While drone tests and demonstrations have created much of the buzz at Griffiss International Airport of late, they’re not the entire focus of the operation.
New Aviation Commissioner Chad Lawrence is looking at a series of hangar improvements — some are immediate while others are more long term — to lay down the groundwork for the long-term plan that the county airport serve as a springboard to job creation. He says the the airport is always looking to land new tenants or help existing ones to grow. Upgrading facilities is an important step to making that vision a reality.
The airport primarily handles general aviation aircraft with no scheduled passenger air service. Some 60 aircraft are based at Griffiss.
Military aircraft often use the runway that is more than two miles long for landing and takeoff maneuvers. Also, an aircraft maintenance and overhaul center brings in large commercial aircraft.
There were 22,687 landings and takeoffs at Griffiss in 2017, according to Federal Aviation Administration figures. This total is the lowest since the airport moved to Rome 11 years ago from Whitestown. The highest number was 60,265, in 2011.
Most notably at the moment, work continues to outfit the interiors of some of the five nose dock hangars to make them more usable. While there is open floor space that can accommodate planes, the buildings are not all equipped with amenities.
The nose docks are holdovers from the days when Griffiss was still an Air Force base. The flying mission ended in 1995. And although they’ve all undergone substantial rehabilitation work since then, including new roofs and siding, interior painting and lighting upgrades, that was just the start.
What’s under way now on a hangar-by-hangar basis is the construction of interior improvements like offices, conference rooms, restrooms and storage space. The intent is to make the buildings, which cover about 28,000 square feet each, more suitable to the needs aviation-related businesses.
For example, an interior upgrade is about to move from the design stage to construction in nose dock 784. Microdrones, a German unmanned aerial systems company whose U.S. base is at Griffiss, wants to expand its local operation, but first needs the landlord to make some improvements to accommodate its growth. Bids were advertised earlier this year with a due date of Thursday.
Two buildings down the row of nose docks, Lawrence says work is about to start on inside improvements to 786. The contract was awarded to the One70Group. No new tenant has been publicly identified for 786 although there’s been interest in the building.
It was last used by Premier Aviation Overhaul Center for storage. Premier is an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul center located elsewhere are Griffiss.
Already finished is the interior “upfit” of nose dock 785. It is currently vacant after a prospective tenant backed out. The aviation commissioner is hopeful of lining up another tenant.
Nose dock 782 is slated for a project too. It is seen as the new home for the Mohawk Valley Community College Aviation Training Center, currently located elsewhere on the airfield, near ROI Office Interiors and Brown & Brown Insurance.
The airport was awarded $1.5 million by the state to help pay for the conversion of 782. The MVCC program is a full-time, one-year program. Full-time attendance is required for the program’s three semesters.
Enrollment is limited to 25 new students each semester. The program, which began about 10 years ago, typically starts new students in May, August and January.
Program Director Walter Constantini said the new location would provide about 10,000 more square feet for classrooms and training. Students learn the aviation technician trade on a variety of aircraft, including a Boeing 727, two Gulfstream GII business jets, a Bombardier Challenger 600 and a twin-engine Cessna 310.
He said the hangar’s interior modifications have been designed to keep as much open floor space as possible so that some of the smaller planes can be brought inside the building for students to train on. At present, students can only work on planes parked outside the building. Constantini said inside hangar space will allow for expanded training.
The program director said his graduates go to work for Premier Aviation and other aircraft maintenance operations. He said this past semester five companies, not counting Premier Aviation, visited the school to actively recruit students.
The hangar to be renovated is currently partially occupied by a nonprofit air ambulance service, Mercy Flight Central. Displaced Mercy Flight would move its operation to the building now used for the aviation tech training school.
The fifth nose dock, 783, is used for aircraft storage with no plans for additional inside improvements.
With the hopes of gaining new tenants and better serving existing users of the nose docks, street light upgrades are in the works for Bomber Drive, which is the roadway that provides access to the buildings.
Elsewhere on the airfield, $1.4 million was awarded last December to Oneida County to help jumpstart the rehabilitation of Building 100. The project involves about 31,000 square foot of office space in the center of the building, including the unmanned aerial vehicle operation center on the second floor and an addition for new stairways and an elevator. There’s no elevator in the building at present.
Griffiss is one of seven drone test sites in the U.S. to research and deploy technologies that establish the case for safe drone operations in the nation’s commercial airspace.
The rehab plan is driven by the interest of a potential tenant in leasing 10,000 square feet on the second floor.
The grant was part of the state’s annual regional economic development awards.
The county previously removed the asbestos and gutted most of the floor space on the second and third floors, leaving them mostly unfinished.
The airport’s administrative offices were on the second floor — they were left intact when then rest of the floor was gutted — and fixed-based operator Million Air was on the ground floor of Building 100 until a new terminal building was opened in 2015. The terminal building was designed so it could be expanded to accommodate a jet bridge and a waiting area in the event scheduled passenger service returns to Oneida County.
There are large hangars on both sides of the building’s core that could be leased to tenants.
Construction of a new prefabricated metal building was completed in 2017. The structure holds snow removal equipment, machinery that was formerly stored in a nose dock. The snow removal equipment was formerly stored in nose dock 782.
The new structure is located near the airport’s operations center, which houses Griffiss International’s fire station. It creates a centralized location for emergency operations, security and maintenance. Having all the functions near each other streamlines operations because the maintenance workers are also the airport’s firefighters.
The airport received a $2.8 million federal grant for the project in 2016. There was a small county share.