Less than two years after Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport (PUJ) officially opened its terminal doors, airport director Blake Swafford is leading the charge to reconstruct the "greenfield" general aviation facility that was destroyed by an EF3 with winds in excess of 165 mph.
PUJ, the first new airport constructed in the state of Georgia in more than 30 years, cut the ribbon on its runway in November 2008 and continued to be a work in progress, with a fuel farm, hangars and terminal facilities commencing service the following two years. The ink had barely dried on a contract with PUJ's first charter operator when disaster struck in the form of a tornado that pummeled the new facility on March 2, 2012.
"If you can imagine the most critical path a tornado could take to do the most damage, that was the path that it took," Swafford recalls. "It cut across the airfield from the southwest side to the northeast side and crossed the runway, so it hit directly."
Project: Post-Tornado Reconstruction
Location: Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport
Damage Estimate: Nearly $7 million
Tornado Date: March 2, 2012
Runway Reopening: March 9, 2012
Anticipated Repair Completion: July 2012
On-call Engineer of Record: The LPA Group, a unit of Michael Baker Corp.
The devastating storm ripped off the terminal's metal roof, busted out windows and left water damage throughout the 23,000-square-foot building. PUJ's hangars were outright destroyed, and 22 of 23 based aircraft were heavily damaged, as was all of the perimeter fencing. Damages to both public and private property are estimated at nearly $7 million.
"We are back in full-swing construction mode now," Swafford reports. "We have a whole lot of construction going on to get us back where we were prior to March 2."
Hearing news of the tornado damage was a disturbing experience for Mike Reiter, P.E., the Baker/LPA project manager who helped build PUJ from the ground up. "It reinforces your appreciation of the power of Mother Nature," he muses.
Surveying the damage in person, a few days after the storm, was even tougher for Reiter. "You see metal hangars and aircraft strewn about, and you wonder, 'How in the world a hangar can get twisted up like that?'" he recalls.
Looking forward, Reiter is enthusiastic about the airport's future: "(Blake) is doing an excellent job getting the facilities back into shape. It was emotional, but it is a project that must get done in order to provide the vital functions within the ATL metro area. PUJ has a lot of capacity to meet the future needs for years to come. I am looking forward to seeing it back to 'normal.'"
Swafford is quick to acknowledge that "normal" is a moving target. "I say (normal) with a grain of salt, because all of our hangars were destroyed by the tornado, and all of our aircraft except for one were destroyed in the storm," he explains. "Today, our air traffic is almost 100% itinerant because we don't have any based aircraft at this point."
Rebuilding the Engine
With the aid of insurance, the airport is once again reciting the "build it and they will come" mantra that brought the airport to fruition in the first place. Swafford emphasizes that PUJ was born as an economic development tool for Paulding County, which has consistently ranked among the nation's top 10 fastest growing counties over the past decade. Located just 32 miles from Georgia's Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, the area has transformed from a rural community with 25,000 residents in 1990 to a bedroom community of 145,000 today.
"What that brought was a whole lot of residential development, but it didn't bring much industrial or job base to the county," Swafford explains. "In the 1990s, they started realizing this was unhealthy, so they started talking about possibly doing an airport as an economic development tool for the county."
The Paulding County Airport Authority was reconstituted and dissolved twice in the 1990s before the concept of a new airport gained sustaining support in 2003. At that time, Swafford was running the county's Department of Transportation, and drew on his background in airports when Paulding County met with the FAA to begin getting the airport approved as a part of the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems to qualify for federal funding. In the latter half of 2003, LPA/Baker was contracted for site selection work.
Over the next couple years, Paulding County and LPA/Baker successfully updated the site selection and secured federal funding for preliminary studies and design work. In 2005, the county's local industrial building authority voted to fund the acquisition of land for a 750-acre airport, green-lighting the finalization of design work, along with environmental clearances and the start of construction in June 2006.
PUJ accommodated its first airplane in 2008, and Swafford maintains that many more will follow. He's confident that when the terminal and airport infrastructure are fully repaired in July, aircraft operators will want to take advantage of the suburban alternative PUJ offers to the congestion and high prices of other metropolitan Atlanta general aviation relievers.
"We are actively marketing our airport as the new location for corporate and GA growth in the Atlanta market," Swafford explains. "As part of that, we are marketing the airport as a location for MROs (manufacturing, repair and overhaul providers) and manufacturing."
According to Swafford, the airport currently holds the title to its 750 acres, but its footprint could easily expand to several thousand acres given the ample supply of undeveloped land bordering the facility.
"We are really close one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., and we have tremendous potential for expansion," he relates. "We think it is the finest GA airport in the state."
According to Swafford, PUJ will to market itself to a variety of aviation services to complement the recently announced addition of Aerodynamics Inc. Although the company's arrival was delayed by the tornado damage, it is expected to commence by the end of summer.