Test groups return to Inyokern Airport

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Test groups return to Inyokern AirportAs commercial operations begin to resume across the state, the pent-up demand for staging military testing has triggered an uptick in demand for facilities use at Inyokern Airport.

It means a healthy infusion of revenue for our remote airport, said General Manager Scott Seymour, but it also means millions of dollars in disposable income to the hotels, restaurants and other local businesses that benefit from hosting visitors.

Over the last decade or so, the clear skies and good weather in the IWV — along with access to restricted airspace, and the nearby military ranges for all services — have made IYK a popular staging ground for testing and operations.

It started back in 2006 when the Royal Air Force began staying at the airport several months out of the year while conducting training operations at China Lake. However, Seymour noted, IYK is conveniently located for access to a handful of other California and Nevada ranges that offer testing.

After the RAF wrapped up their ongoing presence here, Seymour learned that there were many other special operations groups looking for a place to conduct similar training.

“This is just a really unique area, and I think that the groups we host appreciate our ability to accommodate them,” said Seymour. “The staff is great about finding a way to make things work. And a lot of the special ops groups appreciate being able to operate outside of a military base, where there are not the same requirements for protocol and ceremony.”

In the last year, there have been several operations that have had to reschedule first because of the earthquakes then because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. “But just recently things have really started picking up,” said Seymour.

“In the next two months, we have four events coming in. One group alone is spending about $2.9 million while they are here.”

For decades, IYK has operated as a general aviation airport. Up until recently, the airport earned up to $1 million each year in FAA entitlement money that helped keep runways, terminals and other infrastructure in prime condition.

When enplanements dropped below 10,000 several years ago, that FAA money shrunk to $150,000 in facility funding. In the years that followed IYK worked to secure alternative airlines to connect local travelers to other hubs, but the collapse of the commuter industry has diminished hopes of another.

“There really would have to be some significant change in the industry for us to get it back. Even SkyWest, who used to be here, stopped using small planes,” said Seymour.

“I think there is still a huge value in having an airport, though.”

In addition to the economic engine behind supporting defense operations, filming remains a vibrant industry at IYK. In 2018-19, several key scenes for Top Gun 2 — which brought hundreds of cast and crew into the valley over a period of several months, and generated untold millions in spending around town — were filmed at our airport.

Filming has not yet picked up again since COVID-19 closed down the industry, but Seymour expects it to return. “There was a time when, at any given moment, you could flip through the channels on television and find a car commercial that was filmed out here.”

Seymour cited a nondisclosure agreement that prohibited him from addressing specific projects (including TG2, which has been corroborated through other sources), but he noted that many of the high-profile projects filmed at IYK have left lasting improvements.

During the filming of Hangover 3, the airport partnered with the production company to pay for improvements of “Hangar 1,” the historic World War II structure built when China Lake first began operating here (formerly at the site of IYK) in the 1940s.

“I believe that some of the repairs we made probably saved Hangar 1 when the earthquake hit,” said Seymour.

When film and defense operations slowed down, Seymour and his remaining employees focused their time on working to secure additional improvement grants, planting trees along the entrance road and finding other ways to beautify the space.

“Now we are working on a grant to put a facade up at the entrance,” he said.

“There are a lot of advantages to coming to IYK that we can’t control. The military guys like our weather, the autonomy, and the access to air and land ranges. Our film guys love the panoramic view of our mountains.

“And the people who live here love the airport. We have a lot of private pilots who get to come out and fly just about any time they want to.

“But we are always looking for ways to improve the ways we serve our community.

“ Some of those ways are probably not directly seen by those who live here, but the economic impacts of being here benefit all of us.”

Pictured: H-60 Blackhawks stage for an Army operation on Runway 10-28 at Inyokern Airport. — Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2020-06-26