Local pilots upset over county airport closing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 7, 2005

A plan to close the Shelby County Airport for runway repairs has come under fire from local pilots and other airport users who feel their needs are not being considered in the plan.

The proposed overlaying of the runway will cost an estimated $576,000 according to Planning Services Supervisor Todd McDonald, but it must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, he said. Money for the project will come from a congressional appropriation grant as well as county and state funds.

McDonald said one local media outlet had reported the project would shut down the airport for two weeks. He said however, that time period is incorrect.

&uot;The airport would be closed for five days, 24 hours a day,&uot; he said. &uot;We can’t do this project in pieces. It has to be done all at once.&uot;

According to McDonald, the airport would shut down at night for three nights before the closing to conduct preparation work. After the overlay is complete, the runway will be shut down at night for three more nights to conduct finishing work on the apron.

&uot;We can’t just throw a layer of asphalt down and call it good,&uot; he said. &uot;The FAA requires us to stick to strict standards when doing an overlay like this for safety reasons.&uot;

Local aviators and business owners are concerned about the proposed planning, saying the first time they heard of the possible airport closing was by reading it in a local newspaper.

During a pilot’s meeting held last Sunday, pilots voiced their concern at the lack of communication between the Shelby County Department of Development Services and the airport’s users.

Local pilots say they received no warning of the closure and are worried that shutting down the airport 24 hours a day could seriously damage their businesses.

James Harris, a pilot who has been using the airport facilities for more than two decades, said while local pilots welcome any improvements to the airport, they have been left out of the decision making and planning aspects of the resurfacing project.

&uot;We want to open the lines of communication between us and the county,&uot; Harris said. &uot;Of course, we want to see the airport prosper and do well in Shelby County, but as the users and consumers of the airport, we feel like the local pilots haven’t been given any consideration.&uot;

The airport’s runway and taxiway were extended by 600 feet in both directions earlier this year, and McDonald said the new overlay plan would help match the old runway’s surface to the new one.

Local aviators who will be affected by the airport closing are coming together to form a pilot’s association in hopes that such a group will encourage better communication with the county.

McDonald said he thinks the association is a great idea.

&uot;I think it’s wonderful that they’re coming together like that,&uot; he said. &uot;I wish they would have done it a long time ago.&uot;

McDonald said it is difficult to communicate with each pilot separately and that an association would be helpful to involving the pilots in decision making.

He also said that Kevin Lee, the airport’s operator, is the main contact between the county and the pilots.

&uot;Kevin Lee has known about the plan,&uot; he said. &uot;He was at the pre-bid project meeting.&uot;

Pilot Glen Autry worries that the county does not have the interests of the pilots as a high priority.

&uot;Decisions are being made by non-pilots and those who don’t know much about aviation,&uot; he said.

&uot;We feel like there needs to be some people involved in the decisions that know about these things and know how the pilots and consumers will be affected.&uot;

Autry owns Autry Electronics in Shelby County and operates two planes out of the airport. He is planning on adding a third in the future.

Harris said the closing would cause business owners and pilots who operate out of the airport to make different arrangements.

&uot;We may have to relocate aircraft and adjust our plans accordingly,&uot; he said. &uot;We can’t do that if we are not kept informed about what’s going on.&uot;

Autry said the association is still in a building process, but he and Harris both hope the group will bring better communication between pilots and the county.

&uot;We would like to sit in on the planning and decision making in regard to the airport,&uot; Harris said.

&uot;If we could only communicate better with the county and have our concerns heard, we would be able to minimize the effects that the closing will have on the airport’s community.&uot;

McDonald, however, said that pilots have been more than welcome to get involved for some time now.

&uot;If they wanted more involvement, I wish they had been around 10 years ago,&uot; he said. &uot;We’ve been doing this kind of work at the airport for some time now.