By: BEN HOGWOOD
BEAUFORT — The newly extended Runway 8-26 at Michael J. Smith Field opened up for business Thursday, giving larger jets an easier way to get in and out of the county.
The Beaufort-Morehead City Airport Authority, which oversees operations at the airport, had been trying for decades to make the airport more hospitable to jets. That finally became possible last year when the authority received a grant from the state for $3.1 million to extend Runway 8-26 from 4,249 feet to a little more than 5,000 feet.
In addition to extending and repaving, the runway also received new LED lights and new painted markers. Ken Lohr, the chairman of the airport authority, was the first to use the runway about 2 p.m. Thursday. Less than two hours later, one of the larger corporate jets the runway is designed to attract was touching down.
While the airport authority hoped to have the runway reopened by Feb. 1, the cold weather that blanketed the county in January added a few more days.
Trader Construction of New Bern, which was awarded the contract to do the work, had to wait until conditions went above 45 degrees before it could complete the paving of the extensions at each end of 8-26.
“When it comes to putting down asphalt, we want to be sure it’s put down under the best conditions because it’s an airport runway,” said John Betts, the airport manager.
The extended runway won’t necessarily allow larger aircraft to fly into the area, but it is expected to allow and encourage more of them to do so. Previously, all the runways at the airport were about 4,000 feet or a little more.
Corporate jets don’t have any problems landing in such a distance. The problem comes when trying to take off, Mr. