North Carolina’s highest elevation public use airport is nearing completion of its runway expansion, according to airport manager Eric Payne.
“We are shooting to have construction of the runway done by Aug. 21,” Payne said. “The runway will be expanded 706 feet.”
Right now, the airport runway is measured at approximately 4,300 feet and 75 feet wide. Following the construction’s completion, the runway is going to be 5,002 feet with no expansion to the width. The expansion was made to help allow more planes to land at the airport, because numerous insurance companies require a plane to land on a runway that is at least 5,000 feet.
“To add the additional width would be very expensive,” Payne said. “You would have to increase what you have to compensate for the other 25 feet, which would be 12-and-a-half feet on each side.”
Funds for the runway expansion were made possible by a $2.5 million matching grant. Payne said for every $1 spent on the project by Ashe County, the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Aviation division provides $9.
The construction is being done by Eaglewood Inc., based in Denver, North Carolina.
The airport was completed in 1977 and has been open ever since. The first talks over airport expansion started in 1998, with the leveling project to expand the runway starting in summer of 2012.
“It started technically in the mid 2000s, when they redid the Airport Road and took the curve out of it,” Payne said. “That was the start of the construction.”
While expanding the runway will bring more airplanes into North Carolina’s highest elevation public airport, the county also makes money through selling fuel, as well as hangar space. Part of the advantage in Ashe County is because of its high elevation, it saves pilots money when fueling because they’re using less fuel to clear air space than they would have to in other cities.
Payne said people from throughout the east coast have stopped in Ashe County solely for fuel.
“You don’t have to climb,” he said. “Helicopters love to land here, because they come here, get their fuel and take off and they don’t have to climb that extra amount of height to clear the ridge line.”
The money from the hangar space comes from the owners leasing land from the county. Once the owner is done with the hangar, it is then given to the county and rented out.
Payne said the runway expansion will help major companies, such as GE Aviation fly into Ashe County. GE Aviation leaders now fly into Wilkes County, because they are required to land at an runway that is at least 5,000 feet in length.
“Now they will be able to come in here and save themselves two hours driving to and from their West Jefferson plant from the Wilkes County airport,” he said.
Ashe County Airport is the second highest elevation airport in the Eastern United States. Ingalls Field Airport in Hot Springs, Virginia, has the highest elevation at 3,793 feet.
The closest airports to Ashe County are in North Wilkesboro, Banner Elk, Elkin and Mountain City, Tennessee. The closest major airports are Charlotte-Douglas, Tri-Cities, Tenn. and Piedmont Triad.
Payne said people who use the airport can range from people who pilot for a hobby and local businesses to the military, who use the area terrain for flight exercises.
Future plans for the airport upon the runway’s completion, is to add a new layer of pavement to the runway so it can support a heavier weight distribution and be able to land heavier planes. Right now the runway can hold 12,500 pounds per wheel.
“Our plan down the road calls for to overlay the runway to 45,000 pounds double-wheel,” Payne said. “That means we will be able to land pretty large airplanes.”
Also, there are plans to move the airport’s fuel system to an open area and make it self-serviced so fuel can be bought at any time.
While construction is expected to be completed by mid-to-late August, the project is weather dependent. Payne said if weather similar to last year’s rainfall repeats, it would set the project back.
The airport is closed from 8:15 a.m. Monday until 6:30 p.m. Thursday while construction is being completed. The Ashe County Airport is still open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Payne said those times are subject to change. To confirm when the airport is open or closed to planes, call (336) 982-5144.
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.