Demystifying the Town’s Airport Consultant
One of the most newsworthy parts of Mammoth Lakes isn’t in the Town’s boundaries at all. The Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH), a few miles to the west, has survived one major development lawsuit, the reign of long-time Manager Bill Manning and numerous Town Managers. There is, however, one name dating back almost 20 years that is still intact: Reinard W. Brandley, the Town’s Airport consultant. Why is he important? With the Airport Commission’s impending dissolution, Brandley could well remain the most influential entity in what happens to MMH going forward. But who is he, and why is it that some who scrutinize the airport’s ongoing development don’t like him?
Brandley owns his own sole proprietorship, Reinard W. Brandley, Airport Consulting Engineer. He earned his Bachelors in Science from the University of Alberta (Canada), and two Masters degrees, one from U of Alberta and a second from Harvard. All his degrees are in Civil Engineering.
His got his first Masters in 1946, his second in 1948. His doctorate research was in airport pavement evaluation, which is how he got into airports.
At the end of WWII, he did airport runway pavement evaluation for the Canadian government on airstrips that handled everything from small fighter planes up to B-29 bombers.
Brandley said he set up his consulting engineering firm in 1953. “I started out in geotechnical, which is a branch of Civil Engineering,” he recalled. “We did geotechnical, materials testing and inspection, and airport design. Later I sold off the other facets of the business, focusing on airport design exclusively. I’m coming up on 60 years in the business … guess it’s almost time to celebrate.”
His consulting credits include numerous airports: Sacramento, Honolulu, Tampa, Chicago O’Hare, the Pahrump Valley, Fresno and Truckee airports, He started work with the Town in 1993.
Since that time, his work has been the subject of microscopic analysis by some who are critical of him and his work.
Oz, the great and powerful?
Local resident and Airport watchdog Stephen Kalish said that with the folding of the Airport Commission he’s unsure how much input the public would have going forward. He is also suspect of how much influence Brandley will have, with more direct access to staff and Council. “[The Town] got rid of [former Airport Director] Bill Manning, [Hot Creek developer] Terry Ballas and now the Airport Commission, but not Brandley,” he pointed out.
As Kalish recalls, “Brandley was hired by Ballas to work on the airport land exchange, do surveys, draw up plans for the hangars, and he was also working with the Town and Manning.” With all those entanglements, Kalish wonders whether there might have been a conflict of interest “If you look at the Hot Creek Development Agreement as the Town purely wanting to make money, then there’s not a conflict. If you look at it as the Town wanting to make money AND work with Mammoth Mountain Ski Area to bring in air service, including the big 757 planes, then I think there’s a huge conflict.”
Kalish is also critical of the recent Revised Airport Layout Plan (ALP), which he suggested was not made public for comment before being signed and sent to the Federal Aviation Administration. He did, however, acknowledge, that after the last round of public input, the document is better.
Of course, the hitch with the ALP is not whether the FAA will “reject” it. That isn’t the way the federal agency operates. Instead of issuing a rejection, if the FAA has significant issues with the document, it simply will not approve it and send an a la carte list of corrections or changes it would like to see made. “The FAA is a somewhat dysfunctional agency; they don’t want to be the bad guys,” Kalish quipped.
So far, as Kalish sees it, the FAA has yet to approve any of the Town’s ALPs drafted since the original 1998 document, which was granted only “conditional approval.”
Kalish and fellow citizen watchdog Owen Maloy also take issue with where several hangars were built at the airport, and the solutions being contemplated to remedy their proximity to taxiways.
“If the hangars had been put where required by the FAA, you never would have had enough land for development of Hot Creek,” Kalish thinks.
In his deposition as part of the Hot Creek lawsuit that led to the recent $48.5 judgment settlement with Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition, Brandley said, “I didn’t have very much to do with advising the Town on any Hot Creek development that was done … if we would have been asked to do it, I am sure the hangars would have been [placed] farther away from the runway.”
