Erie Co. Mulls Building New Airport

SANDUSKY - Officials of Erie County and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are jointly investigating the potential to build a new county airport near NASA's research station in Perkins Township.

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority has agreed to be the project manager for a federally funded airport siting study that will focus on possible sites near the NASA Glenn Plum Brook Station, which is west of U.S. 250 and just north of the Ohio Turnpike.

The study is motivated in part by the inadequacy of Griffing Airport southeast of Sandusky, said Nancy McKeen, president of the Erie County commissioners.

For NASA, a new airport could eliminate the need to truck large equipment to Plum Brook from an airport in Mansfield, Ohio.

Tom Griffing, the president of privately owned Griffing Airport, said that unlike publicly owned airports, his facility is not eligible for federal subsidies, and its operating budget is not robust enough to justify funding major improvements.

Besides its physical condition, Mr. Griffing said, the 77-year-old airport is obsolete and hemmed in by parkland and marshes that limit its expansion potential. Ideally, its 3,500-foot main runway would be extended to 5,000 feet, but there's no room.

"Sandusky needs a bigger airport than it's got. Properly done, [a new one] would be the thing to do," Mr. Griffing said.

The airport owner also said that he has received redevelopment proposals for the 144-acre Griffing site, which is sandwiched between U.S. 6 and the eastern reaches of Sandusky Bay.

"This is one of the busiest private airports, if not the busiest, in Ohio," Mr. Griffing said. "I would not close this one if there weren't another to replace it, but the numbers are starting to catch my attention."

"We'd definitely like to have an airport in Erie County," Mrs. McKeen said. "I don't particularly want to run it, but it's necessary for economic development."

Mr. Griffing said his company, Griffing Flying Service, "could be very interested" in managing a new county airport if it were built.

NASA, meanwhile, is seeking an airfield that can handle large items like the James Webb Space Telescope, which recently was sent to the Johnson Space Center in Houston because there was no way to get it into Plum Brook.

Until late last year, the space agency used a special truck owned by the U.S. Army to transport space vehicles and other oversized loads from Mansfield Lahm Airport to Plum Brook, said Olga Gonzalez-Sanabria, NASA's director of engineering and technical services.

But the army reviewed the roads over which the shipments were occurring and decided not to allow its truck to be used for that purpose anymore, Ms. Gonzalez-Sanabria said.

Even when the truck was available, the logistics were daunting, she said. The truck could only move at 5 mph, which meant that the trip from Mansfield to Plum Brook took several days and required extensive security arrangements.

Lori Rachul, a space administration spokesman, said the space telescope travels in a box 18 feet tall, 20 feet wide, and 30 feet long. Ohio Turnpike bridges are 14 feet, 6 inches high, with a maximum vehicle height of 14 feet, turnpike spokesman Heidi Jedel said.

Although a specific site for the airport has not been determined, a NASA document offers one possibility: paving and extending a 5,300-foot grass runway on the southern edge of the Plum Brook campus. The proposal suggests that the expanded runway will be 9,000 feet long and 150 feet wide.

As proposed, the runway would be open to general aviation flights as well as NASA-related flights.

The port authority is managing the $1.5 million airport siting study at the request of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who arranged funding for the study, according to a port authority staff report. The port authority's "expertise and experience" in managing Federal Aviation Administration grant projects was the reason for the request, the report said.

Miss Kaptur said Friday that a new airport's economic development benefits to Erie County sparked her interest in the project, which was then reinforced by the need to make Plum Brook more versatile.

NASA faces the prospect of budget cuts, she said, and the research station could be vulnerable if it can't accommodate "additional missions."

A resolution that the port authority board of directors passed on Thursday authorizes the agency to sponsor the siting study and subsequent planning, environmental, and design work, with all costs incurred to be reimbursed as grant-eligible expenses.