Airport board to fight closure of Sellers Field


May 1--OLIVE HILL -- Standing on the windswept hilltop runway that is Olive Hill's airport, a handful of local pilots wondered aloud: "What deterioration? What obstructions?"

The pilots, all members of the city's airport board, were talking about points made in a letter from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to board chairman Gayle Smith, informing him the landing strip's days are numbered.

The state wants to close the airport permanently. It says the runway has deteriorated, that there are numerous obstructions to the safety of aircraft, little possibility of expansion, no secure fencing, and only three aircraft based there permanently.

The letter, signed by transportation cabinet commissioner R. Winn Turney, mentions the proximity of a new 5,300-foot runway in Morehead and lack of state or federal money to bring the runway up to standards. It states that emergency vehicles would be hard-pressed to find and access the field.

The pilots aren't buying it. Being the ones who fly in and out every week, they think they're qualified to determine whether the runway is safe -- and they say it is.

There is one patch of asphalt that is crumbled, but that is near one end and on one side of the 2,500-foot strip, said Fred Collins, who lives in Olive Hill and keeps his four-seat Cessna in a hangar beside the field.

The patch is not a safety consideration because pilots typically touch down with their nose wheel on the center line, well out of the way of the damaged asphalt, he said.

There are cracks on other parts of the runway, some with grass growing in them. The pilots say the runway is safe, however.

Access to the field is from Ky. 986 to a blacktop road marked "Airport" on a standard street sign with white letters on green background.

The airport was built on top of the hill and opened in 1960. It is named after Matthew B. Sellers, the aviation pioneer who made the first powered airplane flights in Kentucky and built the first plane with retractable landing gear.

That alone is reason to preserve the field, the pilots say, but there are practical considerations as well.

It is the only airport in Carter County and the nearest alternative is 25 to 30 miles away, Smith said. Sellers Field could save lives if a pilot needed to make an emergency landing, he said.

Ironically, the state's bid to close the field came after Smith put in a request for economic stimulus money to refurbish it. That was earlier this year; in March he received a letter from Turney saying the airport wasn't a priority.

Later that month, transportation cabinet secretary Joseph W. Prater wrote saying the airport had not been certified since 2005 and that "there are serious safety issues" making certification out of the question.

The letter ordered Smith to cease operations at the airport.

A followup letter from Turney April 23 named the reasons for the closure but didn't include any supporting details.

Smith doesn't believe the airport is incapable of certification. He got estimates in 2004 for resurfacing the runway, adding a taxiway and improving drainage. The work would have cost about $332,000 then. Estimates would require revision to reflect higher construction costs but the project could be made shovel-ready in a short time, he said.

Smith is supposed to sign and return the notice of closure but he hasn't done so yet and doesn't plan to until the airport board can explore some alternatives.

One is to sell the airport to a private owner, but the board is worried that a private buyer might use the land for a different purpose.

Other alternatives include leasing the field and building hangars and providing tie-downs for rent to bring in revenue.

The three existing hangars are privately owned and located on private property adjacent to the field. Smith said the owner isn't interested in selling the hangars.