The runway repaving project at Blue Grass Airport is continuing to cause problems for pilots.
Thursday night, at least three flights into the airport were diverted to Louisville because, in part, parts of the instrument landing system for Lexington’s main runway are still down three months after the massive $36 million project and the Flight 5191 crash.
High winds, low clouds and downed equipment on Runway 22 that guides pilots to the runway made the airport unsafe for landings Thursday night, said a local air traffic controller and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and airport.
Flights have been diverted on five or six nights since Aug. 20, when that equipment, called the glideslope, was decommissioned for the resurfacing project, said Faron Collins, vice president of the Lexington National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
“It is definitely a factor,” Collins said. “This thing is killing us. We’re ready for them to come back.”
Airport officials say it will be turned back on on Thanksgiving Day, a day after one of the busiest flying days of the year.
Jenny Drake, a 29-year-old pharmaceutical company employee, had expected to arrive in Lexington at about 9:30 p.m. Thursday. She was flying from Newark, N.J., to see family for the weekend.
But her plane was detoured to Louisville to give clouds hanging over Blue Grass time to clear, she was told by pilots. After waiting on the ground in Louisville, she did not arrive in Lexington until about 11 p.m.
The 50-seat regional jet was nearly full, Drake said.
“Everyone was outraged,” she said.
The glideslope sends a radio frequency that allows pilots to tell the angle at which they’re approaching the runway. Without it, pilots must rely on visual cues.
That is cause for concern, said Paul Czysz, a retired aeronautics professor at St. Louis University.
“You’re back in 1941 when you’re landing without a glideslope,” he said.
Airport officials said it had to be moved for the runway repaving. It then had to be checked by the FAA for safety.
After that, the airport could not turn it on until the FAA published standard instrument approach procedures, said John Slone, the airport’s director of planning and development. Those are printed every 57 days, he said.
“It’s not a one-day job by no means,” he said.
There is a time lapse in order for the FAA to make sure everything is working properly, Slone said. “That is why these things stretch out over three months.”
Glideslope is one of two pieces of equipment that make up the instrument landing system. Slone said the ILS is working on Runway 4-22, which shares the same concrete as Runway 22, but planes approach them from opposite directions.
The project was timed so at least one runway will have a complete instrument landing system at all times, Slone said.
But pilots could not land on Runway 4-22 Thursday night because of stiff crosswinds. The low clouds, which make it difficult for pilots to see, and non-operational glideslope made it unsafe to land on Runway 22, Collins said.
Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said three or four flights had to be diverted Thursday.
Meanwhile, installation of the main runway’s center lights should be finished by the end of the year, Slone said. The main runway has been without them since the repaving project.
The airport’s handling of the $36 million repaving project has been criticized by local air traffic controllers, pilots and trial lawyers since the Comair 5191 crash on Aug. 27 that killed 49 people.
A little after 6 a.m. that day, pilots took off from a runway half as long as the airport’s 7,000-foot primary runway. The glideslope was not a factor in the crash.
The airport has defended its safety record and noted that the FAA approved its construction plans.
That didn’t please Drake.
“I was just appalled the airport is still doing stuff like this,” she said.