Arcata-Eureka Airport Adds Runway Safety Area

Author: 
Greg Gerber
Published in: 
September
2011




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Project: Runway Reconfiguration

Location: Arcata-Eureka (CA) Airport

Funding: $8.8 million FAA grant

Strategy: Reposition takeoff/landing thresholds & add engineered material arresting system (EMAS)

Project Manager: Mead and Hunt

General Contractor: Mercer Fraser

EMAS: Engineered Arresting System Corporation

Challenges: Operating without ILS for 5 weeks; wet, foggy weather cramped preliminary work before planned 3-day airport closure

Benefits: Maintaining full runway length while complying with runway safety area regulations.

Extra runway length helps small regional airports attract larger jets and more passengers. But options are limited when an airport's runway ends at a cliff that drops 200 feet into the Pacific Ocean.

That's the situation officials at Arcata-Eureka Airport in Humboldt County, CA, faced a few years ago. An $8.8 million FAA grant, however, helped remedy the situation by providing funds to relocate landing and departure thresholds on two runways and install an engineered material arresting system (EMAS) to help meet runway safety area (RSA) regulations.

The project, which required the airport to completely shut down for three days and turn off its instrument landing system for five weeks, also included rejuvenating all runway surfaces, relocating an existing taxiway and its associated lighting and signs, then remarking all the runways and taxiways.

What to Do

An RSA is a rectangular-shaped graded surface that surrounds a runway to protect aircraft and passengers if a plane overshoots, undershoots or veers off the runway. The FAA requires RSAs to be adequately drained to avoid water ponding, clear of surface ruts and free of obstacles that could damage aircraft. At Aracta-Eureka Airport, the RSA for Runway 14-32 had to extend 250 feet on both sides of the runway centerline and run the entire length of the runway plus 1,000 feet beyond the departure end and 600 feet prior to the landing threshold.

A bluff located at the northwest corner of the runway, however, compromised the airport's RSA and adversely affected operations by reducing the 6,000-foot runway's available landing distance and accelerate stop distance to 5,200 feet.

"The problem we faced was that as the bluff eroded, the situation could have been exacerbated, which may have led to additional future runway reductions to meet the FAA rules," explains Jacquelyn Hulsey, aviation division manager for Humboldt County.

Despite money being tight at all levels of government, the airport was able to secure funding because the project involved an RSA, which takes precedence over terminal and taxiway construction, explains Jeff Leonard, P.E., project manager for Mead and Hunt.

Leonard credits the original manager, Mike Shutt, with having the foresight to submit the project early and usher the EMAS portion through FAA approval.

"If the airport had waited until now to start their project, they would be competing for funding with airports like San Francisco and Oakland that will require upward of $100 million to complete their RSA projects," Leonard notes. "In the grand scheme of things, to make one airport fully compliant for $8.8 million is a bargain."

After Shutt's death, Leonard assumed lead responsibility for the project.

Mead and Hunt's primary role began with conceptualizing alternatives and extended through engineering and execution. The company developed nine different alternatives for the main runway alone. "We had to make sure each alternative was within the maximum feasible cost," Leonard explains. "After several hearty deliberations, we determined the best approach was to add 200 feet of pavement to the 32 end of Runway 14-32 and install EMAS at the 14 end. Combined with some improvements to the bluff at the end of 14, we gained 400 feet of additional runway safety area."

The option selected allowed the airport to retain its full runway length while meeting RSA requirements for the runway - while staying within maximum feasible costs, qualifies Leonard.

"The final alternative resulted in fairly minimal environmental or operational issues compared to the other alternatives," he recalls. "It was the most logical solution."

Closing the Airport

To complete the project by the FAA's prescribed deadline, the airport needed to shut down the runways for three days. Airline representatives indicated the July 4th weekend would be the best option for them based on previous years' traffic lulls.

Once those three days were firmly fixed, the rest of the construction plan was developed accordingly.

Limited preliminary work was performed in fall 2009, but the first significant phase was slated to begin in early May, after the traditional rainy season had passed. Unfortunately, as crews arrived to begin grading, an extended rainy period put the project on hold for two extra weeks.

"The contractor was still able to do some preparation work during that period, so we remained close to schedule; but they didn't start working in earnest until mid-May," laments Hulsey. "The delay required the contractors to work very fast to ready the airport for the planned closure six weeks later."

At one point, 20 different contractors were on site completing various aspects - from grading and electrical work, to removing markings and laying a foundation for the lights.

To minimize impact on airport operations, contractors completed the bulk of the work at night and early in the morning. "When the night work began, the airline's flight crews worked extra hard to get all their flights in on time (so construction could proceed on schedule)," Hulsey reports.

The runway closure did, however, require some passengers to reschedule flights. "Many were very gracious and understanding," she recalls.

Shutting down the ILS system for five weeks left the airport vulnerable to weather-related delays and cancellations. Being situated on the Pacific Coast, fog was the biggest factor. To minimize passenger inconvenience, the airport chartered a 56-passenger shuttle bus to transport travelers to San Francisco International when operations were shut down at Arcata-Eureka. Numerous passengers took advantage of the free four-hour shuttle ride, notes Hulsey.

Work Begins

Planning for the airport's new EMAS started six years ago, when Engineered Arresting System Corporation (ESCO) provided options for the FAA to consider.

