Albert Ellis Leverages GPS Technology for Runway Rehab

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

Sometimes it’s not the large long-term projects looming on the horizon that cause the headaches; it’s the smaller ones that pop up without warning. That’s how it was for Jerry Vickers, airport director of Albert J. Ellis Airport (OAJ), in Richlands/Jacksonville, NC.

Vickers was surveying spots for a new sanitary sewer system to support future terminal renovations when engineers noticed a corrugated metal drainage pipe running under the airport’s sole runway.

“Most pipes are reinforced concrete, so it caught our eye,” recalls John Walz, project manager for engineering consultants Reynolds, Smith and Hills (RS&H). “Plus, there were visible signs of deterioration and stress.”

Typically, metal drainage pipes last about 20 to 25 years; this one was more than 30. Sleeving or encasing the aging pipe with stronger materials proved unacceptable. It needed to be replaced.

Fortunately, that work could be rolled into a routine runway rehab that was already planned. “And, we caught it in time to work it into the same grant year for FAA funds,” notes Vickers.

Like Pulling Off a Band-Aid

The need for a new drainage pipe not only expanded the scope of the routine runway rehab, it also inspired a change of strategy.

A minimum two-day shutdown was required to replace the drainage pipe because it crossed underneath the runway near its midpoint rather than near one end. Airport officials consequently decided to add another half-day to the pipe replacement schedule and repave as much of the runway as possible at the same time. This avoided the far-less appealing option of repaving in five- to six-hour increments each night for at least a week.

“We had to shut down for 48 hours to get the pipe out,” notes Vickers. “So we figured we’d maximize our resources and really gang up on the project.”

In just 60 hours, the airport had a new reinforced concrete drainage pipe that’s expected to last for at least 50 years and 6,900 feet of its 7,100-foot runway was resurfaced.

The shutdown was scheduled from 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2, to 8 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 5, to disrupt the fewest possible flights, and work crews used every minute of that window.

Although it was a conversation he didn’t look forward to, Vickers notified the airport’s two scheduled airlines, U.S. Express and Delta, as soon as the project was put out to bid in June. He wanted to give the companies as much time as possible to adjust schedules for the 12 daily flights at OAJ.

“We were on a record pace for enplanements (see chart on next page), so I hated to do anything to break that momentum,” he explains. “But they were understanding. It was work that had to be done and would benefit us all once it was complete.”

The airport also contacted its charter operators, about 30 owners who base small private aircraft there and officials at the Marine Corps Air Station New River, which uses Albert Ellis for its V-22 Osprey tiltrotor operations. Anyone involved with the 100 daily operations typical at the uncontrolled airfield was notified about the upcoming projects.

High-Tech Approach

Contractors leveraged technology to complete both phases of the fast-track project on time.

“The pipe replacement was one of the most impressive operations I’ve ever seen,” recalls Vickers.

After crews excavated 532 feet of old 4-foot diameter steel pipe, a new reinforced concrete replacement was installed and covered with flowable fill quick-setting concrete.

On the repaving front, about an inch of pavement was milled off to remove the slight cracking and limited oxidation that had occurred since the runway’s last rehab in 1986.

GPS (global positioning satellite) technology increased both speed and precision when pavers added two inches of new asphalt. Barnhill Contracting, the same company that performed the last rehab, used Topcon GPS and lasers to achieve accuracy to the millimeter vs. centimeter. Specific grades were downloaded from RS&H’s drawings directly into Barnhill’s pavers. The high-tech system automatically adjusted elevation control to produce a final overlay that easily exceeded the FAA’s requirement for accuracy to within a half-inch.

Typically, contractors use string lines on both sides of the pavers. Onlookers from RS&H and the airport noted how much faster the GPS system was — during setup and production.

Although Barnhill’s execution drew praise, GPS manager Mark Eakes noted ways to improve the process next time, including separating the teams of pavers at opposite ends of the runway vs. running them one behind the other. Barnhill’s “There’s always room for improvement on anything,” Eakes told Airport Improvement.

Interference with the laser signals also proved problematic at times — not at all surprising with up to 40 trucks on the runway at the same time.

Cooperation Was Key

In addition to its high-tech advantages, the Albert Ellis runway rehab also benefited from old-fashioned pre-planning.

“As soon as we awarded the contract, we began the pre-construction meetings,” explains Vickers. “Everyone brought the right resources and commitment to the project.”

With 450 workers on hand during the 2½-day project, coordination of crews was crucial. Equipment included four pavers, five milling machines, 30+ asphalt rollers, 60+ light plants and more than 200 trucks hauling about 24,000 tons of asphalt from two nearby plants.

Vickers was particularly impressed with the crews’ speed off the line. “When the power went off and we shut the airport down, hundreds of trucks mobilized from the parallel taxiway,” he recalls. “It was like a precision military drill.”

That’s high praise from a retired Marine officer.

Barnhill performed small test runs to ensure smooth operation of its GPS-equipped pavers. Crews were accustomed to working with GPS, but it was their first time using the more precise Topcon equipment.

“Some engineers don’t want to get involved with the small details of a project,” notes project manager Walz. “And some contractors don’t welcome their involvement at that level. This job had to be very collaborative; effective communication was very important. Everyone had to be working toward the same goals.”

The unified effort continued even after the pavers stopped. Everyone on hand — from engineering and airport execs to equipment operators and support crews — walked shoulder to shoulder the entire length of the 7,100-foot runway to check for FOD risks.

“It was like a giant human chain coming out of the early morning fog,” recalls Vickers. “It was really something, but we didn’t stay long. We couldn’t wait to re-open.”

Facts and Figures

Project: Runway Rehab, Drainage Pipe Replacement

Location: Albert J. Ellis Airport — Jacksonville, NC

Cost: $4.177 million
Funding: 95% AIP, 2.5% NC DOT, 2.5% PFCs

Construction: 60 hours

Engineering Consultants: Reynolds, Smith & Hills (RS&H)

Prime Contactor: Barnhill Contracting

GPS for Pavers: Topcon

Pipe Replacement: Williams Utilities

Luck Helps, Too

Even the weather, a make-or-break element squarely outside the airport’s control, cooperated for OAJ’s quick-turn project.

“Anything short of a Cat. 3 hurricane, and we were proceeding,” jokes Vickers.

Fortunately, no heavy weather gear was needed. Paving operations were suspended once for just 30 minutes because of light mist; otherwise crews ran non-stop.

In retrospect, Vickers is more than pleased about the project. With crews working 14- and 18-hour shifts (managers often more), fatigue was a major concern.

“We couldn’t have milked a single hour more out of anyone,” he notes. “We got it all done without any safety incidents, but we took ourselves right up to the limit.”



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