Airfield Makeover at Albert Lea Municipal Features New 5,000-Foot Runway

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Jim Hanson's Depression-era parents often reminded him to: "Use it up; wear it out; make it work." And for years, that's just what he did as manager of Albert Lea Municipal Airport (AEL), a city-owned facility in south central Minnesota.

When Hanson arrived at the airport in 1982, grass was growing through cracks in the asphalt runway




Project: Runway Relocation & Extension

Airport: Albert Lea (MN) Municipal Airport

Total Cost: $9.5 million

Funding: FAA & American Reinvestment & Recovery Act grants (approx. 95%); city (approx. 5%); state DOT (<1%)

Design & Engineering:  Mead & Hunt

General Contractors: Sorenson Brothers; Ulland Brothers

Paving Contractors: Ulland Brothers; Legends Concrete

Environmental Contractor: Mead & Hunt Runway Lights, Precision Approach Path Indicator Lights & Omni-Directional Approach Lighting: Airport Lighting Co.

LED Taxiway Lights: Astronics DME Corp.

Guidance Signs: AGM

Light Bases & Cover Plates: Jaquith Industries

Lighting Contactors: Albert Lea Electric; Fox Electric

Wind Cone: Hali-Brite

Electrical Vault: Crest Precast

Constant Current Regulators in Electrical Vault: Liberty Airport Systems

Relay Panel & Radio Receiver: Rural Electric

Engineered Paving Mat: TruPave(r) by Owens Corning-Trumbull

Mat Dealer & Installer: Road Fabrics

Key Benefits: Improved safety; enhanced ability to accommodate corporate aircraft

Related Project: Apron Reconstruction

Cost: $1.5 million

and the hangars were sorely outdated. "When the facility was built, most private airplanes had tailwheels, and most 'corporate airplanes' were four- and six-place piston twins," he recalls. "The runways, buildings and lights were all designed for aircraft of that era.  The city did a good job of catching up and maintaining the airport as our neighboring cities reconstructed their airports, but there is a time when there is no alternative to starting over."

After decades of "catching up" and "making do," Hanson was front and center when the city debuted its essentially new airport in mid-July. Everything from the fuel system to the front sign had been updated throughout the years, but recent airfield improvements were particularly pivotal. A $9.5 million project to construct a new 5,000-foot runway and reconstruct the airport's previous runway into a full-length parallel taxiway began in 2008 and ended last September. Crews also installed associated airfield lighting and navigation/approach aids. During a separate $1.5 million project, the apron was reconstructed.

"Our old runway lasted 55 years, and we got 15 more years from it than many of our neighboring cities got with theirs," remarks Hanson. "We also spent millions of dollars less than our neighbors to rebuild our airport."

Hanson traces the runway project back to the late 1990s, when additional overlays were no longer an option and homes impinging on the runway's south end safety zone came under official scrutiny by the Aeronautic Division of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). The agency had been patient with the situation for years, because the airport's master plan called for moving the runway, and alternate property was already zoned for the new location. Eventually, however, a lack of progress toward that goal inspired MnDOT to put the airport on notice that it would withhold funding until the airport began complying with new minimum safety standards.

"In 2002, MnDOT once again insisted that action be taken on the runway zoning," Hanson recalls. "By this time, the runway and lighting were approaching 50 years of service, and it had been overlaid several times. There was no more 'limping it along' by trying to refurbish it once again. It was time to make the move."

Winds of Change

Later that year, the city of Albert Lea contracted Mead & Hunt to draft an airport layout plan with input from the city, MnDOT and the FAA. Careful consideration was given to the types of aircraft using the airport, as well as aircraft that landed elsewhere because of the runway's length restrictions.

For decades, AEL's previous 4,500-foot runway had been a major shortcoming - and not in the figurative sense. "Even though we had operated a variety of jets and turboprops from the 4,500-foot runway for years, having that magic number of 5,000 feet was important to us, because it literally put us on the map for corporate jet operators," explains Hanson. "Many corporate operators don't even carry the instrument approach plates for airports shorter than 5,000 feet, as their insurance companies won't allow them to land there anyway. This is Minnesota, and runways are icy for up to six months of the year."