"EMAS was deemed the best solution for this situation because it allowed the airport to meet the safety area requirement in the smallest footprint possible, thus preserving as much space for runway operations as possible," explains Kevin Quan, director of U.S. sales and marketing for ESCO.

The EMAS at Arcata-Eureka Airport is a traditional design of concrete blocks specially formulated to crush when an airplane runs over them. The crushing action and accumulating debris help slow the aircraft down, much like gravel on mountainside ramps for trucks. A runway's specific mix of aircraft affects its EMAS design, because the system must be able to stop a range of aircraft operating at exit speeds of 70 knots.

With 57 installations worldwide, ESCO's EMAS has a 100% success rate during the seven incidents that have required the system. A particularly dramatic save occurred at Yeager Airport in Charleston, WV, last January when pilots of a CRJ-200 with 34 people on board aborted a takeoff and came to rest on the EMAS pad 150 feet from the end of the runway overlooking a 300-foot drop.

"An airport (like Arcata-Eureka) with a 6,000-foot runway and no safety areas on either end will have to declare part of that runway space as a safety area," Quan chronicles. "Since airports are required to have 1,000 feet of total safety area, if they only have 600 feet on both ends, then they must reduce the operational part of the runway by 400 feet to make up the difference."

Using an EMAS system allows the airport to use smaller declared distances, which leaves more runway space available for takeoff and landing, he explains. "Declared space also influences how many passengers an airport can service, how far the aircraft can fly and what type of aircraft the facility can accommodate," adds Quan. "Installing 280 feet of EMAS is like having 1,000 feet of declared space in place."

Arcata-Eureka Airport required a 280-foot long, 170-foot wide EMAS system set back from the runway by 75 feet. ESCO's design used 2,900 blocks that varied from six to 21 inches tall.

"We construct the blocks in our ISO-certified factory and test each batch of concrete to ensure that it cured correctly," says Quan. Blocks must be a specific strength to crush, yet still slow an aircraft if it passes over them.

Installation of the EMAS deflector pan was the work that required the airport to deactivate the localizer antenna for its ILS for five weeks. Contractors had tolerances of 1/16th of an inch to avoid interfering with the ILS equipment, and pilots were limited to visual landings.

PR Played Key Role

Closing an airport and dealing with the noise and dust associated with construction is never easy; but even Hulsey was surprised at how much the airport closure affected the community.

"Even though we thought we had let everyone know what we were doing, once the projected started, people popped out of the woodwork wondering how it would impact them and their businesses," she recalls.

Local hospitals, for example, had to be notified about the impact to their air ambulance service. A theater production company changed its schedule because it relies on crew and audience members flying in. Even Humboldt State University needed to be kept in the loop to coordinate meetings, student visits and other school events.

Updates, schematics and work plans were posted throughout the terminal to educate passengers about the project and explain how it would impact them. Materials stressed the benefits they would soon enjoy to enlist greater support among community residents and passengers.

The media was briefed throughout the project with a series of eight press releases. One local television station covered the project's progress every Saturday.

"The TV media was great," Hulsey recalls. "One reporter stuck with us through the whole project, which made it easier for her to report because she was familiar with what had already been done and what was going to happen next."

Communicating with airlines about the project's status was a daily task. The airlines responded by cooperating with airport staff whenever necessary, says Hulsey. Pilots frequently used Runway 19 for early morning takeoffs to allow workers a few extra minutes of daylight to work on Runway 14.

When the ILS was down, the airport provided donuts and coffee to pilots and passengers waiting for fog to lift.

Unforeseen Obstacles

As with many construction projects, some challenges at Arcata-Eureka arose only after the first shovel of dirt was turned. For example, crews discovered several buried electrical cans. But they were able to refurbish and reinstall them, which improved conditions for pilots in the long run.

In the middle of paving operations, an off-site asphalt plant broke down for a week, limiting material supplies. And a regional paint shortage left workers scrambling to find enough paint for mandatory runway markers. "We were down to our last couple of gallons when they painted the final stripe," Leonard recalls.

To extend the safety area at the end of one runway and reduce the slope on a hill, the airport dumped 62,000 cubic yards of fill dirt - 40,000 of which had to be trucked in.

Another challenge occurred when poor handling during shipment damaged a full truckload of EMAS blocks. Fortunately, ESCO had shipped several dozen extras, so crews had material to use while the company rebuilt the broken blocks and shipped them back to the airport.

"ESCO shipped the replacements with two drivers so they could drive non-stop from New Jersey to California in just three days," notes Leonard.

The biggest challenge, however, was weather. "Winter came a month early and left a month late, forcing us to carry over one fall project into the spring," recalls Leonard. "Working close to the bluff at night in wet, heavy fog proved to be a challenge even for construction workers used to working in adverse weather."

Hulsey credits Mercer Fraser, the general contractor, for keeping the project on track despite numerous unforeseen delays.

"I have been involved with a lot of construction work in my career, but this was the most complex job considering the number of contractors involved, the strict deadlines and an airport closure," she notes.

After the bluff work is finished in late October, the project is expected to end on time and Hulsey will no longer have to worry about looming deadlines. Just one intermediate segment failed to meet its deadline, and it missed by just 10 days, Hulsey relates.

"People like improvements when everything is done," she concludes, "but they don't want to be inconvenienced or forced to suffer in any way. Many people worked diligently as a team to minimize suffering for a project that ultimately improves safety for pilots and passengers."

Subcategory: 
Runway/Ramp

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