Asked about the issue, Brandley said he filed the requisite Form 7640 with the FAA prior to construction. As he remembers it, “The FAA reviewed it to see if it was going to interfere with airport operations. The hangars were done when the airport was not serving the type of aircraft it is today.”
“They are a potential problem, but one that can be dealt with,” Brandley maintains. “In the ALP, the hangars are identified as obstructions, and can be delineated with something as simple as a row of red obstruction lights, which I think the FAA is going to approve. There might be a few operational restrictions, particularly when a big plane is coming in, but Mammoth doesn’t have that much traffic, and not likely to have multiple planes stacked up waiting to arrive or take off for longer than a few minutes a couple of times a week at most. If I were to build them today, I’d move the hangars back, but they were built a long time ago.”
Kalish said he’s also keeping a watchful eye on the City of Bishop’s moving forward with putting money into developing its Eastern Sierra Regional Airport, possibly with plans to also apply for commercial air service status, which he thinks could make it the area’s “A” airport, and relegate Mammoth to backup or secondary status.
Maloy isn’t enthused about the revised ALP. “Most of the technical errors have been fixed, but the major problems remain.” The ALP, he opined to The Sheet, does not comply with FAA standards and regulations. “Stephen [Kalish] and I expect that the FAA will simply laugh it off in yet another one-page letter that lists a few critical deficiencies.” He was also critical of Brandley, who he suggested is a civil engineer who understands pavement but not aeronautics. “The Town needs to bring in qualified people, like the ones Bishop is using,” Maloy said.
“The crucial question to the Town is can you bring in massive amounts of tourism using air service, and the answer is no,” Maloy insists. “The Town doesn’t want to look at that question. And Hot Creek was going to become a sort of Walmart, and that cannot happen, because everything on an airport has to be aeronautical in purpose, and everything must be leased. You can’t have private ownership of condos. People are running around now saying we should build more hangars (i.e. bigger ones to accommodate Gulfstream G4 private jets). If it’s on the ALP you can, but it’s not right now.”
Former Airport Commissioner Lee Hughes, a veteran pilot with commercial aviation experience flying into major airports, thinks that, whatever the airport’s issues, Brandley largely isn’t responsible for them. “He’s not the problem, and that’s not just my opinion, it’s also [consultant group] Mead & Hunt.”
In its peer review of the ALPUN from one year ago, Mead & Hunt wrote, “The narrative report is fully in conformance with aviation and FAA standards. In scope it lies somewhere between a typical narrative report and an airport master plan. In short the narrative report fully meets industry standards for this type of document.” Hughes went on to say the ALP’s peer review, highly unusual for such a document, and its narrative have both improved considerably since then.
“The FAA mitigates airport issues with funding to make corrections or modifications to standards,” according to Hughes’ understanding. “MMH, as opposed to Burbank, doesn’t have anything in its Runway Safety Area.” Burbank, which was built in the days of DC-3 passenger aircraft, is an example of an airport that’s not perfect, which he thinks describes most airports. “And we don’t have the traffic issues of most big airports. LAX has flights arriving every two minutes. MMH isn’t anywhere close to that.”
Are there still issues with MMH? “Yes, and there are even more issues that resulted from the FAA’s recent September revision of its advisory circular, including its taxiway design grouping, which governs not only the types of plane that can fly in to a particular airport, but also looks at approach speeds, wing span and wheel configuration,” Hughes elaborated. “If we’d submitted the ALP a year ago, this would be a moot point.
And Hughes is candid that, in his opinion, there have been mistakes, some of which probably should have been caught by plan checkers, including the consultant’s company. That said, he thinks the ultimate fact checker will be the FAA. “If the FAA wants us to widen the runway (to accommodate planes such as the Boeing 737-700), let the FAA tell us what they want and decide whether they want to fund expansion of the runway, and whether they want us do it now or can it wait?”
Editor’s note: Geisel’s ancillary piece on the mothballing of the Airport Commission will appear next week.