PENDLETON — Ten years ago, Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton was an albatross: an expensive relic left over from World War II.
“It was a pretty sleepy little regional airport, to be honest,” Pendleton Mayor John Turner said.
Back then, the airport only had 20 employees, and there wasn’t enough economic activity to justify a regular flight to Portland.
But the Pendleton airport did have two massive runways that date back to World War II and carry a storied history. This is where the so-called Doolittle Raiders — the pilots who first bombed Tokyo, taking off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — trained for that mission.
In 2012, Pendleton hired a new economic development director, Steve Chrisman, and one of his top priorities was figuring out a better use for the airport. On his first tour, he met Oregon National Guard Lt. Col. Alan Gronewald, who was overseeing a drone test.
Chrisman said the officer had a simple message for him: “He said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to tell you your job Mr. Economic development guy, but this world is coming fast.’”
In the beginning
Gronewald was talking about drones. So in partnership with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the city applied to become a federally-approved drone test range. It was a long shot; Oregon had neither a long history of working with drones nor as much money as others states. But in 2013 the Pendleton Unmanned Aircraft System Range was granted federal permission.
The concept of a federal commercial drone testing range was relatively new, so initially, Pendleton officials weren’t entirely sure how to proceed. Gradually, city leaders collected enough state and city money to build new hangars so visiting drone companies could test and tweak their vehicles in private.
Then, using an Oregon Innovation Council grant, the airport bought laser cutters, 3D printers and high-tech lathes, so companies could remake broken drone parts on-site and quickly resume testing.
The airport bought several mobile air-command centers too, so companies could drive out into the countryside to fly their drones over varied terrains, like canyons, forests, pastures and rivers. Most recently, with the help of a $3 million federal grant, the airport built a 100-acre industrial park with lightning-fast internet.
Efforts yield results
The result of all this work and spending: Pendleton has become one of the most popular of the federal government’s seven drone testing sites, with up to 1,000 take-offs or landings every month.
Retired Air Force Col. Stan Springer runs the Volatus Group, a drone pilot training facility in Pendleton. He said there are several reasons Pendleton has become popular. High on the list: cost.
“They have a natural distinct advantage with their low-cost base,” he said, noting the price of doing business in Eastern Oregon is cheaper than in parts of the country that already have a booming tech scene, such as Texas.
Also, Eastern Oregon skies are not busy as those around some other test ranges.
“They have a great big range that nobody else can duplicate,” Springer said.
Pendleton offers 14,000 square miles of sky, and the altitude limit doesn’t kick in until 15,000 square feet. That’s a big slice of Northeastern Oregon skies, higher than Mount Rainier. The range runs from Boardman in the west to the Idaho border in the east and from the Columbia River in the north almost to John Day in the south.
“By negotiating with area wheat farmers and other landowners, we can spread operations out away from congestion, which provides some level of safety,” explained Cory Roeseler, with Hood Technology, which specializes in blade vibration and monitoring.
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