Persistence from local aviation investors and the closure of another nearby municipal airport have spurred unprecedented development at Alberta’s Villeneuve Airport (ZVL). Located in a rural area northwest of Edmonton, the two-runway general aviation airport currently handles approximately 54,000 movements per year; but traffic is expected to grow over time.
Project: Facility Upgrades
Location: Villeneuve (Alberta) Airport
Primary Improvements: Extending main runway to 5,000 feet; installation of new ILS system; private hangar construction; addition of 2 fixed-base operators & 3 fuel providers; aviation museum under construction
Cost of Airfield Improvements: $14 million
Funding: Province of Alberta
Average Movements: 54,000/yr.
Fuel Providers: 3
Tourism Attraction: Aviation museum currently under construction
About a decade ago, Edmonton Airports began investing in ZVL’s infrastructure to position it to be instrumental in the future economic success of the province. Recent improvements include a runway extension, new Category 1 instrument landing system, private hangar construction, two fixed-base operators and three fuel providers. In addition, an aviation museum currently under construction is expected to heighten the airport’s visibility among the general public.
The province spent $14 million for the runway extension and ILS. Now 5,000 feet long, ZVL’s main runway can accommodate fully fueled aircraft carrying up to 15 passengers; and the new landing system, high-intensity lighting and radio signals give pilots added assistance in bad weather or poor visibility.
“The improvements provide a real solid alternate airport in the region that is not necessarily driven by commercial schedules,” says Steve Maybee, director of operations at Edmonton Airports. “And the new instrument landing system opens the airport to a whole new market.”
Before the runway extension, pilots who wanted nonstop access to the oil sands in northern Alberta were forced to use Edmonton International (YEG), because fully fueled planes could not take off from ZVL’s shorter runways. In addition, the airport’s new ILS system lets air ambulances use ZVL as an alternate airport to Edmonton.
Perry McPherson, one of the few titled landholders at ZVL, calls recent upgrades at the airport “huge.” After taking flight training at ZVL, McPherson bought property there 10 years ago and built a hangar. Now, he’s president of the Villeneuve Airport Owners & Operators Association.
“There’s lots of people and investment coming from all over,” McPherson reports. “Certainly, the Alberta economy with its oil sands helps, but with Edmonton City Centre Airport now closed, people are starting to come here.”
About 14 businesses are currently based at ZVL — hangar leasing companies, aircraft maintenance shops, charter operations, flight training centers and fixed-based operators (FBOs). And Maybee expects more will follow.
“City Centre (which closed in November) was a viable airport in many areas; but with the growth the City of Edmonton wanted to achieve in its downtown core, development was restricted,” Maybee relates. “Villeneuve is outside of town and doesn’t have the same types of restrictions on growth and development.”
ZVL’s growth began about nine years ago, when a group of local aviation investors feared the airport could be “on the chopping block,” McPherson recalls. “We wanted to ensure that we had a long-term airport out here, and we understood that organizations such as Edmonton International Airport needed an official body with whom to relate.”
A grassroots promotional effort by the Villeneuve Airport Owners & Operators Association targeting airport officials, local government and business groups paid off. When with the closing of Edmonton’s City Centre Airport (formerly known as Blatchford Field), ZVL became the secondary airport for the area, behind YEG.
Initially built as a flight training facility on a 1,400-acre parcel, ZVL didn’t have a control tower until 1982. These days, its tower operates 13 hours a day. In 2000, the airport was purchased by Edmonton Regional Airport Authority, and the province began funding airfield improvements.
Private investors have also made their mark. McPherson has a 9,000-square-foot hangar for personal use on the airport land he owns and is constructing a new 12,500-square-foot hangar he plans to lease. The new hangar is one of six currently under construction at the airport, McPherson reports.
Eldon Gjesdal, a private pilot and local businessman who has been building homes in the area for the past 28 years, just completed a 16,000-square-foot hangar on a 1.2 acre parcel of land he leases from the airport. Gjesdal plans to construct two more hangars this year – a 16,000-square-foot hangar and a 7,000-square-foot hangar – which together will store about 20 single- and twin-engine planes.
“All of a sudden, we’ve found ourselves in a beehive of activity,” he explains. “Airplanes need a place to go, and Villeneuve fits the bill 100 percent. It is the most logical place for pilots and businesspeople from a growth perspective and a safety perspective.”
The 16,000-square-foot hangar Gjesdal is building will feature a Rotating Aircraft Carrier, designed by Alvin Hand, of Innisfail, Alberta. The system, which is being marketed by Gjesdal and a business partner, is said to be about 30% more efficient than standard methods of storing aircraft.
The Rotating Aircraft Carrier stores aircraft on a framework that can be rotated around a fixed pivot and requires only one door. “You can store five airplanes in the same space, but you don’t have to move four airplanes to get yours out if yours happens to be in the back,” Gjesdal explains. “You just push a button and your plane rotates around to the hangar door. It eliminates hangar rash and a whole bunch of problems that go along with storing multiple aircraft in a single hangar.”
The Rotating Aircraft Carrier is expected to be available soon in the United States and Canada.
All the recent activity at ZVL has paved the way for an airport-based tourist attraction, the Alberta Flying Heritage Museum. Tom Hinderks, its interim executive director, describes the facility as an “interactive and living” museum that will feature exhibits and renovated operational aircraft in a multi-building complex on 13 acres.
“It will be a very different kind of museum,” says Hinderks. “We will have operating aircraft that people can get into without supervision, including an air ambulance mockup where people can climb into the cockpit. We want people, especially kids, to really experience the history and aviation history of Edmonton and the northern part of Canada.”
Hinderks says the museum will eventually house about 35 operating aircraft and could host air shows, fly-ins, rollouts and parades. He expects the first 26,000-square-foot building, which will focus on aircraft restoration, to be completed this summer. A schedule for construction of the other buildings is still being determined.
The museum is a spin-off of the Alberta Aviation Museum, which is located at the former City Centre Airport. That museum will remain open with static exhibits and research offerings. “Villeneuve will be an operating site, where you can see things that are running and making smoke and moving and flying,” Hinderks explains.
McPherson believes that the museum will be the critical piece that ties ZVL together and makes it grow. “It will provide such a different flavor,” he says. “People who don’t fly airplanes but like airplanes are going to trek down here to see it. We think it’s a great fit for what we’re doing out here.”
More Growth Expected
According to Maybee, various forms of development at the airport have gone smoothly due to the good working relationships with local officials and the owners association. “The county is very proactive and encouraged by the growth and opportunities that Villeneuve Airport brings,” he says. “They want to see it go ahead, because it does spur other developments in the region. And working with the tenants and communicating information with them has gone well.”
Maybee hopes that within five years, hangars will be developed on most of the currently open land and the airport will have full water service. He also hopes that fueling will be available 24/7— instead of on call — to support air traffic in the entire area.
“We have a number of operators now that have aircraft going up to the oil sands and northern Alberta,” Maybee explains. “We like having an airport to relieve some of the capacity constraints and some of the pressure on the infrastructure.”
McPherson predicts that ZVL will be so busy in five years that the airport will have to expand its control tower hours to handle the additional traffic. He also foresees more general development and hangar construction. “Fundamentally, infrastructure at an airport is so important,” he reflects. “It’s an economic driver for so many things and really needs to be supported.”