Orlando Melbourne Int’l Meets Ambitious Deadline for Multi-Runway Project

Orlando Melbourne Int’l Meets Ambitious Deadline for Multi-Runway Project
Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

Rehabilitating a runway is always a big challenge, and often takes years of planning and fundraising to accomplish. Orlando Melbourne International Airport (MLB) in Florida recently reconstructed all three of its runways in just 14 months.

“We could have spaced out the runway construction over several years, but in the end, we decided it was best to do all three runways at the same time,” says Executive Director Greg Donovan. “When I took this job in 2014, I knew right away that one of my biggest challenges would be fixing all three of our runways, which were in poor condition. I was blessed with a terrific executive staff that handled the logistics.”

The project, which was completed this October, required incredible teamwork, organization and planning, says Dave Perley, director of capital improvement. “The three runways had not been resurfaced in more than 20 years, so we knew that had to be done,” he says. “Fortunately, the Florida Department of Transportation recognized our situation, and awarded us grants needed to repair the two smaller runways—9L-27R at 6,000 feet, and 5-23 at 3,001 feet.”


Project: Runway Reconstruction 

Location: Orlando Melbourne (FL) Int’l Airport

Scope: 3 runways—3,001 ft.; 6,000 ft. & 10,181 ft.

Cost: $26.2 million ($20.8 million for 9R-27L; $3.8 million for 9L-27R; $1.6 million for 5-23) 

Funding: $18.2 million FAA grant; $3.6 million from FL Dept. of Transportation; $4.4 million airport funds

Construction: 14 months

Lead Engineer: AVCON Airport Engineering Co. 

Paving: V.A. Paving; Preferred Materials

Earthwork & Drainage: Don Luchetti

Milling: Mill-It

Electrical Contractors: H.L. Pruitt; New Energy

LED Lights for Main Runway:
ADB Airfield Solutions

Lights for Other Runways: Airport Lighting Co. 

Pavement Markings: Hi Lite; Axtell's, Inc.

Landscaping: Nail Farms; Lake Jen Farms

Key Benefit: Ability to better accommodate expected traffic increases in coming years

2017 Traffic: 467,000 passengers; 92,000 flight operations

Commercial Airlines: American; Delta; Elite; Porter

Major Tenants: Northrop Grumman; Embraer; Harris (world headquarters); Rockwell Collins; STS Aviation Group; Thales; Southeast Aerospace; Satcom Direct 

Obtaining funding for the longest runway, 10,181-foot 9R-27L, was more difficult. “We knew we would need a lot more money for that one,” says Perley. 

Fortunately, the airport had friends in high places, as Donovan puts it. “President Trump has flown in here twice—once as a candidate in 2016, and once as president in February 2017,” he explains. “On that occasion, I greeted him briefly and mentioned that his plane had landed on a runway officially rated as poor. A few months later, in summer 2017, Elaine Chao, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, spoke at an international aviation convention; I had the opportunity to speak to her one-on-one about our big need for federal dollars for 9R-27L. She seemed receptive to the idea, but we still had to go through the FAA for the money.” 

The airport had initiated its funding request a few months earlier, notes Perley. After meeting with the FAA in late 2016, MLB officials hired AVCON to produce the specific drawings the agency needed within six months. 

Meeting such a tight deadline was a challenge, acknowledges Rob Hambrecht, senior project manager for AVCON. “The airport told us they were in line for funds, but we had to prepare very detailed construction plans and grant applications in a relatively short amount of time,” he says. “We had several design teams working around the clock on this project alone. Fortunately, we made all the deadlines.”

Satisfied with the bids received and the grant applications, the FAA awarded MLB an $18.2 million grant to cover reconstruction of its primary runway, plus repainting, signage and new LED lighting. “We were delighted with this grant,” Donovan remarks. “This was the single largest FAA discretionary grant our airport has ever received.” 

The Florida Department of Transportation contributed $961,000, and the airport supplied $3.6 million to complete the funding for that runway. 

Once FAA funds were approved and the project green-lighted, AVCON worked with airport officials on the final construction details. Before construction crews broke ground, AVCON made sure all contractors were up to speed, advises Hambrecht. “We had 26 meetings before construction even started,” he comments. “Once work began, we closely monitored progress, making sure everything remained on schedule. We had three resident inspectors out there full-time to oversee every aspect of the project. Our inspectors had lots of responsibilities, primarily making sure it was being built as specified.”

