Major search and rescue exercise picks Lethbridge’s airport over Red Deer

Red Deer Airport not suitable for planned scale of exercise, says military

A major search and rescue exercise will take place in Lethbridge, rather than Red Deer.

At least one Canadian Forces Hercules transport plane, accompanied by up to 12 civilian aircraft flown by members of the Civic Air Search and Rescue Association, are expected to take part in the exercise.

“After a recent visit to the Red Deer Regional Airport by a 435 Squadron aircraft and crew, it was determined that, for the planned scale of the training event, including working with a number of our SAR (search and rescue) partners resident in the province of Alberta, the airfield was not fully suitable to support all of the envisioned SAR training events,” says a statement from Winnipeg-based 17 Wing, which includes 435 Squadron.

“We have enjoyed working in the Red Deer area for various SAR training events in the past and look forward to continued training in the area in the future.”

Association members said the exercise would have provided a welcome boon to central Alberta. Several dozen military personnel, along with the civilian pilots and passengers, would have spent several days at the airport, staying in local hotels and eating at nearby restaurants.

“We’re disappointed to see it have to move to Lethbridge,” said zone training officer Jim Thoreson.

Some association members are concerned that an issue with the fuel contract at the airport may have played a role in the military bypassing Red Deer.

While Red Deer was the first choice as an exercise location, an issue with “fuel contracting,” along with concerns about parking for the heavy transport planes, were cited in an email from 435 Squadron explaining the decision to hold the exercise, known as SAREX, in Lethbridge, said Thoreson.

However, a 17 Wing spokesperson said on Wednesday fuelling issues were not why the exercise was moved.

Refuelling large aircraft became an issue early last month when a pair of Hercules stopped at the Red Deer Regional Airport.

Sky Wings Aviation Academy owner Dennis Cooper said he works with Executive Flight Centre, which has the contract to fuel military aircraft, including the large Hercules transports, as well as some other large planes.

However, when Sky Wings went to fuel the pair of Hercules at the airport, Tucana Aviation, which has exclusive rights to the ramp designed to support heavy aircraft such as the Hercules, would not allow Sky Wings to use the ramp.

Sky Wings refuelled the planes on the taxiway instead, but was told that will not be allowed in future.

Cooper takes issue with the deal to give exclusive rights to the entire ramp to one of three companies that supply fuel at the airport.

“Whenever you give exclusivity on anything on public lands, whether it’s exclusivity for selling pop, or it’s exclusivity for the rights for a ramp, it’s going to run into problems. And it’s a poor decision.”

The airport gets 4.5 cents for every litre of fuel Sky Wings sells, which can add up to thousands of dollars from big customers such as the military, he said.

While Tucana has exclusive rights to the ramp, Red Deer Regional Airport CEO Graham Ingham believes an agreement could have been reached with Sky Wings, so they could have fuelled up the Hercules if they were in town for an exercise.

The exclusivity agreement, in which Tucana provides six-figure annual payments to the airport, was created to help develop the airport’s charter network, Ingham said.

“We were still getting quite a few charters from the oilpatch, and we wanted to grow that business.”

The deal also improves the service the airport is able to provide potential customers. Tucana Aviation offers maintenance, catering, transportation and accommodation bookings that will turn the terminal into what is known as a full-service, fixed-based operator, said Ingham.

Cooper said despite the issues he has with the Tucana deal, he is bullish on the airport’s future.

“We have a great airport. It’s very well laid out. It’s good airport to train at or run a charter into.”

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