On a recent trip to Snoqualmie Falls via the backroads east of Yelm and McKenna, I noticed a large number of yard signs strongly critical of the prospective development of a major commercial airport in this remote, rustic area of Pierce County, some 60 miles from Seattle.
Similar opposition to such a development is rife around Toledo and in Thurston
County. While there is a general consensus that a new airport eventually will be needed to supplement Sea-Tac and Portland-PDX, it’s always “not in my back yard.”
Fortunately, there may be a worthwhile alternative to an entirely new facility on a greenfield site far from population centers. This would be to adapt McChord Field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for civilian use.
Right off the bat, it is obvious that McChord would have several advantages in this regard that could not possibly be equaled by any other potential site. The field has excellent proximity to Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia, and its access to Interstate 5 and to Amtrak could hardly be better.
But could the U.S. Air Force Base stationed there be closed and its assets redeployed elsewhere without harming national security, and, if so, is McChord large enough for adaptation and expansion?
Since the waning of the Cold War in the late 1980s, over 350 U.S. military bases have been closed, apparently without weakening our defense posture. Clearly, military facilities and assets are shuffled about on a regular basis.
Indeed, no less than Dick Cheney, the secretary of defense to George H.W. Bush, proposed
the closure of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in 1991 and the redeployment of its aircraft to NAS Lemoore in central California. Political opposition shot down this initiative.
McChord’s primary function is as home base for the 62nd Airlift Wing, comprised of 40 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes. According to the official website, the 62nd’s “mission is to execute global airlift.”
In other words, the 62nd’s emphasis does not have a narrow geographical specificity, such as, say, the defense of the Puget Sound region. Its operations likely could be conducted elsewhere, perhaps at Travis AFB in California, which already is a base for C-17s.
Frankly, if Whidbey could have been shuttered, why not McChord?
As regards current capacity, McChord has two runways. The longer of these, at 10,108 feet, compares favorably with Everett-Paine Field’s 9,010, and is longer than most of the airstrips at Sea-Tac and at PDX.
In land area, McChord is even more promising. Its 3,712 acres significantly outsize the 1,315 of Paine, the 2,500 of Sea-Tac, the 3,000 of PDX, and even the 3,500 of Los Angeles-LAX, which in terms of destination visitors is the busiest airport in the world.
Airport development is never a cakewalk. Skeptics, no doubt, would cast a thousand criticisms at this idea, some of which may have merit.
But does anyone really believe that it would be less disruptive, less controversial, more convenient and more cost effective to develop a greenfield site deep in the outback?