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Bypass Opens Around DrakeField

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August 18, 2010 by wcobserver

By Delcie Kincaid

Construction crews were able to open up a new section of highway near Drake Field last week, after creating a safety area for planes that might overshoot the runway.

Although the jog in the road might seem to have little use or meaning, the space it has created brings the airport up to Federal Aviation Administration safety standards.

Despite speculation, financial coordinator James Nicholson, said the runway isn’t being extended.

Nicholson said after a series of planes went off of runways around the nation in the 90s, the FAA stepped up its safety guidelines for end of runway safety measures but officials at Drake Field have had to wait for several years to be able to do improvements.

“We couldn’t do much until we had the money and the heavy traffic moved from Hwy. 71 to I-540,” Nicholson said.

The runway safety area project, which cost $3.2 million, was 95 percent funded by a grant from the Airport Improvement Program and the remaining 5 percent portion will funded by a grant from the Arkansas State Department of Aeronautics, which support all the Arkansas airports. This program identifies airports that need safety upgrades and collects money from taxes on aviation fuel, Nicholson said.

The amount of space typically required for the safety depends on the type of aircraft that use the runway, Nicholson said. According to the FAA web site, the safety areas are rectangular, extend 250 feet on either side of the runway’s centerline and 1000 feet beyond each end of the runway.

“We studied various scenarios,” Nicholson said. “The most effective was to move the highway.”

One alternative called for extending the runway 1000 feet to the south, which would maintain the correct safe distance for landing but would cost around $20 million. Another alternative called for adding what is known as Engineering Materials Arresting System. EMAS material at the end of the runway is designed to decelerate the plane when it rolls into the dense crushable concrete. Nicholson said there would be a lot of  maintenance involved on that option and the cost estimate for initial install was $7.3 million.

Nicholson said he hopes to see traffic pick up at the airport because of these safety
changes.

“The past couple of years have been tough because of the economy,” he said. “We’re down 30 percent since 2006.”

Ray Boudreaux, airport director, said the new safety area allows planes landing to descend at a lower altitude, something he says is important in instrument landings, which pilots rely on when flying into Drake Field.

He also said he hopes to see bigger planes coming in and that eventually all the University teams can fly in and out, not just the basketball and baseball teams.

“This is all for the community,“ Boudreaux said.

Nicholson said he expects the project to wrap up in
November.

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