the eclipse, but manager Tim Schell said the price is "nothing outrageous."

He is planning for an influx of pilots Monday, too, though like Griffin, Schell said he isn't sure exactly how many people will show up, depending on the cloud cover that could obstruct local views of the eclipse.

"There is an unknown factor, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out," he said.

Also like Riverton, Schell said most pilots flying into Dubois will stay at the airport for the duration of their visit. That's not necessarily by choice though, he added.

"There are no accommodations available," Schell said. "Most of the hotels have been booked, (so) most of the people coming to the airport are coming and leaving the same day."

He doesn't have as much "room to play with" as Riverton does, Schell said, so he isn't able to provide extra parking space for aviators. He says he can fit six or seven larger aircraft and up to 40 smaller planes.

"We've got all the large aircraft we can handle," he said. "But phone calls are increasing as the days pass."

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2017-09-24

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