Officials at Yeager Airport are pursuing a $14 million “interim” runway safety project that calls for the immediate installation of a new system to stop planes that overshoot the south end of the Charleston airport’s runway.
The plan for a new Engineered Materials Arresting System, or EMAS, is in addition to a long-term, $175 million plan to lengthen the runway to 8,000 feet and add safety overrun space by extending northward into Coonskin Park.
The interim plan calls for installing a 37-foot-high retaining wall based on a terrace at the south end of the runway, where work to remove more than 500,000 cubic yards of material from the March 2015 collapse of a safety overrun area was recently completed. The wall would allow 100 feet of new safety overrun space to be added, which would be enough for the new EMAS bed at the south end of the runway.
The EMAS is a bed of specially engineered concrete blocks designed to break down if an airplane overruns the runway, much like a runaway-truck ramp. The EMAS destroyed in the 2015 landslide was credited in January 2010 with bringing a regional jet carrying 34 people to a safe stop 130 feet into the EMAS during an aborted takeoff.
Since the 2015 collapse, a 500-foot portion of the runway has been closed to air traffic and has served as a temporary safety overrun zone, giving aircraft traveling to and from the Charleston airport less room for departures and landings.
On Feb. 21, a commercial regional jet returned to Yeager about 15 minutes after taking off after experiencing a flaps issue, and used all 500 feet of the pavement in the reconfigured safety to come to a safe stop, according to airport officials.
“We need to get our runway distance back,” said Terry Sayre, Yeager Airport’s executive director, during a Thursday meeting of the airport board’s finance committee.
While Yeager’s runway is 6,802 feet long, the reconfiguration of operational space due to devoting 500 feet of runway to safety overrun purposes and readjusting its instrument landing system to accommodate the change has left the airport with 5,802 feet of available landing distance for aircraft using the north (Runway 23) end of the runway, and 5,725 feet for aircraft using the south (Runway 5) end.
Adding a 190-foot EMAS bed and a vertical guidance component to the instrument landing system at the Runway 5 end could enable the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain 6,000-foot landing distances and 6,300-foot departure lengths in both directions, while improving safety.
Having 6,000 feet of landing room in both directions would allow charter service by JetBlue and Miami Air to return to Yeager and make the Charleston airport a feasible location for additional low-cost passenger carriers and air freight carriers, Sayre said.
With 6,300 feet of departure space, United Airlines could offer more passenger seats on its longest flights from Yeager — seats that are currently lost because of weight penalties. Sayre said that during warmer months, when planes must go faster to take off, United loses up to five seats per departure on flights to Houston and Chicago.
The Runway 5 improvements, while part of an interim funding proposal, will be permanent, Sayer said, and incorporated in plans for an 8,000-foot runway with added safety overrun space.
Sayre said he and assistant airport director Nick Keller met with U.S. Rep Evan Jenkins and U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney in Charleston last week to discuss the interim and long-range plans for the airport. “They understand our needs and our plans,” Sayre said.
Yeager’s emergency infrastructure proposal has been submitted to the state Department of Transportation and will be among five West Virginia infrastructure proposals Gov. Jim Justice will submit to President Trump for inclusion in his infrastructure plan for the nation, according to Sayre.
“This project would make a big difference for the state of West Virginia,” said Yeager construction committee member Allen Tackett.
With a Republican majority in the state’s congressional delegation and a state that overwhelmingly supported the election of President Trump, “We think it’s possible to get funding approved for both the interim project and the runway extension plan,” Sayre said. “We’ll be shovel-ready whenever he signs the bill. This could be our one and only shot for a home run.”
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.