A plan to launch Pukaki's remote airport into the rocket age has not gone down well with some operators at the airfield, with one labelling it "totally unacceptable".
Dawn Aerospace, a Kiwi-Dutch company developing unmanned, reusable rockets as a more economic and sustainable way of launching things like satellites into space, is planning to use the Mackenzie District airport for trial launches possibly as early as July.
Dawn already has a memorandum of understanding with the Waitaki District Council to use the Oamaru Airport for similar tests and co-founder James Powell confirmed that after delays caused by Covid-19, they were conducting various tests on their Mk-II vehicle at various locations, including Pukaki.
Powell confirmed no such agreement exists with the Mackenzie District Council who have declined to comment to Stuff.
MDC deputy mayor and chair of the Pukaki User Group, James Leslie said in an email shown to Stuff that was sent to airport stakeholders that “Dawn wish to conduct taxi tests and request that parts of the airfield be closed (taxiway and sealed runway).''
“Dawn will be paying a significant amount of money for this privilege which will all go into airport improvements.”
The email outlines a number of requirements for ground testing including that Dawn operate in compliance with Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) guidelines; that health, safety and risk for all public and property not to be greater than equivalent manned or model aircraft operations; and that Dawn hold public liability insurance for all operations.
“No other aircraft, vehicles or public within 70m of runway unless specifically required by Dawn [and] no other operational aircraft in circuit area or planned area of operations,” Leslie says.
Aviation Adventures Ltd CEO Chris Rudge called the closing of the airport for one operator “totally unacceptable”.
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“If the airport is closed, I am unable to operate and can potentially lose over $1500 an hour.
“Closing the airport effectively shuts me down for more than two hours as, if I am doing a flight lasting over an hour and the airport shuts at 11am, I cannot takeoff after 10am as the airport would be closed on my return.”
Rudge also has safety concerns about the safety of the operation because Dawn's proposed aircraft operates at high speeds, there are residential buildings within 80m of the runway centreline, and there is a lack of security fencing to keep the public out.
There would be no airport on the planet that would operate a remotely controlled space vehicle requiring a horizontal take-off within 80m of a residential subdivision.
“The aircraft is not a lightweight model aeroplane – it is a heavy vehicle carrying combustible liquid. Any impact with a (occupied) residential building would almost certainly result in injury and possibly death.”
Richard Rayward, CEO of Air Safaris, said it was all an issue of timing.
“Right now, without any international visitors, it's not that relevant but under normal circumstances our main concern would be when we're flying a coach tour group who are on a tight itinerary,” he said.
“Often we'll fly from Pukaki to Lake Tekapo or vice versa, the last thing we want is to find the airfield is closed when we try to land.”
He said another concern was how little information had been provided.
“We've had a lot of experience with the team at Tekapo testing autonomous vehicles, and we've seen all the work and certification stuff they are going through, and we are getting very little from Dawn Aerospace.”
Adam Joyce, CEO of Inflite which runs Mt Cook Skydive from Pukaki Airport, said he welcomed new operators and would be happy to work with them but that lines of communication need to remain open.
“It will potentially impact our operation if we have flights that are planning to go at the same time.
“There's more conversation to be had before it commences.”
Mt Cook Skydive went through a lengthy process before it could open last year after council required a resource consent to run skydives at the airport, despite the fact that the CAA consider skydives the same as other aircraft which do not need consents to operate at an airport.
He said he would be interested to know whether Dawn has had to submit a resource consent to launch rockets from the airport.
Powell confirmed "they were continuing to push towards our goals and our teams are all at 100 per cent hours and pay to help us get there."
“The location depends on the type of test (small scale engine test, space environment testing, large engine test, small scale vehicle ground and/or flight testing, large scale vehicle ground testing, etc) and the required infrastructure/geography/privacy/etc (test equipment, large space, sparsely populated land, proximity to the sea, restricted airspace, etc).
“Just like an airline, being able to operate from a range of locations increases the scale we operate at and the value of the services we can provide,” Powell said.
“Different customers need different flight profiles, to/from different locations, differing airspace, etc. Hence, Dawn are working towards a diverse range of locations where we can conduct flights.”
According to the Dawn Aerospace website, it can operate “in harmony with commercial aviation” because, unlike traditional rockets, they use “the same operational methods, infrastructure and communication methods as normal aircraft”.