Runway Extension/Rehab at Cherry Capital Gives Airlines a Literal Lift

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

With the completion of an award-winning runway project at Cherry Capital Airport (TVC), Traverse City, MI, is well prepared to welcome travelers to Northern Michigan for the summer tourist season. The $14 million project renovated and extended TVC’s primary runway to 7,015 feet, thus remedying previous operational limitations. 

The 115-foot extension was the sequel to a 2013 project that extended the 6,500-foot east/west runway to 6,900 feet. Prior to the recent improvements, airlines had to lighten aircraft loads during summer months to achieve adequate lift during takeoff, explains Airport Director Kevin Klein. As a result, TVC’s three airlines (American, Delta, United) were taking penalties—up to 14 passengers for larger aircraft and three or four for lighter planes. In addition to sacrificing revenue, the carriers incurred operational complications by having to constantly monitor temperatures to determine whether they could carry full passenger loads. With the longer runway, carriers are now able to operate aircraft at optimum capacities, thus increasing their own efficiency and enhancing service for travelers. 

The runway extension and rehabilitation didn’t come a moment too soon, Klein points out. Last year, the airport served 476,767 passengers, surpassing its previous record by more than 5%. “Traverse City is a seasonal market,” he notes. “We handle three times more traffic during June, July and August than during December, January and February.”


Project: Runway Extension & Rehab

Location: Cherry Capital Airport - Traverse City, MI

Cost: $14 million

Funding: $6.3 million - Airport Improvement
Program; $7.7 million - passenger facility charge

Project Timeline: Aug. – Nov. 2017 

Associated Runway Closure: 14 days

Project Design, Engineering
& Construction Management:
Prein & Newhof

Environmental Assessment
& Electrical Engineering:
Mead & Hunt

General Contractor: Team Elmer’s 

Electrical Contractor: Ranck Electric 

Lighting, Signage & MALSR: ADB Safegate

Hardware & Software for Automated Machine Guidance: Trimble

Runway Grooving: Cardinal Int’l Grooving
& Grinding 

Pavement Markings: PK Contracting

Landscaping: North Slope 

Fencing: Action Traffic Maintenance

Barricades: Give ’Em a Brake Safety

Award: MI Dept. of Transportation-AERO 2017
Airport of the Year

Tight Schedule

Although the project began with equipment mobilization and preparatory activities in early August 2017 and ended about three months later, crews completed most of the work during 24 days in September. Throughout the entire construction period, the runway was closed for only 14 days. During that stretch, the airport accommodated flights on its 5,378-foot secondary runway.

The Michigan Department of Transportation-Aeronautics recognized TVC’s outstanding efforts during the fast-paced project by naming it the state’s 2017 airport of year. 

The original project schedule included a closure period of 56 to 72 days, but that proved unacceptable to TVC’s carriers. “We worked closely with the airlines and contractor to find ways to get as much done as possible outside of the closure period,” says Klein. “As it turns out, we accomplished 162 days of work in 24 days by running three shifts, each with multiple crews working 24/7.” 

To prepare for the major September push, the general contractor on the project—Team Elmer’s—spent August staging equipment, setting up fencing and establishing protocols to meet security requirements. Crews also cleared and prepped areas for earthmoving operations, and installed conduit for the new lighting system. Simultaneously, improvements were made to a taxiway to ensure access to hangars and to the secondary north-south runway throughout the project. 

After breaking for the Labor Day holiday, the clock started ticking and the heavy work began. On the first night between midnight and 5 a.m., workers shortened the runway from 6,900 to 6,008 feet in order to keep it operational during the daylight hours. The threshold was moved and temporary electrical components and runway markings placed. Security fencing and barricades were erected to isolate the active runway area; portions of two taxiways were removed to install the new threshold bar and new blast pad. Throughout this initial 10-day period workers were on the job 24/7.

The runway closed on Sept. 15. The intersection of the two runways was reconstructed and shoulder work within the influence of the two runways performed. To keep the north-south runway open during this period, much of the work was completed between midnight and 5 a.m.

