July 26, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

"It's a fairly major deal for us," said Dennis Spray, Union County's general services director.

News had just arrived Friday that the county is all but assured of getting $2 million for installation of a system at the Union County Airport that will allow for precision approaches of aircraft to the 5,600-foot-long runway.

The installation of a transponder landing system should reduce the number of diversions to other airports in bad weather and also enable planes to land day or night, Spray said.

"We average about 17,000 landings and takeoffs a year, and this will help us get more flights missed due to weather problems," he said.

"It's a safety factor that will help all planes. Planes these days all have transponders aboard."

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., made an announcement in a joint news release from Washington, D.C., that the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved the funding.

Spray said he got a call from Smith announcing the appropriation.

The money for the transponder was included in the Transportation and Related Agencies Bill. The bill also includes such things as $70 million for an Interstate Max light rail transit system extension in the Portland area. The bill must be approved by the full Senate before being considered by a joint House-Conference committee.

In all, the package provided funds for 14 Oregon projects.

"We feel very lucky," said Spray. "There were not a lot of airports that got any funding.

"We've been working on getting this for a couple of years. It's a fairly new system."

The transponder landing system equipment, Spray said, is made in Hood River. Union County will be a test airport for the system, which is based on transponders already in most planes.

Spray said he is not a pilot and doesn't totally understand the technology, but that he understands "it will help planes get lower to the runway (as they approach). It should help a great deal. Right now we have a really antiquated, non-precision system."

The equipment would be owned and maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, so there is no future expense to the county, Spray said.