Tim Nohara, President and CEO of Pelham-based Accipiter Radar Technologies, articulated his position on the future of the Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport (NCDRA), where he has had a commercial hangar since 2017.
“I’m a stakeholder, one of many around the table there,” he told the Voice. “If we are going to build a vision and business plan, first of all, we need to decide governance—and that’s where we’ve been in a holding pattern for the past couple years. In 2018, there was an ask to have the Region take that it over, but more recently the NCDRA Commission has decided that it would prefer to retain control. For me, what’s important is whoever has governance, are they going to leverage this asset?”
Welland councillor Leo Van Vliet, who chairs the NCDRA Commission, told the Voice that a strategic plan is in progress, with a draft hopefully completed by end of the year. Plans of uploading airport operations to the Region are “in limbo,” he said. “The Region doesn’t seem to have the appetite for it.”
The airport was constructed in 1942, to train pilots for the British Commonwealth in World War II, and has aging infrastructure. Businesses currently based at the NCDRA include Skydive Niagara, the St. Catharines Flying Club, Tarczy Aircraft Maintenance, and Accipiter Radar Technologies. The facility also houses Royal Canadian Air Cadet glider operations, and supports law enforcement and air ambulance flights.
The addition of an advisory panel, made up primarily of pilots and those with experience in the aviation industry, has been a great addition at the airport, said Van Vliet, and has “already saved us mega-dollars. They feel the airport can be self- sufficient.”
Van Vliet said that the governance issue needs to be worked out, and that the airport needs to be operated as a business. He noted that continuity is important, and that the commission must be comprised of those with expertise, not simply political appointments from the municipalities which fund the operation.
Accipiter is heavily invested in radar technology to stop bird strikes on aircraft, which can have catastrophic consequences—such as the emergency landing on New York’s Hudson River by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, in 2009. The company has environmental protection applications for the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, using radar to keep birds off of toxic tailings ponds, and closer to home, keeping birds safe from the blades of wine turbines.
Nohara sees a particular opportunity for the airport in unmanned aircraft advancement, and said that companies like Amazon and Google are currently investing huge amounts of money in drone research for parcel delivery.
“One of the areas [in which Accipiter is involved] in is aviation safety, and the scope of drone technology building off of that is immense—developing drones that can carry more weight, consume less power, go further, deploy sensors, monitor situations. There is applicability in everything from pipeline inspections to agriculture, to you name it. Drones can deliver vaccines to remote indigenous communities, and provide emergency response for forest fires and traffic accidents. We need safe, low-risk, Class G airspace to do the research cost-effectively, and that is what we have [at NCDRA].”
Nohara envisions commercial drone development which could lead to partnerships with Niagara College and Brock University.
The Regional Municipality of Niagara commissioned HM Aero Aviation Consulting to complete a feasibility study in 2020, examining business opportunities and the future development potential of both the Niagara District Airport and Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport (NCDRA).
The report indicated that NCDRA (which is actually classified as an aerodrome, and not a certified airport) is best suited to supporting general aviation, recreational, and flight training activities. The airport is jointly owned by the municipalities of Welland, Wainfleet, Pelham, and Port Colborne, which collectively provided a total subsidy to the airport in 2018 of $82,219. A review of NCDRA’s financial statements by the consultant indicated that land lease payments are the primary source of non-municipal grant revenue, recorded at some $79,000 in 2018. Total revenues were $126,661 that year, with operating expenses reportedly $220,757.
Numerous upgrade projects were recommended in the consultant’s report, including rehabilitation of pavements for airstrips, parking lots, and access roads. Issues were also identified with the airport’s sanitary sewage treatment system, and lack of potable water on site.
The consultant suggested that business development opportunities over the next 20 years could include new hangars supporting aircraft maintenance, and the establishment of a restaurant, pending the identification of surplus lands through a formal airport master plan. Other potential opportunities included canoe and kayak tourism outfitters along the Welland River, enhanced skydive package opportunities, charter passenger and cargo air services, high-volume professional flight training, and aviation industrial development.
Some of the airport’s deficiencies noted by the consultant are not view as daunting problems by Nohara. He brings in bottled water, and uses propane for heating. A significant issue was a lack of high-speed internet connectivity, which Nohara ended up installing himself.
“I urge our politicians to settle the governance issue, and get on with the growth issue,” said Nohara. “We’ve got the capability to leverage this tremendous location, but need a focal point and a vision to help draw these local assets together.”