Even before a Comair plane crashed after using the wrong runway, Blue Grass Airport was moving ahead with plans to relocate that runway and separate it from the longer main runway.
The airport’s 2005 master plan calls for moving Runway 26, the one mistakenly used by Comair Flight 5191. The project would mean that the main runway and the smaller runway would no longer intersect.
If it moves forward, the runway project could bring a painful twist for victims’ families: The realignment would require using land that is now the crash site of Flight 5191.
The plane crashed after using Runway 26, which is 3,500 feet long, instead of the main 22, which is 7,000 feet long.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher said yesterday he backs the plan to move the general aviation runway, which was approved in February 2005. He also said it should be extended to 5,000 feet.
“It should be longer for safety reasons,” Fletcher said yesterday, a day after he called for permanently closing the current Runway 26. “I will be seeing whether we can expedite that.”
During the airport’s master plan process, discussions about relocating the runway focused on the potential for increasing flight traffic, not safety, said Bernard Lovely, chairman of the airport board. “That runway has been the way it is since 1942 and there hasn’t been any accidents.”
Airport officials will speak to Fletcher about his recommendation before the next board meeting, Lovely said. “We need to discuss with the governor his thoughts and our plans and our needs and see if some consensus can be reached.”
Michael Gobb, executive director at the airport, said he supports constructing a relocated, 5,000 foot runway, but it would cost $10 to $15 million. “We will need the governor’s assistance to fund that project because Blue Grass Airport does not have that money,” he said.
The airport is already 18 months into an environmental review process to build a new 3,500-foot runway slightly west of the existing one, Gobb said.
The pavement on the general aviation runway needs massive repair, including a complete reconstruction all the way to the sub-base, Gobb said.
“It’s ludicrous to replace it in place, where it is today,” Gobb said. “Common sense tells you to move it to a new location, separate the runways, separate the safety areas, set yourself up for the future.”
By separating the runways, Blue Grass can have two flights take off at the same time. That would free up the air carrier runway for more traffic.
Very little general aviation traffic currently uses the shorter runway. It is used for less than 20 operations -- an operation equals one take-off or one landing -- a day, Gobb said. There are about 275 operations a day at Blue Grass, he said.
Pilots prefer the main runway to the older, less well-maintained general aviation runway.
That is, unless a strong wind is blowing out of the west.
Jon Sisk, a pilot and owner of Enhanced Flight Group, an engineering company that designs modifications for small aircraft, said he and other small plane pilots rely on the orientation of Runway 26 to offset strong winds that come out of the west. Those winds create strong crosswinds hazardous for small, light planes.
“Obviously, I would rather land on the long runway, except when there’s that strong west wind,” added Jon Zachem, a pilot and former airport board member. Then, “we love it,” he said of Runway 26.
Zachem said he was disturbed by Fletcher’s call for permanently closing Runway 26. The crash “wouldn’t have happened if 26 wouldn’t have been there, but I don’t know that closing 26 is the answer,” he said.
“I was just incensed,” Charlie Monette, owner of Aero-Tech Inc., a flight instruction school, said when he initially heard Fletcher’s idea to close the runway. “The bottom line here is, that runway is crucial” to small plane pilots.
Monette does back the realignment plan, but doesn’t think it will happen any time soon. “Let’s just say, I haven’t been counting on it,” he said.
Gobb thinks it will happen.
Although the Federal Aviation Administration has not approved the new general aviation runway yet, the airport has already begun negotiations for land, Gobb said. “We need the land that the plane crashed on just to replace what we have.”
Gobb said environmental studies are under way, as are negotiations with landowners. He declined to talk about negotiations. Attempts to reach the landowners, Nicholas and B.J. Bentley, were unsuccessful.
In addition to backing the realignment, Fletcher yesterday repeated his call to shut down the current Runway 26 immediately and permanently.
Gobb and local pilots disagree.
“According to the Federal Aviation Administration, who are the experts on runways, taxiways, airport environments, that runway met the standard for which it was being used,” Gobb said. “It was not an air carrier runway, so it was not unsafe for its published use.”
Local pilots say closing the runway prematurely just hurts them and doesn’t increase safety.
“It’s not the runway’s fault,” said Sisk.