Main Wheeler Downtown Airport Runway to Reopen

For the past seven months, maneuvering around the airfield at Wheeler Downtown Airport has been a challenge for Reema Alexander and other pilots.

The airport's main runway has been closed for repairs, so pilots have had to use a secondary runway, which is about 2,000 feet shorter and farther from some of the hangars.

But on Tuesday the main runway, known in aviation lingo as Runway 1-19, will reopen.

The reopening should bring things back to normal for many private pilots, some of whom have received citations from the Federal Aviation Administration for improper crossings through the airport's taxiways.

"I think everyone here will be happy," said Alexander, a flight school instructor. "Getting around has been a lot harder to do."

Joe Stafford, another flight school instructor whose office is on the west side of the airport, agreed.

"It has taken about 10 minutes longer to taxi over to that runway for takeoff," he said. "Flight students pay $100 an hour, so that can add to their bill."

The 7,000-foot runway, which closed in March, has new pavement and electrical improvements in its north section. It will be closed again from April to August 2006 as crews replace the pavement and electrical work on the south end, said airport spokesman Joe McBride.

The runway improvements, which required as much as 17 inches of concrete to be removed, are part of a $70 million improvement plan for the general aviation airport.

Within five years, the airport is scheduled to have a relocated fuel farm, new aircraft hangars and extended runway safety areas.

Almost 75 percent of the funding for the improvements will come from federal aviation funds.

With the main runway closed, pilots have had to use the shorter runway, known as Runway 3-21.

Some pilots, unfamiliar with the taxiway route to that diagonal runway, have made the mistake of crossing runway hold position markings without first receiving clearance from the control tower.

The FAA has reported 10 such runway incidents during the main runway's closure. Most of them occurred on the taxiways adjacent to the diagonal runway.

Most of the pilots cited either had relatively little flying experience or were from out of state, officials said.

McBride noted that the incidents were minor enough not to warrant any formal investigation from federal authorities.

Still, the FAA and airport management circulated a flier that cautioned pilots about navigating the taxiways carefully. The flier encouraged pilots to familiarize themselves with the airport layout, understand the taxi clearances, and to watch closely for signs and pavement markings.

"This project has created an unfamiliar taxi route," said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. "We have not had any issues involving construction crews. However, private pilots, some of whom are from out of state, have had problems with the new route."

Keith Parker, president of the Kansas City Business Aviation Association, pointed out other difficulties that the main runway closing has caused.

Some corporate travel, he said, has gone to other airports in the metropolitan area. And with having to use the shorter runway, some jets - in order to keep their weight down - have not been able to carry a full amount of fuel. As a result, those jets often have to refuel at another airport before reaching their destination.

But everyone agreed that the smoother main runway will be an improvement for all airport users. And city leaders said it would maintain the 78-year-old airport as a viable center for corporate travel.

At a recent meeting, Kansas City Aviation Director Mark VanLoh put the airport's importance in perspective.

"If you want to see a who's who of Kansas City, just go to the downtown airport at 6 a.m. any morning and watch the business jets leave," he said. "The area's movers and shakers fly out of there every morning to do business across the country."

Kansas City Star

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