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Killeen airport mishap revives question of need for second runway

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Does the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport need a second runway?

That question has been asked since before the airport’s opening in 2004, but it gained added relevance last week when a military transport plane became disabled on the facility’s only runway, resulting in the suspension of operations in and out of Killeen for 15 hours. Eighteen flights were affected.

The military aircraft, an Air Force C-5 Galaxy — the service’s largest plane — had a nose gear malfunction while practicing “touch-and-go” landings early Wednesday afternoon. Moving the aircraft to the military side for maintenance had been expected to take less than six hours, but because the plane is so large, special equipment had to be brought in from San Antonio. As a result, it was 3:45 a.m. Thursday before the airport resumed normal operations.

Last week’s runway-blocking mishap wasn’t the first such incident in the airport’s nine-year history. In 2005, an Air Force C-130 medical transport plane carrying injured soldiers from Iraq blew a tire on landing. No one was injured, but the incident forced the diversion of at least two inbound commercial flights to Killeen.

Obviously, a second runway would help avoid suspension of flight operations, but is there a genuine need for such a project?

That’s open to debate, but the project would come at a considerable price.

John Sutton, Killeen’s assistant city manager for external services, and the city’s former aviation director, said the cost for a second 10,000-foot runway would be about $200 million. That’s a sizeable sum, considering the entire airport cost $83 million to build.

Based on air traffic alone, there doesn’t appear to be an immediate, urgent need for the runway construction. Sutton noted that even though the airport’s enplanements are up — almost 6½ percent, or nearly 7,000 passengers, for the first 8 months of the year over the same period in 2012 — commercial traffic would have to increase dramatically before the project would qualify for funding from the Federal Aviation Administration.

In addition, the Defense Department would require a military mission for the runway before committing to the project.

Engineering and environmental impact studies for the runway project have been completed funded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce President John Crutchfield is hopeful that some collaborative funding between the civilian and military sides can make the project a reality at some point, but with defense cuts likely over the coming years, it’s difficult to say when that might be.

A second runway would offer several benefits, such as the ability of accommodate simultaneous take-offs and landings. It would also make it easier to perform major runway maintenance and resurfacing — a process currently done at night to minimize disruptions in air traffic.

On the military side, a second runway would allow greater flexibility in moving personnel and equipment in and out of the area, especially in a rapid-deployment scenario. In addition, another runway would accommodate a possible expansion of fixed-wing operations at Robert Gray Army Airfield.

Since the new airport opened its doors in August 2004, the sharing of the single 10,000-foot runway has worked well, with relatively few problems. If commercial air traffic increases significantly, or if military operations at the airfield expand, a second runway will become a necessity.

But for right now, it appears such a project is pretty far down the road.

In the meantime, the airport needs to make some adjustments, in response to last week’s mishap.

Sutton noted that the civilian side has the equipment to handle planes up to the size of a 757 jetliner. It’s apparent that the military needs to make a similar investment in equipment for large aircraft in order to avoid a replay of last week’s runway shutdown.

At the very least, our city’s commercial airline passengers deserve that much.

Contact Dave Miller at dmiller@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7543

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