Facing a Tight Deadline, Lakeland Linder Achieves What Some Thought Impossible

Facing a Tight Deadline, Lakeland Linder Achieves What Some Thought Impossible
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The Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo, held at Florida’s Lakeland Linder International Airport (LAL), is one of the world’s largest aviation events. The popular fly-in and airshow are such a big to-do that the FAA dispatches its most experienced air traffic controllers to manage the 1,200+ daily operations it draws. 

This would have been the 46th Sun ’n Fun, but like most large events in 2020, it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If only LAL Director Gene Conrad had known that in 2019 when planning began for major airfield improvements, he could have relaxed the timeline. But lacking a crystal ball, the project team completed a complete rehabilitation of its 8,500-foot main runway within a tight 108-day window to prepare for the spring fly-in and airshow that were ultimately cancelled. 

During the $25.9 million project, contractors also upgraded the airfield’s instrument landing system from a CAT I to a Special Authorization CAT II and performed preliminary work for a CAT III system that will begin construction in April 2021. To prepare for the CAT III system, crews installed a rollout runway visual range system, elevated runway guard light cans, and conduit and light cans for centerline and touchdown zone lighting. 


Project: Runway Rehabilitation

Location: Lakeland (FL) Linder Int’l Airport 

Cost: $26.9 million (plus $2.9 million for ILS upgrade) 

Funding: $10.3 million FAA Airport Improvement Program grant; $8.5 million in FAA supplemental funds; $5.8 million from FDOT; $2.3 million airport contribution

Notice to Proceed: December 2, 2019

Paving: Jan. 3- March 12, 2020

Runway Re-Opening: March 16, 2020

Construction: 162 days 

Grooving, Markings & Punch List Items: 54 days 

Lead Designer: Atkins North America Inc.

General Contractor: Hubbard

Asphalt Installed: 94,500 tons (4,725 truckloads) 

Lime Rock Placed: 53,850 tons (3,000 truckloads) 

Pre-Design Geotechnical Investigation: Imperial Testing & Engineering Inc.

Construction Quality Assurance Testing: Tierra Inc.

Topographic Survey: Chastain Skillman

Construction Phasing & Specifications: AmHerst Consulting

All of the airfield enhancements are tied to a new gateway facility for Amazon Air that began operating in July 2019. 

While some contractors were up to the challenge of rehabbing and strengthening Runway 9-27 in time for Sun ’n Fun this April, others told LAL that its 108-day timeline was irrational. One even walked out of a pre-bid meeting. But LAL executives didn’t veer from their aggressive plan. They knew the project would be a long sprint, but also firmly believed it was possible. Ultimately, they were correct. 

Diverse Tenant Base

In addition to being a reliever facility for Tampa International Airport, LAL is home to the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, Polk State College Aerospace programs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hurricane Hunters. That last one may sound like a college team, but it’s an important hurricane forecasting group, particularly for storms in the nearby Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Specially equipped NOAA aircraft play an integral role in keeping the nation’s residents safe by improving the accuracy of tropical cyclone forecasts, and the Hurricane Hunters’ base at LAL offers central access to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. 

“What’s special about our facility is the uniqueness about what happens here: NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center, Amazon operations, our fly-in event, an aviation-focused high school, the college aerospace program,” says Conrad. “A high school flying club takes off on a grass strip…two of the largest RC modeling events are here…and five flight schools, two hotels, avionics shops and three solar farms that generate revenue. We’re business oriented!” 

So perhaps it’s no surprise that LAL attracted the attention of Amazon. In fact, the bustling airport’s recent runway project was already part of its FAA capital investment plan in December 2017, when Amazon began to vet the airport for a facility to accommodate its private fleet of cargo aircraft. 

“We shared with Amazon our capital plan, and the runway project was in the five-year window they were considering to start operations,” Conrad explains. “Essentially, we had to figure out how to get the rehab and strengthening project done before they started operating in 2020.” 

Amazon Air had actually considered LAL back in 2015, but those routes ended up going to Tampa International. After that loss, Conrad called the program manager for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) about initiating an intermodal feasibility study to make LAL a more attractive location for future opportunities. When the report was complete, the airport team lined up the grant funding, completed the environmental assessment and design, and started construction on a 50-acre intermodal site in November 2018. Although the airport was completely full, Conrad thought it was important to invest in the $17.8 million project because even if LAL didn’t land Amazon Air as a tenant then, another opportunity might present itself. He was also betting on the strategic value of the airport’s central location between Orlando and Tampa.

“It was a calculated risk, but I have a great team and tremendous city support,” Conrad remarks. “When I first got here in 2010, the airport had already been working toward a master plan, and we jumped head first into it. We identified this area as a potential air cargo site, and it made sense for us to start planning to make investments. Completing the intermodal feasibility study put us into warp drive. We opened up our own opportunities.”

