O'Hare runway barriers on way: $11 million safety plan will soon get off the ground

Oct. 7--The city is spending $11 million to install crushable concrete blocks aimed at halting airplanes if they overshoot a diagonal runway at O'Hare International Airport.

The safety zones, with blocks designed to absorb the tremendous force of a landing plane, are similar to those being installed at Midway Airport after an overrun by a Southwest Airlines jet in late 2005 that claimed the life of an Indiana boy.

Engineered Arresting Systems Corp. of Logan Township, N.J., will provide material for the safety zones on one of O'Hare's two diagonal runways.

O'Hare was built before a federal standard was adopted that mandates a clear area of 1,000 feet beyond a runway's end and 500 feet on either side of the strip, said Tony Molinaro, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman. In 1999, the FAA began a push to have airports with non-compliant runways improve safety by purchasing additional land or taking other measures, including installing restraint systems like the ones going in at Midway and O'Hare, Molinaro said.

After completion of a reconfiguration and expansion of O'Hare's airfield under a massive improvement program now under way, the diagonal runway, dubbed 4-Right/22-Left, would have been the only strip remaining there that did not meet the government standard. The runway is an 8,075-foot-long strip that handles airline and other traffic in the southeast quadrant of the airfield.

Federal funds will cover 75 percent of the cost, said Karen Pride, a spokeswoman for the city's Aviation Department. Work is expected to begin this fall, with completion sometime next year, she said.

The safety zone at one end of the runway will be set back 35 feet from the end of the pavement and extend for 491 feet under specifications contained in the new contract. More than 5,100 concrete blocks will be installed. At the other end, the installation will begin 545 feet from the end of the strip and stretch for about 300 feet, with 3,150 blocks.

The arrestor systems are designed to stop a plane traveling a minimum of 46 m.p.h. and as fast as 80.5 m.p.h. under the city's specification. The lightweight blocks crumble under the weight of a plane, which gradually slows and comes to a stop as its tires dig tracks into the material. The systems are designed to last for 20 years.

Airports around the country have been getting similar installations, according to the FAA. At Midway, two runways are getting the safety zones. One arrester bed was finished last year, another is scheduled for completion this week, and the final two will be in place by year's end, according to Aviation Department officials.

Midway's tight airfield gives little margin for pilot error.

The National Transportation Safety Board last week singled out mistakes in the cockpit, deficient airline training and the absence of safety zones as the causes of the fatal accident in 2005. A Southwest Boeing 737 landed on a snowy Dec. 8 and rolled off the end of a slippery runway, crashing through two fences and striking vehicles outside the airport on Central Avenue at 55th Street.

Joshua Woods, 6, of Leroy, Ind., a passenger in one of the vehicles, was crushed to death.

Southwest last April settled a lawsuit filed by the boy's family.

-------

gwashburn@tribune.com

To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.chicagotribune.com. Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.


Loading