An initial study, prepared by a previous consultant in the late '90s, detailed more than a dozen possible runway configurations. But they were all less than 5,000 feet long, and therefore unacceptable to city officials and Hanson.

"If we couldn't get the 5,000-foot runway on the current site, we were determined to look for another location," he recounts. "Although we were able to service larger jets, their insurance companies wouldn't allow them to land on less than a 5,000-foot runway. We were losing business, because pilots were forced to fly into nearby Austin, Minnesota, or Mason City, Iowa."

With a creek and freeway on the north side of the airport and a popular golf course flanking it on the south, finding a suitable site for the new runway proved challenging. But Mead & Hunt looked "outside the box" for solutions to attain a 5,000-foot runway, and found the room by diverting a frontage road on the north end and altering the runway's grade to give clearance over the road paralleling the golf course on the south end.

To make the selected site work, the airport had to relocate the adjacent city road, build a concrete bridge, relocate storm sewer infrastructure and a water main, and perform extensive grading work. It also required 21/2 acres of wetland mitigation. "As with any project of this size, something always comes up that threatens to throw a wrench into the process," notes Matt Wagner, Mead & Hunt's project manager. "One of the most notable issues came about during the design of a relocated road as part of the wetland mitigation."

The airport had to shoehorn in a relocated road onto its property, and the wetland created issues for the roadway embankment. Water would flow through the embankment to the wetland and threatened to erode the road and land supporting the guardrail.

"Our biggest challenge was designing the roadway to fit within the physical constraints of the site, yet leave enough area for wetland mitigation," recalls Wagner. While most airports avoid on-site mitigation because they don't want to attract wildlife near the airfield, the particular type of wetland created at AEL would not prove to be a significant wildlife attractant due to the limited amount of standing water it entailed, and on-site mitigation emerged as the best option, he explains.

"We had to stabilize the embankment to stop water from eroding the road embankment, but the configuration of the site made it challenging to come up with a solution," says Wagner.

There was a creek running through the wetland mitigation site that drained into Fountain Lake, in the heart of Albert Lea. Environmental regulators were concerned about installing a triple box culvert under the relocated road to carry the creek water as that would have altered the route and hydrology of the creek, thus greatly increasing erosion as the water made its way to the lake, which would affect the water quality downstream. Instead, designers proposed the construction of a 118-foot bridge spanning the wetland, which ultimately proved to be an even better solution for people downstream because it left the wetland untouched.

The city and Mead & Hunt worked with seven separate stakeholders throughout the course of the environmental assessment and wetland mitigation project.

What's in, What's out

A preliminary airfield design contained provisions for paved crossover taxiways between the new main runway and the old runway, which ultimately became the full parallel taxiway. But this element was eventually eliminated to save money. Small airplanes generally used the mid-runway intersection to turn off, and larger aircraft require use of the full runway anyway, so the additional crossover was unnecessary, Hanson explains.

An even earlier suggestion for an instrument landing system (ILS) approach oriented to the north was similarly not accepted. A variety of issues sidelined the idea: prevailing wind data, anticipated objections about associated lighting installations infringing on the nearby golf course and cost concerns regarding the larger approach zones it would require.

"If residents were given a choice between golfing and flying, we would not have liked the result," muses Hanson.

One of the many elements that did prevail was the use of an engineered paving mat to help reduce long-term maintenance costs on AEL's crosswind runway. Wagner specified TruPave, a high-tensile polyester and fiberglass mat that helps create a moisture barrier to retard the effects of reflective cracking. The fabric mat is rolled into liquid asphalt and then covered by a leveling course and final surface course.

Although the surface did show limited reflective cracking after the first freeze/thaw cycle, Wagner notes that is unrealistic to retard 100% of such issues. "I see this product as being a tremendous success," he says, noting that it eliminated nearly 90% of the reflective cracking on AEL's crosswind runway.  

Alternate Landing System

The airport's VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) and automated weather observing system (AWOS) were relocated in 2007. Because both are state-owned, MnDOT picked up the full cost. The change proved to be very helpful, since most general aviation airports in the state use a VOR approach, explains Steve Jahnke, city engineer and director of public works.

When a shortage of VOR units threatened to delay the project, MnDOT moved AEL to the top of the list to receive units it already had on order.

