Tracking Planes In Idaho's Backcountry Could Save Taxpayer Dollars

May 23, 2018

Dan Conner's cameras capture a plane at one of Idaho's 31 backcountry airstrips.
Credit Idaho Transportation Department

Idaho’s backcountry airstrips provide a unique service for pilots flying in and out of remote areas of the state. There are no towers and no record of who comes in or out of those spots. And that can be a problem when it comes to keeping the strips operating. But now one man has an idea on how to fix that oversight.

Dan Conner is a Senior Utility Craftsman with the Idaho Division of Aeronautics who takes care of 31 of the state’s backcountry airstrips.

“I love my job,” says Conner, because he gets to travel to all parts of the state and see amazing vistas.

Conner is an outdoorsman and a hunter and he recently came up with the idea of using wildlife cameras to take pictures of airplanes accessing those landing strips.

The Division was using airplane counters that just recorded noise levels around the strip, which were used to try and figure out how many planes took off and landed. But the counters were old and expensive to replace. And sometimes the counters got confused with the sound of four-wheelers or gunshots nearby. So Conner had an idea.

“Why don’t we just get a picture, then we know if it’s a deer or a motorcycle or someone out there shooting, and we have a picture of what’s taking place,” says Conner. “That way we can justify how much money we’re putting into it, maintenance-wise,” says Conner.

He bought four wildlife cameras and tried an experiment at the Garden Valley Airstrip. They’ve gathered plenty of information on incoming planes. Conner says they’ll be able to count the number of planes using the strip, if they are commercial or private, and figure out the type and size of aircraft.

“That tells us if we’re getting a lot of damage on our airport from the landing, is it smaller planes that are doing it, or is it a larger aircraft that’s doing it,” says Conner.

The cameras will also let them know during fire season if Forest Service planes are using the strip, and if that’s causing damage that needs repair.

Conner says they’ll put cameras up at some of the sparsely-located landing strips. That will help them determine how much of their budget they should spend on those spots.

“If it’s an airport that’s only getting a half-dozen planes a year, we’re not going to put as much money into it, but if we get one that’s getting hundreds of planes a year, then that’s where were need to put our money,” says Conner. “We’re a pretty small division and don’t have a very big operating budget,” says Conner.

The cameras also picked up something else: wildlife. They spotted plenty of elk and deer out on the runway. He says knowing what animals are around is also good information to have.

“If there’s cattle that’s getting out there and damaging our runway, maybe we can charge back [repair costs] to the rancher. Or is it deer and elk getting out there?”

Conner says the camera project is in the experimental phase right now. He’s hoping to expand and buy more cameras over time.

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