During the closure period, the airlines stepped up to the plate by using aircraft that met the weight restrictions for TVC’s shorter secondary runway. “Delta put in Embraer 175s, American used Embraer 145s and United maintained its schedules with 50-seat regional aircraft,” specifies Klein. “Together, we devised a plan that worked out well.”

From start to finish, workers moved 122,000 cubic yards of earth and placed 21,000+ tons of P-209 base material, 30,000+ tons of millings and 41,000+ tons of asphalt. All told, crews logged more than 38,000 hours of labor.

Bob Nelesen, project manager for Prein and Newhof, kept his finger on the pulse of the rigorous schedule. “Not only was it 24-hour work days, but all of the contractors put on multiple crews per shift in order to accomplish the work,” he recalls. 

Needless to say, the timetable was extremely tight. “Because of the compressed schedule, we were driven to work as fast as we could, which creates enormous risks when you’re laying down 5,000 tons of asphalt a day at $65 per ton. If something goes wrong, you’re not only risking more than $300,000, you also have to remove it and redo it. You’re constantly having to meet a rigorous schedule while moving at a pace that is hard to comprehend. Backup resources are critically important. If you need something at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday and you can’t get it until Monday, you’ve basically lost three days of work. It makes everything a critical task item.”

To help stay on task and on time, Team Elmer’s used automated machine guidance for grading work. “The FAA’s specs and tolerances are very exact,” Broad notes. “We knew we had to hit it perfectly every time. With this system, we didn’t have to wait for a surveyor to set stake; everything is automated. All the driver has to do is move forward and back.”

All of the old runway edge lights were removed and new cable and conduit installed, informs Mead & Hunt Electrical Engineer Bill Ropposch. LED upgrade kits were installed in all the signage, and a new precision approach path indicator (PAPI) and medium-intensity approach lighting system with runway alignment indicator lights (MALSR) put in place. 

Mead & Hunt also took the lead in environmental planning, land acquisition and obstruction removal for the project. Approximately 1,600 trees had to be removed or topped, and environmental mitigation and property issues resolved. Stephanie Ward, vice president and manager of aviation planning, worked with TVC’s legal counsel to acquire avigation easements for 54 properties, one of which was a mobile home community. Securing the legal rights to fly in the airspace above the properties, and also create associated aircraft noise, was a complex process that included boundary surveys, development of exhibits and extensive coordination with property owners, Ward explains.

In the end, the project included about $2.7 million of improvements in the surrounding community. “We made it clear to homeowners that in addition to the easement payments, mitigation required them to return their properties to their natural states, but with trees that would not grow as high,” says Klein.  

Security was a challenge throughout the project, recalls Dan Sal, the airport’s assistant director of operations and maintenance. “We had to work closely with FAA and TSA,” he says, noting that more than 25,000 feet of security fencing was installed. “From earthwork to electrical, you name it, we had a lot of people working in a pretty small area. Communicating with everyone about safety and security issues was a challenge; it required talking and meeting with a lot of people on a daily basis.”

It Pays to Wait

When airport officials began discussing this project back in 2007, they projected that the runway would need to be about 7,300 feet long. The economic downturn in 2008, however, delayed the project. After the 400-foot extension in 2013, officials consulted with the airlines to determine whether their original 7,300-foot estimate was still correct. They learned that once the runway exceeded 7,000 feet, it was rated as having the same engineering performance value as a runway length up to 7,499 feet. 

Moreover, the aircraft using TVC’s primary runway have changed since the early planning stages for the project in 2007. “A great example is the DC-9 falling out of service and the Boeing 717 coming into service,” Klein explains. “Performance improved significantly.”

With this new information, officials conducted another study, which ultimately indicated an optimum runway length of 7,015 feet vs. 7,300. This proved to be great news for the airport, because it allowed the project to remain on airport property and eliminated the need for extensive—and expensive—roadwork. Overall, the length change saved the airport about $5.5 million. 

The overall value of the runway improvements will become evident in the coming summer months, when aircraft are able to take off with maximum loads. It took a lot of coordination and communication, but everyone did a fantastic job, Klein summarizes. In addition, passenger traffic actually increased slightly during the height of construction.  


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