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In Focus: Airport Projects

Del Norte County Airport must upgrade its runway in several areas to hang onto its commercial airport status. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
Del Norte County Airport must upgrade its runway in several areas to hang onto its commercial airport status. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

If Del Norte County Airport's runway areas aren't modified soon, the facility could lose its status as a commercial airport.

Called a runway safety study, it's the bottom-line reason that Airport Manager Jim Bernard has money in hand to begin a runway safety area study the Federal Aviation Administration told it to do as soon as possible. One problem is over-runs – when a pilot has run out of runway before his plane has slowed enough to turn off it.

"The RSA program is top priority for the FAA nationwide," Bernard said. "There've been a lot of over-runs."

Over-runs happen for several reasons.

"If a pilot lands too long on the runway or not in the touch-down zone, or hydroplanes because the runway is wet he can overshoot the runway," Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said. "If he has trouble with his brakes or his reverse thrusters, he can also overshoot."

Reverse thrusters help the planes slow down once they're on the ground.

The U.S. Army began planning Del Norte's airport during World War II. It was built during the post-war period.

"The Army built it because of the then-perceived threat from Japanese submarines," Bernard said.

These days, both runways – designated 17-35 and 11-29 – are too short. Both have "holes" at the end, or designated ponds where waterfowl congregate.

They'll have to be moved. Bernard plans to do as much as he can in advance preparation.

"I'll need a ruling," he said. "I'm mitigating the wetlands that would be removed"

If push comes to shove, the FAA may have to explain to agencies that oversee wetland areas why a runway extension is critical to the airport's continued operation," Bernard said.

"I'll bet the FAA's issues trump them," he said.

If the extension isn't built, the airport would be in non-compliance and at risk of losing the permit that allows it to land commercial flights, he said.

An initial runway safety area study FAA officials made last year found that trees, a livestock corral and some sand dunes also must be removed from alongside the runways.

Those areas interfere with a signal pilots use for help in landing their planes during inclement weather, Bernard said.

"The Army cleared trees back 250 feet when it built the airport," said Bernard. "The regulations are that they must be cleared to 500 feet, but there are wetlands there, too."

Airport Board Chairman Dan Brattain said "all the pilots" have complained about the signal.

"Our antenna setup gives them harmonic readings when making their ILS approach," Brattain said. "All the pilots have complained that it's hard to land when the signal is moving around.

A final part of the study will evaluate the strength of the runway's pavement. Workers will bore holes in the runways to check the amount of weight the pavement can support.

"We will probably have damage at the airport if there is an earthquake or a tsunami," said Bernard. "If part of the runways crack, we will move them out of the way and smooth it out to land planes or helicopters."

Del Norte County Public Works keeps a D-8 Cat at the airport as part of their arsenal for emergency response.

D-8's are large machines used for general bulldozing, pan pushing, tree dozing, scraper towing and other types of construction work.

If the runway is too badly damaged during a natural disaster for planes to land, helicopters still can use the facility. In a worst-case event, helicopters could drop emergency supplies until other arrangements can be made.

Bernard's study comes with a $275,000 price tag. County supervisors have approved that expense. But the improvements also will carry a price tag.

"Back when I checked the original price, slurry sealing the runway would cost $800,000 and re-striping it would cost $2 to $4 million," Bernard said. "The airport pays 5 percent, and the board will have to approve that, too."

An engineer's report will be the basis of determining how much, and which projects, are necessary for compliance.

•••••

What's at issue?

The Runway Safety Area study will evaluate several issues:

•Construction costs

•Environmental considerations

•Permitting considerations

•National Environmental Policy Act compliance.

•Degree of compliance with federal airport regulations

•How to proceed with construction

•Level of project support from airlines

•Maintenance issues and costs

•Engineering considerations such as drainage and soil conditions

•Effects on airport operation

•Airspace and runway approach lighting considerations

•Community considerations and issues

•••••

Pilot speak glossary

•RSA: Runway Safety Area, the area to be studied for compliance with federal airport regulations.

FAA: Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that oversees airport issues, compliance and regulation.

ILS: Instrument Landing System, the signal pilots depend on when they land during inclement weather. It enables them to "see" where they are when their eyes can't do the job for them.

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