In rapid succession, lease negotiations with Amazon Air started in February 2019, the ground lease was executed in May 2019, and the shipping giant started building at the airport in July 2019. 

“We were very fortunate to get the big fish,” Conrad reflects. 

Crazy or Confident? 

Through the industry grapevine, personnel knew that San Diego International Airport had completed a big runway project by laying 300 feet of pavement per night. That boosted confidence that LAL’s own tight timeline was achievable, and having a second runway relieved even more pressure. 

Pursuing an aggressive schedule with FAA and FDOT to put plans in motion quickly, LAL received a $10.3 million FAA Airport Improvement Program grant in 2019, $8.5 million more from the FAA in the form of a supplemental grant and $5.8 million from FDOT. The airport paid about $2.3 million of the $26.9 million total cost.

Hiring Atkins North America Inc. as lead designer for the project further boosted management’s confidence because the firm had completed a number of other infrastructure improvements at LAL over the last 10 years. After receiving the notice to proceed in June 2019, Atkins calculated backward from the goal date and figured the team had just 11 weeks to complete the design. Typically, the firm would have several months to complete the design, but the schedule did not allow for that. 

Instead, the team approached the design process more like a construction schedule, printing out a roll plot of the runway every week and unfurling it on the conference table for project meetings.  

“Fortunately, one of the benefits of having been their general consultant is that we had a lot of the data we needed to gather, like the topographical survey, already in-house,” says Tom Roda, Atkins’ Southeast Aviation Division manager. “Having that preliminary data in advance was critical.”

Despite the inherent advantages of working with a design team that essentially had a head start, some potential construction contractors were scared away by the project’s short timeline. Assistant Airport Director Chris Hallstrand recalls one incumbent vendor walking out of a pre-bid meeting saying, “You guys are crazy. This can’t be done, and we won’t be bidding on this.” 

Ultimately, four firms bid on the project, and it was awarded to Hubbard Construction Company in November 2019. The pertinent questions Hubbard personnel asked during the pre-bid phase made Roda and other Atkins’ managers confident that the firm was taking the project seriously. That helped the entire team get a running start, says Roda. 

Work kicked off promptly on Dec. 2, 2019, with March 17, 2020, as the target date to reopen the runway (not including grooving and final striping). 

“In this industry, we can do anything as long as the means are there,” says Matthew Griffin, Hubbard’s construction manager for the project. “Anything and everything is possible as long as it falls in the right pattern. Right out of the gate, once I received the handoff documents, it was clear that the job could not only be done, based on our internal schedule, we could complete it a day or two early.”

Weekly meetings and active, ongoing communication between team members proved to be particularly important. “There wasn’t enough time for people to get into their own silos,” explains Roda. “By working together, we could meet the schedule. 

“Obviously, there were a lot of points where we could have gotten overwhelmed by what we were asked to do,” he reflects. “But sticking with it and creating a plan worked out in the end.”

The team used Atkins’ roll plot to plan each week’s work and check in detail how each phase would affect the taxiways and other operational activity. Roda and representatives from Hubbard and key subcontractors met with airport leadership regularly. 

Speaking from the building contractor’s perspective, Griffin notes that the accessibility of airport management helped construction stay on track. “They were engaged more so than any other owner I’ve worked with,” he reports. “They knew the goal was to have a successful project, and that requires direct dialogue.”

In the end, the team pulled it all off. “Were we nervous?” asks Hallstrand. “Absolutely! But this airport is very good at orchestrating what some perceive to be the impossible. We have more will than anyone else. We’re passionate about what we do, and we’re conscious of our tenants and users. We felt confident and knew we could will it
into fruition.” 

Extra Challenges

Between the runway rehab, installation of new in-pavement lighting and ILS upgrades, the airport had a lot to complete in a short time. 

Hubbard hauled 3,000 truckloads of lime rock to the airfield from a quarry 25 miles away for the runway’s base layer. In some areas, rock needed to be added; in others, the existing surface was scarified (broken into pieces with heavy machinery) then rolled and regraded. 

Per FAA design standards to accommodate 767-300s, Runway 9-27 required 9 inches of asphalt. Project engineers achieved that in three individually rolled layers, with a bituminous liquid called tack in between—much like a multi-tier cake with buttercream frosting between its layers. 

Due to Florida’s fickle weather, Hubbard had to remain flexible because the pavement materials have specific tolerances for temperature and moisture per FAA regulations.

Typically, crews started at 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning. On colder days, however, they had to wait until 8 a.m. “The contract didn’t allow for weather allowances,” notes Griffin. “We had to work around it, but we were allowed to work 24/7 if we needed to.”

