LAKELAND — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunters are looking for a new home to launch their tropical storm monitoring missions, and Lakeland Linder Regional Airport is a contender.
Last month, the Tampa Bay Times reported the U.S. Air Force asked NOAA to make plans to move its 95 employees, three hurricane hunting planes and six other planes off MacDill Air Force Base by July 1, 2017.
Since then, "Miss Piggy" and "Kermit," the two emblematic hurricane hunting Lockheed WP-3D Orions, are being treated like the prettiest planes on the tarmac.
Federal officials first contacted Lakeland Linder on Feb. 11, Airport Manager Gene Conrad said, and have since visited to assess the available facilities. A second trip is planned.
"Based on our conversations (with federal officials), there is still an opportunity for them to stay at MacDill, but in the mean time, they need to know what their options are," Conrad wrote in an email to city, Polk County and area economic development officials.
Conrad said he figures the strongest competition will come from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
If the hurricane hunters do move, it could be temporary — between three and five years, he said.
"As far as airport locations for their three- to five-year plan, I would have to say it is down to us and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE). Also, during the three- to five-year period they did mention they would take that time to look for a permanent home for the long term that could be anywhere in the Southeast."
Landing the contract would be a pretty big deal for the airport, Conrad told the Ledger, and Lakeland Linder is in a strong position relative to other area airports.
Lakeland Linder has an 8,500-foot runway — longer than NOAA's 8,000-foot requirement — hangar space, a good track record and perhaps as an advantage over airports in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, less air traffic.
Lakeland Linder is often used for touch-and-go training exercises by the Air Force for that reason, Conrad said. An on-site aircraft rescue and firefighting unit at Lakeland Fire Station No. 7 and a new air traffic control tower soon going live further sweetens the deal.
The operation's proximity to its current home may help, as well, or at least keep the storm hunters in the Tampa Bay area in the short term.
Local congressional members have made their districts' cases to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the federal agency that contains NOAA.
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, told The Times she was working with area delegates to make a case to keep the hurricane hunters close.
Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, threw his support behind Lakeland Linder.
"Keeping this important service for the Central Florida community in mind, and seeking to make the transition easier for all parties, I wanted to write you with my support for relocating these NOAA aircraft to the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport," Ross wrote to Christian Townsend, a senior realty specialist with the federal department.
He continued: "With office space immediately available to accommodate 100 NOAA workers and hangar space to house and maintain NOAA aircraft, (Lakeland Linder) is equipped to meet NOAA's needs on a short term basis. In the long term, it is prepared to construct a new permanent home specific to NOAA's requirement to house their employees and aircraft in one location."
Original article can be found here: http://www.theledger.com