"I can't over emphasize how big a role MnDOT played in moving this project forward," stresses Jahnke. "The staff there should be held up as a national example of a cooperative, activist regulatory agency."

"Their quick action in relocating the VOR and AWOS cut through a lot of red tape and allowed the project to proceed very quickly," concurs Hanson.

After the airport's VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) was relocated, the airport still needed a better precision approach system to accommodate high-performance airplanes using the airport. While the VOR gets pilots to the airport, they rely on a precision approach system to get them to a specific runway while providing vertical guidance.

Initially, planners proposed an ILS approach to the south end of the runway. But, by acquiring an additional 61/2 acres of land and reversing the direction of the precision approach, the airport created its much-needed safety zone. Rather than installing a full ILS, the airport added a Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) to augment a global positioning system (GPS) for precision approaches to the airport.

Best of all, the WAAS GPS system cost several times less to install than a full-blown ILS approach system.

"We now have a system that allows 250-foot ceilings and three-quarter mile visibility minimums for an instrument approach (nearly the same as a full ILS system), which greatly improves our all-weather capability," reports Hanson. "And we don't have to pay for infrastructure, antennas or a high-intensity approach."

"Our system works so well, I would argue for the less expensive alternative even if the FAA had not funded 90 percent of the cost," he adds. "Mead & Hunt gets the credit for making this work, because our project would not have been done at all had we had to come from the south over the golf course."

Initial dirt work and the relocation of the roadway to the north of the airport was completed in 2008, but the project remained idle and final grading wasn't finished until the fall of 2009. Workers needed to fill in a ravine by bringing in nearly 25 feet of dirt to bring it up to the grade at the runway's midpoint.

In 2010, the airport was able to construct a new electrical vault, install the runway lights, the precision approach path indicator lights and the omni-directional approach lighting system, and pave the new runway. Subdividing the projects into smaller components helped minimize the affect on airport operations, notes Wagner. 

Because the FAA requires that higher-priority projects, such as runways and taxiways, be completed before lower-priority projects like apron rehabilitations, the apron project had to be put off. In 2011, funds became available to reconstruct the old runway into a taxiway, which took a year to complete.

"I give a lot of credit to the FAA, specifically the Minneapolis Airports District Office," says Jahnke. "They were a strong advocate, and were instrumental in obtaining the necessary funding for this multi-phased project."

In 2012, work progressed on a security and wildlife fence, and the apron reconstruction began. When the apron work was completed this summer, the city of Albert Lea essentially had a fully reconstructed airport. The city celebrated with a grand opening in mid-July, complete with a vintage Ford Trimotor.

Finally Finished

"After years of planning and even more years of construction and disruptions, we finally have a rebuilt airport," says Hanson. "Our goal is to ensure the new airport serves as long and as well as the old facility."

Wagner agrees that the project worked out in the long-term best interests of both the airport and its users. "The project brought the facility up to FAA standards, and improves airport safety and better accommodates AEL's users," says Wagner. "We now have a new runway 400 feet to the west of the old runway, and the old runway has been converted into a full-length parallel taxiway. That allows pilots to avoid having to turn around and back-taxi on the main runway to reach the terminal or hangars."

The results were acknowledged by the Minnesota Council of Airports, which awarded AEL Project of the Year honors in its key system airport category. The apron project has also been nominated for a similar award.

"The Albert Lea runway relocation project has been the highlight of my career," reflects Wagner. "How many consultants can say they were involved in a decade-long project in which they were intricately involved at every stage from the early planning to final construction?"

Hanson gives Wagner particularly high praise: "Matt was constantly visiting the project, and explaining the intricacies of construction. He listened to our needs and patiently described the engineering fixes for the inevitable unexpected problems. We really appreciated his cheerful, upbeat enthusiasm for the project."

The long-term improvement process also included plenty of trying twists and turns - from disagreements about specific project elements and intermittent local criticism of the airport to personnel changes, weather delays and funding challenges.

"It was a long process, and if we could have got all the funding all at once, it would have been a lot less difficult for the airport, our pilots and the people of Albert Lea," notes Jahnke. "Plus, it would have been cheaper. I understand there is only so much funding available. But, in the end, it worked out well, and we're happy with the final results."


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