Rain, which has its own capricious cadence, required crews to protect the exposed lime rock and ensure that water could drain off it. Keeping the runoff clean was a challenge, but needed to be a priority, notes Hallstrand. Sometimes, workers applied a thin layer of tar to seal the lime rock and prevent moisture from penetrating it. Crews also used vacuum trucks to remove water and debris from trenches in the runway.  

“We had to make some important decisions in a quick timeframe because the runway grades had ripple effects we didn’t anticipate,” says Roda. “As soon as we got the survey back, we realized the (original) profile didn’t meet the FAA requirements. They had increased the category of the airport because of the Amazon planes coming in.”

As a result, Atkins had to re-analyze the connector taxiways. Two were removed and relocated; five others were adjusted to accommodate grades and geometry. 

Hallstrand notes that the team had to solve multiple challenges like that in the field, and everyone needed to be present to make that happen. “Nobody could sit back and say, ‘I don’t want to deal with this today.’ A lot of times we’d have to put our heads together and shoot it through our engineering team,” he recalls. “There was no time to take a couple of days to think about it. We had to be fluid to find the most efficient way to cure the problem.”

Griffin credits LAL’s operations personnel for the role they played. “They were one 100% prepared for this project,” he emphasizes. “They knew the plans, and they knew every little nook and cranny of the airport property. They were engaged to make sure the project was successful.” 

Despite the project’s intense pace, the team managed to run the gauntlets and finish everything as planned. The 108 days came and went quickly, with 30 additional days after the originally scheduled Sun ’n Fun event for grooving, final painting and installation of risers on the in-pavement lights. Although the annual fly-in didn’t happen this year, LAL is more than ready for 2021. 

“Gene Conrad deserves a lot of credit,” Roda enthuses. “He does a great job getting everyone energized and is a great leader. He’d say, ‘You can do this. We can do this together.’”

Hallstrand agrees. “This has been one of the best projects in my career because the whole team performed at a high level,” he explains. “This one had its difficulties, but we overcame them quickly. We met the timelines and worked as a team. And the end product was high quality.

“It was demanding, it was stressful, and we didn’t always like each other,” he says, smiling. “But we did it.”  

Hiring for Passion

Gene Conrad has served as airport director at Lakeland Linder International (LAL) for the last decade. Before that, he spent nine years working his way up at three other airports, feeding his enthusiasm and passion for aviation. 

Conrad wants the same kind of passion from his employees, and for years he wanted Chris Hallstrand on his team. In 2016, Conrad finally recruited Hallstrand away from Wittman Regional Airport (OSH) in Oshkosh, WI, where he was living out his aviation dreams working as a C-130 crew chief and serving as the superintendent of maintenance and operations. Flying into OSH is a coveted logbook entry for many pilots, because the airport hosts EAA AirVenture, the country’s largest fly-in airshow. Before joining the ranks at OSH, Hallstrand worked at a corrugated cardboard company near Price County Airport (PBH). And he often looked across the street wishing he could work at the airport instead. 

“I had two small kids at the time and didn’t have a lot of money, but I took a part-time job at the Price County for less money than I was making (at the cardboard company) just to work there,” Hallstrand explains. 

After nearly a decade at PBH, a connection in the aviation industry tipped off Hallstrand about an opening at OSH. He relocated to Oshkosh after accepting the job, and that’s where he met Conrad. 

In his gut, Conrad knew that Hallstrand would be a good fit for LAL. “My team is what makes it work,” he says. “You can train skills, but you can’t teach passion. That’s why we hire for passion. Chris (Hallstrand) gets it. What we do here is super unique, and it scares some people.” 

Conrad points to LAL Operations Manager Adam Lunn as another example. Born in Lakeland and raised in nearby Bartow, Lunn started volunteering for the local Sun ’n Fun fly-in as a teenager. He also called regularly asking for an internship. 

“He called so many times, we finally gave it to him,” Conrad laughs. “From there, he worked his way up by showing he had the abilities to get the job done.” 

Case in point: During Lunn’s internship, the airport had to vet its security cardholders against TSA’s no-fly lists every day because it still had commercial service at the time. With thousands of names to review, the process would have been extremely time-consuming to perform manually. Conrad told Lunn if he could figure out an answer to the problem, he would hire him. Working overnight, Lunn used the Microsoft Access database management system to merge the TSA no-fly list with the file of people with security cards for LAL and identify anyone who appeared on both lists. His method allowed the airport to satisfy the TSA requirement in a matter of seconds. And the rest, so they say, is history. 

“Our staff is so passionate to go and get it done,” says Hallstrand. “We have decades of experience between us, and we’re responsive on figuring out the way to move forward. Pooling all of our strengths and weaknesses makes us better. It’s our job to manage our strengths and minimize their weaknesses.” 


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