Colorado Springs Airport and Peterson Air Force Base share runways and resources in a partnership that stretches back decades. ( Photo by Allison Daniell Moix, Stellar Propeller Studio)

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series examining partnerships between the military and the civilian business sector.

In November, Peterson Air Force Base added 276 acres to the tract it leases from Colorado Springs Airport, bringing the size of the base to 1,476 acres.

It was the latest development in the 52-year-old airfield-sharing agreement — and it’s just one of many ways the military installation and the city-owned airport partner to make the most of expertise, space and funding.

The Air Force entered into the lease with the city in 1967 to acquire about 800 acres, said Dan Rodriguez, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron deputy base civil engineer. The intervening years have seen numerous additions and modifications to the lease, and developments in the way the organizations exchange services.

This week Rodriguez and Colorado Springs Airport Director of Aviation Greg Phillips spoke with the Business Journal about how it all works.

First, the land. Peterson AFB sits on the northern edge of the airport, and leases its land from COS for a nominal $1 per year. The rest of the lease’s value is covered by in-kind services Peterson provides to the airport — most notably, firefighting and emergency services.

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If there’s a plane crash or a car accident at the airport — or a heart attack or fall inside the airport — Peterson’s fire and emergency services personnel are the first responders.

Under this agreement “a benefit to [Peterson AFB] is they don’t have to pay rent,” Phillips said, “but what they do provide is something way more valuable for us than dollars and cents.”

Analysis shows the airport gets “about $2 million in benefit” from those services, he said, “because that’s 55 trained firefighters. So that’s 55 people we don’t have to have on staff. They also have four fully equipped airfield firefighting vehicles, and typically those vehicles can be $700,000-$1 million each.”

It’s an agreement that showed its value in April 2018, when a construction crew accidentally started a massive rooftop fire at the airport’s main terminal, causing about $5 million worth of damage.   

“They were here within, I think, four minutes of the call out for the fire,” Phillips said of Peterson’s first responders. “That’s a huge benefit for us.”

Another benefit comes from Peterson shouldering the cost of training those first responders.

“At a typical airport, when you have to send a single firefighter to live burn [training] it usually means sending them to Dallas, or to Helena, Mont., or San Francisco to do that,” Phillips said. “You’re putting them up for a couple of days, it gets expensive. And with that many firefighters, it gets really expensive. So we don’t have to do any of that.

“We don’t have to maintain that staff,” he added. “We don’t have to maintain that equipment, we don’t have to provide all that training, because they take care of it.”

Working together is “great for both of us,” Rodriguez said, explaining that while Peterson is home to the 302nd Airlift Wing, it doesn’t see many jets.

“Even though you’ll see a lot of jets coming in and out of Peterson, those are just visiting the base — they’re not actually assigned to the base,” he said. “So helping the airport with the aircraft that they have coming in and out gives our folks a lot of training opportunities and real-world experience. So when they do have to go into a deployed environment and they’re working with real big Air Force jets, they’re totally experienced to be able to handle the situation out in the desert, or wherever they’re assigned.”

If firefighting and emergency services “were all we got from Peterson, it would be an incredible benefit,” Phillips said. But the partnership goes further.

In exchange for the lease expansion finalized in November, Peterson now provides wildlife management services to the airport, worth $59,000 a year.

“[That’s] monitoring for wildlife that may get in the way of the aircraft taking off or landing,” Rodriguez said. “Whether it’s deer or geese or whatever, our wildlife management partners take care of the airport as well as the base.”

The service addresses a serious risk.

“If you get a larger bird inside a jet engine it can take it down,” he said, “and that’s a multimillion dollar aircraft that’s now out of service — and [it] could affect the health and safety of the pilots.”

The ease and simplicity of exchanging in-kind services is its own benefit, Rodriguez explained.

“On the wildlife management part, we already have that contract to maintain the base, and it was pretty easy to add the airport to that,” he said. “It wasn’t that big a deal. It’s easier for us to get funds to pay for that contract instead of trying to get separate funds for a lease, since we already had a contract in place and we just do a small modification.”

The additional 276 acres added to the east side of the base in the November expansion will help Peterson to “accommodate any new missions that may come to the base,” Rodriguez said, “because we’re sort of out of space on the original acreage that we leased; we just don’t have any more room for new construction.

“With this new acreage, we can move parking lots into that area and then on our existing parking lots we can build buildings or whatever we need.”

While Peterson handles firefighting, emergency services and wildlife management for Colorado Springs Airport, the airport takes care of snow removal and all other work critical to maintaining the runways, Phillips said.

“What [Peterson] gets is a fully capable year-round all-weather airport with three runways, that they don’t technically have to do any maintenance on,” he said. ,“If this was [another] Air Force base they’d be responsible for doing all that, they’d have to pay for all that. … So that is the symbiotic relationship between us and them: We both support keeping this airfield in tip-top shape and operating so that everybody can use it.”

Aircraft flying in and out of Peterson add to the airport’s operations (take-offs and landings) count, Phillips said. He also sees Peterson’s Rocky Mountain Flight Training Center, which is an FAA Part 141 Flight and Ground School, as a real benefit to the airport.

“They do flight training over there — you can think of it as the lifeblood of aviation,” he said. “… So that’s a really important addition.”

Peterson is headquarters for the 21st Space Wing, the Air Force’s only organization providing missile warning and space control to unified combatant commanders worldwide. It’s also home to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Northern Command, Air Force Space Command, Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Strategic Command, as well as the 302nd Airlift Wing.

And to Phillips — himself a Military Academy at West Point graduate and Army veteran — those missions are invaluable.

“The value that Peterson AFB brings to Colorado Springs, I couldn’t even give this dollar amount in economic impact,” he said. “But if I were to sum up everything — in my mind, the biggest and the best thing is that we’re supporting our national defense, and we do it right here in Colorado Springs.”

Peterson is the home of some of the Air Force’s most critical operational missions, Phillips noted, “and all of that is important to us and to this community and to our national defense.

“When I look out my window every day, I look across at Peterson Air Force Base and I see C-130s flying in and out, doing important missions for our country,” he added. “All of us here at the airport feel proud that we’re part of the mission that helps support and keep Peterson Air Force Base thriving.”

Peterson’s other civilian partnerships

• Peterson AFB has support agreements with the city of Colorado Springs Fire Department and Cimarron Hills Fire Department. Peterson firefighters backfill local stations when needed (for example, during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires) and local firefighters step in if overseas missions or illnesses leave Peterson Fire Department short-staffed.

• Through the Air Force Community Partnership Program, Peterson works with the city on a number of initiatives, including Coordinated Transition Support Services, which focuses on improving transition services for retiring airmen.

• With Pikes Peak Community College, Peterson runs an experiential learning program where PPCC’s geographic information systems students get practical experience and training on Peterson’s highly specialized equipment.

• Peterson AFB brings an estimated $1.2 billion per year in economic impact to Colorado Springs, with more than 10,000 people working at the base.