By Chris Sasser
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
While driving down Highway 67 from Marfa to Presidio, it’s easy to be mesmerized by the scenic landscape. The route crosses the Chinati Mountains, passes the ghost town of Shafter, then descends into the Rio Grande Valley at Presidio. It’s a marvelous drive through rolling hills. It’s also easy to get a sense of the remoteness of Presidio.
The Chihuahuan Desert isolates Presidio. The nearest commercial airline connections are in El Paso and Midland, each around a four-hour drive.
“For a town our size, we are considered the most remote city in the continental United States,” said Chase Snodgrass, airport manager for Presidio County, which includes Marfa Municipal and Presidio Lely International.
It was this remoteness that led Snodgrass, a retired Border Patrol station chief and aviator, to work with city officials toward improving the Presidio Lely International Airport (KPRS).
Recently, a new global positioning system (GPS) instrument approach procedure was installed at the airport. The installation of the system increases medical and tourism flight access to the airport by enabling pilots to improve their preflight planning.
“It wasn’t an easy process,” chuckled Snodgrass. “I finally told the company I was working with that if planes could fly into Telluride (Colorado), then they should be able to fly into Presidio.”
According to Snodgrass, the area around Presidio, which sits at the foothills of Big Bend State and National Parks, attracts many biking enthusiasts from across Texas and the country. The road that connects Presidio to Big Bend is FM 170, known to locals as the “River Road” as it runs adjacent to the Rio Grande River. Much of the route passes through Big Bend Ranch State Park where the road becomes more mountainous with sharp curves and steep grades.
“All it takes is an unfortunate crash or someone getting bitten while hiking,” said Snodgrass. “And the need for immediate medical attention is apparent since it’s almost two hours by land to the closest hospital in Alpine.”
In the past, if someone required attention for a traumatic injury beyond what the Alpine hospital could handle, that patient would be driven to Alpine and then flown to El Paso. With the new GPS instrument approach procedure in place, critical care patients can be flown to trauma centers from Presidio — saving time and lives. And save lives it has. In the nine months since the equipment installation, mortality rates have dropped from 30 percent to less than 1 percent. Plans also are on the drawing board for an emergency medical services (EMS) station at the airport since city and county officials have identified air ambulance service as a critical need for Presidio.
“We don’t have a doctor in Presidio,” said Carlos Nieto, special projects coordinator for the City of Presidio. “With a population our size (5,106) that is aging and our location, this airport is a vital part of our community.”
Nieto, a lifetime resident of Presidio who served as school board president for several decades, is quick to point out the necessity of the continued revitalization of the airport.
“This airport sat virtually dormant for many years,” said Nieto. With the help of Dave Fulton and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), we are well on our way toward becoming a destination airport. This airport is an asset, and we want to spread the word to our community and beyond.”
Recently the airport installed an improved fuel system. The project was paid for using local government entity funds, half of which TxDOT’s Routine Airport Maintenance Program will match.
According to Snodgrass, the upgraded pumping system increases the volume of fuel from 15 gallons per minute to 100 gallons per minute, which will also help to attract more business to the airport.
“It was a much-needed upgrade,” Snodgrass said. “We had the old system for about 15 years. It worked, but we were losing business. Pilots of larger aircraft didn’t want to wait around for 45 minutes while they refuel.”
The new system, Snodgrass explained, will be an asset to EMS aircraft.
During the 2008 flood, for example, military Chinook helicopters were forced to refuel in Alpine due to the lack of a system capable of filling them. Snodgrass estimates that the amount of jet fuel used at that time at around 50,000 gallons.
“There was not only a loss of revenue at the airport, but a delay in time for the helicopters to get to where they were needed,” said Snodgrass.
Along with increasing the system’s pumping capabilities, the upgrade also includes the installation of longer fuel hoses that allows larger aircraft to refuel, and an improved filtration system.
Future plans include the rehabilitation of the main runway, ramp and taxiways.
After a delicious lunch at El Patio, Nieto drove me around Presidio and proudly showed off the community’s schools and baseball field (baseball is the Number 1 sport for Presidio youths).
“Even though we are a poor school district, we are very proud of our excellent teachers,” said Nieto, who has a master’s degree in Public Health in Health Care Administration from the University of California at Berkeley.
In 2012, CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman visited Presidio to report on the Presidio Rocket Club, organized by science teacher Shella Condino. In his report, Hartman noted that “Presidio probably has more aspiring aeronautical engineers than any other town in America.” (To view this story, please visit http://www.cbsnews.com/news/for-texas-rocketry-club-and-their-inspirational-teacher-the-sky-is-just-the-beginning/)
As I prepared to leave Presidio, I received directions to River Road and Nieto asked if I had plenty of gas and water. While asking this question, he peered through the window to see for himself. Meanwhile, Snodgrass advised me to “stop at the top of Big Hill overlooking the Santana Basin for the same view Kevin Costner had in Fandango.”
“You are welcome here any time,” said Nieto. “Bring your kids with you next time you come.”
And there will definitely be a next time visit to this historic and memorable place.