Activity abounds at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and much of it is happening on the ground.
Giant earthmoving machines recently made steady progress as they prepared the base for a 6,500-foot runway. Trees and a hill, about 92 feet above the current runway elevation, were removed for the massive construction project. About 390 acres were cleared for the project.
When complete, the new runway will become the airport's primary one. Planes from the Twin Cities will fly in over Highway 210 before landing straight on the runway, which is positioned like a "T" when considering the highway. More trees are being cleared on the runway approach on the south side of the highway. The airport bought a single house from a willing seller, which is in the runway's approach path.
Airport Manager Steve Sievek said people tend to think the new runway is designed to handle bigger planes, but the issue is really a crosswind that aircraft cannot handle. The new runway is designed into the prevailing wind airplanes need for takeoffs and landings.
"For the first time, in essence, we will be an all-weather airport," Sievek said.
The experience of passengers looking down on a clear day to see their car in the parking lot and then being told the plane could not land because of potentially dangerous crosswinds is expected to end. Those passengers had to fly on to Bemidji or back to the Twin Cities.
"(Airlines) want to commit to an airport they know they will be able to get in and out of 90 percent of the time," Sievek said, later adding the percent is closer to 98. "This will do that. We should not have cancellations for a crosswind."
Perimeter fencing is part of this construction phase. The 10-foot fencing, which will surround the entire airport, is expected to ease concerns about deer. In 10 years there have been two incidents -- one on landing and one on takeoff -- where a plane struck a deer. No human injuries resulted but the damage to each plane reached $1 million, Sievek said.
Once work is completed the airport will have two major runways.
The DNR tanker base will be relocated not far from its current spot and will have better access to the new runway with quicker turnaround times by next spring's fire season.
The airport's passengers are up 7.5 percent over 2003 and are ahead of last year every month except July.
Brainerd and Crow Wing County have approved bonding for $2.5 million of the $15 million airport runway expansion project with the remaining $12.5 million to be paid from state and federal dollars.
Construction work is focusing on basework and paving at the ends of the new runway.
Workers will remove 24 inches of dirt on the new graded area and replace it with 12 inches of Class 5 gravel (about a half-million yards). The runway then will be topped with 12 inches of concrete. The removed dirt will be stockpiled for use next year as construction work continues.
The next phase will be a little trickier. Work will extend into the intersections of the existing runway and taxiway. During that time -- expected to begin after Labor Day 2005 and be completed before winter -- the airport will not have an instrument landing approach and service will be reduced to daylight hours and good weather. It means the loss of the 10:30 p.m. Mesaba Airlink passenger plane arrival.
Sievek said waiting for the grant dollars for the project has at times been frustrating because of Minnesota's relatively narrow weather window for construction.
The most recent grant installment was expected in July, then August and finally arrived in September. With concrete work next on the list, the weather will determine how much can be accomplished before winter. Sievek credited Rep. Jim Oberstar with helping to secure funding for the runway project.
"That runway in my opinion was key to the ultimate survival of this airport."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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