This story originally ran Sept. 14, 2001, in the Lewiston Tribune.
GRANGEVILLE — With air service across the nation shut down until late Wednesday, Idaho County airport at Grangeville became, unofficially, the nation’s busiest nonmilitary airport Tuesday and Wednesday.
After a late start Tuesday, there were 16 flights with 56 more Wednesday, according to Bud McConnaughey, air support group supervisor for the incident management team on the Earthquake Fire near Grangeville.
Hyrum Wadsworth, an air traffic controller of the Tri-Cities, was working at a portable air traffic control tower at Grangeville Thursday.
The 1,300-acre Earthquake Fire is being supported by an immense air team, since the terrain is steep and rocky, making it difficult for equipment and personnel to fight it on the ground, McConnaughey said.
Because of the large number of airplanes and helicopters assigned to the fire, the management team asked for a mobile air traffic control tower Monday.
Tuesday’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only heightened the airport’s need for air traffic control. It also helped to have extra people figure out what needed to be done to begin flying again Tuesday.
Just getting the planes into the air was an exercise in patience after Tuesday’s morning attacks.
Each takeoff required two phone calls to the FAA in Boise. Each pilot had to submit a detailed flight plan and was tracked by the FAA and by the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Just how closely air movement was being monitored became apparent when a lead plane was called to a fire in Montana. A lead plane flies ahead of retardant planes to help locate drop spots.
The pilot filed a flight plan, complete with his call number. He dropped below radar near the Montana border, though, and when he regained altitude, the pilot saw an F-16 fighter jet off his wing, asking for identification.
“They were friendly but they were also letting him know they meant business,” McConnaughey said.
By Thursday planes were able to get clearance from the local tower as restrictions eased a bit.
Firefighting efforts were not hindered by the restrictions, McConnaughey said.
“Considering the situation, the FAA has been extraordinary in trying to accommodate emergency situations,” he said. Firefighting aircraft were in the air on the Earthquake Fire by 3 p.m. Tuesday.
The distance from the attacks on the East Coast certainly had a lot to do with that, McConnaughey said. But all flights were carefully documented, and pilots were recorded by name and Social Security number.
The two air traffic controllers at Grangeville admitted that directing air traffic when the air space was closed was really a different experience.
“I’m going to include this in my memoirs,” Wadsworth said.
Although no official word had come down that Grangeville was the busiest airport, he and fellow controller, Kurt Jacobs of Spokane, both believe it to be true.
“We were definitely under the impression we were the busiest airport, at least in the Northwest,” Wadsworth said.
Mobile air traffic control towers are nothing new to the FAA, which for years has made them available to the Forest Service to assist in firefighting efforts. Air traffic controllers are brought in from airports across the region to man the stations.
“It’s a coveted position,” Wadsworth said.
Both Wadsworth and Jacobs were on their first assignment with a mobile tower.
The tower will remain in place as airspace opens again and air traffic increases. The Earthquake Fire doubled in size Thursday, creating a need for all the fire resources to remain on site. n