Park Service on board with effort to add 700-foot safety apron to south end of airstrip.
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 16, 2011
Jackson Hole Airport officials say they hope to add a 700-foot paved safety overrun to the south end of the runway after an audit concluded it could help stop a rash of runway excursions.
National Park Service and town of Jackson officials say they support construction of the safety pavement, one of 41 recommendations outlined in the roughly $700,000 audit performed by Mead & Hunt Inc. in cooperation with Boeing. Airport officials plan to release the audit today at an airport board meeting.
The extension of an existing 300-foot safety apron is being proposed after decades of resistance to a runway expansion from some Jackson Hole residents due to the airport’s location in Grand Teton National Park. New pavement would be used in emergencies only.
“The idea is that this airport is not as safe as it has to be,” airport director Ray Bishop said. “We’ve had 24 excursions since 2007. That’s a bunch. We’re 256 times more likely than Chicago Midway to have an excursion. From an airport point of view, we owe it to our travellers to be safer than that.”
Bishop emphasized that the safety overrun is not an extension of the runway. Neither the 700 feet of new pavement, nor the 300 feet of existing overrun, would be certified to hold the weight of a landing or departing aircraft.
Further, the FAA would not allow an expansion of the runway to the south because of a road outside the airport boundary violates the FAA “clear zone” requirements, Bishop said.
“We’re not changing the scope,” he said. “We’re not allowing bigger aircraft. The FAA clear zones are not complied with. It cannot be anything other than an overrun.”
Park Service officials say they support the addition. Beyond the existing 300-foot safety apron is a flat area of pea gravel with no sagebrush that is of little, if any value to wildlife, Grand Teton National Park superintendent Mary Gibson Scott said. She has participated in safety audit meetings for the last 2.5 years.
“In our discussions during these technical meetings, we talked about adding an additional margin of safety,” she said. “Why not harden that [area of gravel] so a portion of that could be plowed. That seemed to resonate with the group.”
A runway expansion is not allowed in the current use agreement between the airport and the park. If the Park Service would allow a longer runway, “it would be highly controversial, it would require the preparation of an EIS [that] would take decades or more to accomplish, and it would be subject to litigation,” Scott said.
“It’s not a runway; it cannot be used as a runway,” Scott said of a longer strip of safety apron pavement. “We think we can make a lot of improvements to reduce excursions without [expanding the runway].”
The area of gravel that would be paved for the additional safety overrun is already identified in the airport’s master plan as a safety area, Scott said. “It’s part of the airfield,” she said.
Adding the distance to the south end would be significant since the prevailing wind is from that direction and most landings and takeoffs occur in that direction.
There is no proposal to extend the safety apron at the north end.
The Park Service also supports other safety measures such as center-line lights and increased training for pilots who fly into Jackson Hole, Scott said.
Town of Jackson Mayor Mark Barron said he too supports the safety overrun.
“The proposed 700-foot safety overrun on the south end of the runway is a conservative approach for balancing our values for the National Park System while prioritizing the health of our visitors and locals who are travelling in and out of Jackson Hole by air,” he said. “I strongly support it and I’m grateful for the collaborative approach between the airport, the FAA and the National Park Service.”
At least one conservation group was skeptical of the proposal.
“Any effort to extend the runway should be very carefully looked at to make sure that it will have the intended benefits of more safety and that it will not unduly impact the park by basically putting more pavement on park lands,” said Sharon Mader, Grand Teton program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“The airport, according to the FAA, cannot be in operation if it is unsafe,” Mader continued. “This airport is certified as safe with the runway the way it is.”
Mader pointed out that both of the recent major commercial airline runway excursions were the result of mechanical failures. In both instances braking systems malfunctioned.
“A lot of the emphasis should be put on the airlines to make sure the aircraft are properly maintained and safe.”
The airport has reported 20 excursions in the last 36 months, about 50 percent of which involved commercial aircraft. For 2010, eight aircraft left the runway, and three of those went off the safety apron.
In its accident database, the national Transportation Safety Board lists only three excursion incidents in Jackson Hole in the last three years.
In late December, an American Airlines Boeing 757 carrying 181 people from Chicago went off the runway and into deep snow 350 feet past the existing safety overrun. Nobody was injured and the plane was undamaged, airport officials said.
In February 2008, a United Airlines flight with 121 people on board slid off the runway in a similar incident.
One of the plane’s engines briefly emitted flames, and a passenger sustained a minor wrist injury.
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