Tuesday, 22 October

Armenia’s Kapan Airport: Challenging Topography and Local Politics Work Against Its Reopening

Vahe Hakobyan, Armenia’s Syunik Provincial Governor, recently told the Aravot newspaper that studies are underway regarding the possible reopening of the airport in the town of Kapan, the provincial capital.

Getting the airport operating again, an issue that pops up periodically, would cut traveling time from Kapan to the capital Yerevan substantially and might just jumpstart economic activity in Armenia’s southern province.

Desire vs Obstacles

In August 2013, when another Vahe Hakobyan was Syunik governor, then Armenian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Territorial Administration Armen Gevorgyan, visited Kapan and familiarized himself with ongoing projects in the area. (Gevorgyan is the son of Maxim Hakobyan, General Director of the Zangezour Copper Molybdenum Plant (ZCMP) located in Syunik).

He discussed reopening the Kapan airport with representatives of the General Civil Aviation Department. They presented Gevorgyan, who noted that a functioning airport would be important for the populace, with a plan. Gevorgyan said the president backed the opening of the airport. An agreement was reached whereby the provincial governor and local businessmen would discuss the merits of the plan and present their cost estimates and suggestions to the government by September.

2013: Runway seen from the west

In December 2013, Syunik Governor Vahe Hakobyan told tert.am that it would take around 800 million AMD to reopen the airport. Hakobyan believed that the airport would boost tourism in Syunik, providing an alternate means of travel to the car or bus still used today. The governor said that his primary concern was to ferry passengers, underlining that the Zangezour Plant wouldn’t finance the plan.

2013: Runway seen from the east

In February 2013, Hakobyan told Aravot: “The airport, as an infrastructural link, is very important to our region, and today, we are doing everything to find solutions to operate it again. In the first stage of the program, flight and other technical schemes were studies. The second stage focused on financing matters. We already have a good idea about flight costs and airport maintenance. The government has included the matter in its agenda and we will work continuously to get it realized.”

Vahe Hakobyan was dismissed as Syunik governor seven months later, in September 2014. Sourik Khachatryan was reappointed governor. (Khachatryan had been removed after the incident involving the Boudaghyan brothers, in which Avetik Boudaghyan was killed.)

2014: Runway seen from the northwest

As noted above, the plan to open the airport was to be discussed by the governor and local businessmen. In 2015, Hetq talked to one of them. He said that his business was ready to invest several hundred thousand dollars, and that another prominent businessman would kick in the rest. The man told Hetq that problems had arisen after the change of governor. After a meeting, a top local official said that the plan to reopen the airport would in fact cost double the initial estimate. It’s clear where the extra money would wind up.

2014: Airport seen from the east

Today, studies on reopening the airport in Kapan, the provincial capital of Syunik, are being conducted by the Syunik Region Development and Investment Fund (SRDIF), created in December 2016 by the national government.

The latter noted: “There are many problems in the province in almost all economic sectors that cannot be solved by state or local budgetary means. Thus, the need has arisen to create a structure that can attract monetary and professional resources that will be directed exclusively towards resolving the province’s economic and social problems. This will be done by investment input, by creating new jobs, by increasing economic activity, and by other means.” In other words, reopening the airport would again rely on private sector financing.

Two leading figures of the region’s manufacturing sector have changed today. The management team of Maxim Hakobyan, once heading the ZCMP, was replaced in June 2014. The new team is now headed by Neil Stevenson, an Australian. Vahe Hakobyan (photo left), who now serves as Syunik Governor, was the administrative director of ZCMP until October 2016.

Another significant regional business, the Kapan Mining and Processing Company (KMPC), was bought by Russia-based Polymetal International from Dundee Precious Metals, a Canadian firm.

While the ZCMP had no desire to finance the airport project in the past, today, taking into account the fact that Hakobyan is the Syunik governor, will be a major contributor to the SRDIF. In the case of the KMPC funding the airport project, everything now depends on the new Russian management, even though its former Canadian executive director Hrach Jabrayan once announced the company was ready to invest half a million dollars.

Kapan Airport: Origins

In an unpublished book, famous aviator Dmitry Atbashyan (photo left), who headed the civil aviation department in Soviet Armenia from 1971-1987, writes about the creation of the Kapan airport.

Atbashyan writes that in July 1971, Rafayel Minasyan (First Secretary of the Kapan Regional Communist Party), paid him a visit, telling him that the former administration of the aviation department had promised to create an air link between Kapan and Yerevan on modern aircrafts (non-regular flights had been made by An-2 planes before this), and that the local populace, upon hearing the good news, started to build a new asphalt runway without getting paid. Minasyan also worked on the runway. However, after the runway was finished, the aviation department pulled out of the project, noting the complex topography of the site.

Rafayel Minasyan (photo left) stressed that the decision would negatively affect the reputation of the local Soviet authorities and the Communist Party. In addition, Minasyan said the lack of an air link with Yerevan would hinder the economic development of the area and lead to emigration. The next day, Atbashyan and Minasyan flew to Kapan aboard an An-2. Despite the complex topography, civil aviation department head Atbashyan was convinced that flights to Kapan would be possible with some technical tweaking.

Later, Atbashyan and his staff flew to Kapan aboard an Il-14. The plan was to use the Yak-40, similar to the Il-14, for future regular flights to Kapan. Atbashyan needed to prove that the Yak-40 could make the flight. The plan was to go into three separate landing patterns (from heights of 200, 100 and 50 meters) and then to pull up.  While all went well on the first two attempts, the Il-14 couldn’t pull up on the 50-meter attempt and was forced to land.

Local residents were out in force, watching the test. People held the flight crew aloft, carrying them in jubilation. Atbashyan promised the crowd that the Yak-40s would soon be arriving, but first some modifications to the runway needed to be made and radio navigation equipment installed. Everything was ready by the spring of 1972. Organizing the flight schedule to Kapan was agreed upon with the USSR Civil Aviation Department.

Afterwards, a Yak-40 flew to Kapan on a series of test runs under varying conditions. Thus, Kapan became one of Armenia’s first airports for regular Yak-40 flights. Radio towers and weather equipment were soon installed.

August 18, 1972: First Yak-40 touches down in Kapan

The flight plan for landings at Kapan was via the Voghji River valley. Planes would descend through the clouds and then turn left. The flight plan allowed landings in less than optimal weather conditions.

Daily flights in and out of Kapan soon increased to 10-12. On days featuring football matches in Yerevan, some 16 flights took off. Tens of thousands flew to Yerevan and back without incident. The Kapan airport closed after 1990, due to several objective and subjective reasons, and fell into disrepair.

Nerses Hovhannisyan’s 1980 film “The Flight Starts from Earth”, showing the Kapan airport and Yak-40s (Editing by Armen Gasparyan)

P.S. The Kapan airport’s runway measures 1,590 meters long and 40 meters wide. It sits 704 meters above sea level.

Airport photos by Karin Grigoryan, Vaghinak Ghazaryan, Ara Hakobyan

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