New Indianapolis Airport Control Tower Has a Blind Spot

Indianapolis International Airport this month will launch a highly unusual project shortening a runway.

Indianapolis International Airport this month will launch a highly unusual project shortening a runway.

Perhaps just as odd is the reason: Controllers in the airport's new air traffic control tower, opening next spring, won't be able to see the southern 324 feet of the 7,604-foot crosswind runway.

The FedEx hub is in the way.

The control tower needs to see the surface of the runway, said John Kish, manager of the $ 1 billion midfield terminal construction project that necessitated the new control tower.

So unusual is a runway amputation airports tend to lengthen them that one might reasonably wonder whether someone goofed in picking the location of the 340-foot-tall, $ 32 million control tower complex.

Absolutely not, insists Kish, saying the need to shorten the runway was known from the start. It's not one of the midway terminal's better-known projects, like the relocation of Interstate 70 and the dramatic ramp system that will connect the interstate and the new terminal.

The question of whether spending millions of dollars to shrink a perfectly good runway is the best solution is open to debate, however.

To chop up 130 feet and no longer use the rest is stupid, said Michael Boyd, president of an Evergreen, Colo., aviation research and airport-consulting firm.

Does it help safety? No. Does it make it unsafe? No. It's still going to cost you some money.

Boyd, who often has been critical of the Federal Aviation Administration, said he still has to wonder whether the agency could have picked a better spot for its new tower to avoid the expenses of shrinking runway 14/32.

Most of the runway amputation is paid for under the federal Airport Improvement Program, funded by aviation user fees. The other 25 percent comes from local matching money.

Tower location ideal

Kish said the new control tower location was chosen based on a number of considerations, including the need to optimize views of the airport's two principal runways. One of the parallel runways is 11,000-feet long and the other stretches 10,000 feet. The new terminal is being built between them.

We didn't want to screw up the visibility of the main runways in bad weather, Kish added.

He also said lopping off portions of FedEx's second-largest U.S. hub wasn't cost effective or practical.

Building the tower taller than its current 340-foot height, to see over the FedEx hub, would have been costly and would have violated airspace restrictions, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

The airport has to be careful what they say because the FAA is like the Gestapo if you tick them off, said Boyd.

But airport officials did suggest to FAA a more cost-effective solution: installing cameras at the obscured end of the crosswind runway so tower controllers could view the area.

According to airport officials, the FAA responded that a camera might not give controllers a clear view of smaller, general aviation aircraft that share the runway with big jets. Also, the federal agency said a variety of service vehicles that go to and fro might be hard to spot.

Arguably, though, the new tower is so far to the west of the current tower that controllers will need binoculars on the best of days to see in detail the unobstructed part of the crosswind runway.

Safety issues?

Perhaps more important than cost considerations is whether shortening the runway to 7,280 feet from 7,604 feet significantly hurts the safety margin for takeoffs and landings.

Just last month, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 overshot Midway Airport's notoriously short 6,500-foot runway while landing in heavy snow. The plane crashed through an airport fence onto a city street, killing a 6-year old Indiana boy in his parents' car and injuring 10 others on the ground.

Breathing room in Indianapolis is nowhere near as shallow as Midway. There's about 2,400 feet of grass between the south end of the crosswinds runway and High School Road slightly less between the north end of the runway and Perimeter Road.

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