Chopper testing at Sawyer

MARQUETTE – For those wondering about the helicopters spotted over the Marquette area Tuesday, Sawyer International Airport officials have answers.

The airport is serving as a winter icing test area for the U.S. Army, which has sent a team to test a Korean Aerospace Industries helicopter’s ability to operate in frigid temperatures and icing conditions, airport Manager Duane DuRay said.

“(The Army) creates artificial icing so that these helicopters can operate in a safer environment to test and see how they handle winter icing,” DuRay said. “They’re working with the South Korean company, doing icing testing on some of their newly developed helicopters that have to go through all of the certification.”

The Army’s CH-47D Chinook helicopter equipped with an icing spray system leads the operation, spraying onto the helicopter going through the certification. An additional aircraft also hangs nearby, monitoring conditions throughout the flight, DuRay said.

Although Sawyer has served as an icing test site in the past – most recently with the Italy-based company AgustaWestland in 2015- this is Korean Aerospace’s first time in the area.

Marquette County secured a contract with the Army for the testing that includes an aircraft hangar rental and other amenities, such as the lease for where the building is based, specialized equipment and janitorial and snow removal services.

“They were previously testing out of Duluth (Minnesota), but those facilities were no longer available,” DuRay said. “The Army looked for an airport that has large enough facilities, relatively open airspace and the best temperatures to fit their operations, and Marquette fell right into that scenario.”

With about 65 personnel from both the U.S. Army and Korean operation teams, DuRay estimated a $2 million impact to the local economy.

“What the airport gets is just a fraction of what the impact is to Marquette,” DuRay said. “There’s a pretty substantial spinoff to the community.”

The testing has been occurring on and off for about three months, he said, but has been difficult because of the unseasonably warm temperatures the area has been experiencing.

“There are certain perimeters and temperatures they just have not been able to reach with the warmer temperatures,” he said.

If the conditions remain favorable, DuRay said he expected the Army should wrap up operations by the end of this month.

“This has been a very good opportunity for Marquette County and Sawyer International to get this kind of opportunity with a global reach,” DuRay said. “We’re getting international attention because we’re part of the process – it puts Marquette County and Sawyer on the map for future development in an industry that is only growing.”

DuRay said he hopes the icing testing will continue at Sawyer for many years to come.

“We’re actively pursuing this operation on an annual occurrence, but it is heavily reliant on the customer base for the Army – they have to have a signed contract,” he said.

Kelsie Thompson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.