For more than a century, Pearson Field has served aviators in Southwest Washington while occasionally playing a role in flying history. Yet questions linger about whether the single-runway airfield can effectively serve the bustling city that has grown up around it.
Judging from an investment by the federal government, Pearson Field will continue to play a role in a changing Vancouver. The Federal Aviation Administration this week committed a $150,000 grant for renovations at the airfield. It is part of $608 million doled out from the Airport Improvement Program under the Department of Transportation, with $38.68 million of that going to airfields in Washington.
“As we continue our pandemic recovery, more Washingtonians are taking to the skies and showing just how crucial it is to make investments now in our airport infrastructure to prepare for future growth,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. and chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “This $38.68 million in airport infrastructure funding will play a vital role in maintaining Washington state’s airport conditions. … These grants will help ensure that our airports grow in tandem with the regions they serve.”
According to a press release, the Pearson money will go toward the design of new airport lighting, a new emergency generator and new runway edge lighting.
It is undeniable that investment in America’s airports, airfields, ports, roads and bridges is necessary. Decades of neglect have hampered the economy, and a bill signed late last year by President Joe Biden commits $1.2 trillion over 10 years to bolster that infrastructure.
And it is undeniable that Pearson Field has played a historic role in Vancouver since opening in 1911. The airfield, which sits on the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve site and is visible from Highway 14, is believed to be the second-oldest continually operating airfield in the United States. Most notably, it was the terminus when Soviet aviator Valery Chkalov made the first non-stop transpolar flight in 1937.
History and modern needs often do not mesh, however, and issues in recent years have raised questions about whether Pearson Field is archaic. In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration backed off new rules that would have limited air traffic at Pearson to avoid conflicts with flights in and out of Portland International Airport; and the design of a proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement must take nearby Pearson into account.
If local residents had to choose between the airfield and a new bridge, the preference would be a bridge. But with Pearson sitting partly on land owned by the National Park Service, and with a lease running through 2050, the airfield is not going anywhere. Bridge planners must find a way to make construction compatible with an established part of Vancouver’s history.
According to the city of Vancouver, Pearson Field and Museum annually attract nearly 40,000 visitors to the city, generate $27 million in revenue and support approximately 460 jobs. Pearson receives no operating funds from the city.
That points to the current benefits of the general aviation facility, in addition to the historic benefits. Small airports are not solely for pleasure excursions; as a report out of Indiana surmises, “The aviation industry is an economic generator. It equates to jobs and income. There is an important link between an airport and a community’s economic vitality.”
That applies even to a mid-sized city with an international airport just across the river.