Early on, AVCON also coordinated testing of the asphalt pavements. Crews took exploratory core samples of the main runway, which had significant damage in many areas. “Based on the exploratory cores, we had to mill up to 11 inches deep in some spots to get rid of old pavement,” recalls Hambrecht. Most of this work was done at night; it took three nights just to do the coring, and a week to survey. 

Synchronized Timetable 

Scheduling the various work phases and determining the best order for each runway to be reconstructed were vital elements of the project. Crews started with 9L-27R, the 6,000-foot parallel runway, in August 2017. “That job went very smoothly, and we finished it in December 2017,” reports Perley. “We also started on Runway 5-23, our shortest runway, that same month. We originally wanted to finish that by March 2018, but we had a big air show here in March, so that runway’s completion date was pushed back to April.”

Naturally, reconstructing the airport’s longest runway required the most work and took the most time.

All three runways required milling, especially 9R-27L. “The contractors had to go nearly a foot deep in some spots on that runway,” Perley says. “The other 2 runways only needed perhaps two inches of milling.”

After paving operations were complete, crews painted markings, updated signs and installed about 630 new LED lights. This process took about 30 minutes for each light, Perley notes. 

The airport took a “very hands-on” approach to supervising each step of the project. Operations Manager Patrick MacCarthaigh or a member of his staff was on the field 24/7 throughout construction. “We had 40 dump trucks at one time on the field, and 100 workers on the field at any one time. The logistics were incredible,” Perley reflects. “We are very proud there were no recordable accidents.” 

Communication Was Crucial 

Another key to the project’s success was telling airport tenants exactly what had to be done, and how long it would take. “We have a wide variety of tenants. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have daily passenger service here. Embraer has a major manufacturing facility airside, where it makes Phenom and Legacy business jets. We also get about 1,900 general aviation flights a week,” says Cliff Graham, director of operations and maintenance. 

Last year, MLB logged more than 92,000 annual operations and served 467,000 commercial passengers. The recent runway improvements were designed to help prepare the airfield for an expected increase in future volume. 

“Satisfying the needs of all our stakeholders was a huge challenge. We had many, many meetings with our tenants,” Graham emphasizes. “We got very good support from them, once they knew exactly what we were going to do, and when it was going to be done. They understood the end goals.”

Graham has high praise for the many presentations AVCON created to detail the project for stakeholders. “One of the key components to getting their buy-in was the computer animation program that AVCON produced. It was incredibly realistic,” he remarks. 

Presenting a visual picture of each construction phase alleviated many concerns, especially from the commercial airlines. “Our animation showed the specific aircraft that Delta and American would use for each runway, what takeoffs and landings would be like, what taxi routes they would have to take depending on which end of the runways the planes landed, and how much time it would take to get to the terminal using various new taxiways,” Hambrecht explains. “That seemed to satisfy their main concern of delays.”

Before and during the project, MLB and its contractors worked to minimize impact on operations. 

“When the longest runway was closed, Delta and American had to use the shorter 9L-27R, and Delta had to change some equipment to accommodate the shorter runway. I believe that was the biggest inconvenience to the airlines. The added taxi times really were minimal,” Hambrecht adds.

Flexibility Needed

Significant challenges throughout the 14-month project required the team to remain flexible. “This was a very fluid project, so we had to continually communicate with our stakeholders,” Graham recalls. “There were times we had to close two runways at the same time. This was a huge challenge for our air traffic controllers. We also had to close various taxiways at different times, and issue many NOTAMs. Fortunately, we were able to utilize new FAA technology for NOTAMs. Our staff could be out in the field, and we could issue several NOTAMs at a time using a tablet, to go along with the hourly NOTAM notice from Air Traffic Control.”

Another compounding challenge: MLB is constructing a new air traffic control tower that is scheduled to open in March 2019. “The new tower partially blocked the sightlines to Runway 5-23, so sometimes we had to close that runway as well,” says Graham. 

Mother Nature also threw the airport a few curveballs during work on Runway 9R-27L. Unusually heavy rains this summer set the schedule back a few weeks.

Despite the extra challenges, MLB worked to provide complete transparency throughout the project. “Tenants heard the truth from us, whether they liked it or not,” Graham relates. “Not everything went according to plan. You can never over-communicate on projects like this.” 

Airport officials had great news to deliver when the final runway was ready to reopen in this fall. Donovan is very proud that the multi-runway project was completed in such a short amount of time, and on budget. “Everyone on our staff, as well as our consultants and contractors, did a great job,” he says. “I also appreciate the patience shown by our stakeholders. This is a classic example of a project that was inspired by necessity, and fueled by teamwork and communication.”  


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