Construction at airport begins

Phase one in progress

Construction, which began June 4, is well underway at Sawyer International Airport. The multi-phase project is currently in phase one, with crews working to rehabilitate the pavement on the south end of the 12,070 foot runway. When construction is completed in mid- to late September, the runway will be fully rehabilitated and shortened to 9,070 feet, which airport officials say is still a longer-than-average runway for an airport of Sawyer’s size. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

MARQUETTE — Construction is now underway at Sawyer International Airport.

Crews have been working since June 4 on a large-scale runway construction project, which will involve shortening the runway from 12,370 feet to 9,070 feet and fully rehabilitating the surface.

Airport Manager Duane DuRay said it’s the largest project he has overseen.

“This is very big project. It’s an exciting project because this is starting a new era for the airport,” he said. “We’re going into the shorter runway, new pavement — it’s like shedding the skin of the old Air Force.”

The rationale behind shortening the runway at Sawyer, which was originally used as a U.S. Air Force base, is that it’s costly to maintain and longer than what’s needed for the airport’s operations.

“As much as we would have liked to keep 12,000 feet, it’s impractical and unnecessary,” DuRay said.

With the runway at 9,070 feet long once the project is completed, it will still be longer than most runways at comparable airports in the region. Those are typically about 6,500 feet in length, DuRay said.

“When we are completed with this, a 9,000 foot runway is going to be more than sufficient for the airport to comply with and support our current and future aviation needs,” DuRay said, noting the runway will still be able to accommodate many of the large aircraft that the original runway handled, such as the massive Russian Antonov An-124 jet that landed at the airport in April.

However, crews won’t be ripping up the 3,300 feet at the runway’s north end. Rather, the area will be painted with stripes, which will signify to air crews that the section is no longer part of the runway.

“We’re not taking any of this pavement out,” DuRay said. “We’re leaving the pavement here, this will all remain, so in the event that sometime down the road, (if) there was a need, we could reopen all of this back into useable pavement. Granted there would be a little bit of maintenance required, but still, this pavement is not going away.”

Crews began work on the runway’s south end on June 4. The construction project, which is funded by a $5 million Federal Aviation Administration grant, is now over a week into phase one of its five-phase construction plan.

The first phase involves closing the south 6,366 feet of the runway for crews to work and rehabilitate the surface, while the north end of the landing strip will remain open to prevent service interruptions.

Over the past week, workers have been milling down the pavement and repairing cracks before going over it with layers of asphalt, to ensure the runway will be built on a solid foundation.

“They’ve gone down below the asphalt grade and they are patching, wherever they found a crack or an underlying issue with their pavement, then they’ll come in with their milling machine and they’ll mill out that deficiency and then they’ll back fill it with asphalt as a patch, so when they lay over the final coats of asphalt, its a surface that isn’t plagued with underlying cracks or issues,” DuRay said.

Crews have also laid down test strips of asphalt to be analyzed, as runways require a specific asphalt composition.

“They do all kinds of tests on it to make sure its the right density, to make sure the aggregate is right, to make sure everything is as per the specs,” DuRay said.

This first phase is expected to run through July 3, weather permitting.

“The contractors are battling with this weather,” DuRay said. “This is a very tight schedule, everything has to fall in place to make it so that we don’t have any interruptions in air service and any delays in the paving, because you have phase one, phase two, phase three, four and five — every phase is affected by any delays early on.”

DuRay says he feels things are on track and going well, noting the crews are “doing a very good job so far.”

Phase two, which will involve closing and working on the north 6,370 feet of the runway while the south end is open, is scheduled to begin July 5.

Phase three, which is expected to run Aug. 1-3, will require the airport to close while crews work around the clock to lay the final layers of pavement on the runway. If the weather conditions are not favorable, the closure for this work will take place Aug. 8-10 instead.

DuRay says they’ve tried their best to minimize service interruptions during construction, as they realize any interruption can be inconvenient for travelers, as well as cargo and general aviation aircrafts that depend upon the airport.

“We’ve planned closely so that we would have the least impact on not only the air carrier service or the airlines, but (also minimize impact on) the local business and general aviation operator,” DuRays

Phase four will consist of pavement grooving and marking.

DuRay said the project is expected to wrap up in mid- to late September, after the FAA publishes revised runway approach guidelines for the shortened runway, which will feature new navigational instruments and lighting.

The fifth and final phase is planned for next year — crews will go out and examine how the runway’s pavement has held up over the winter and will seal any cracks that may have formed.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.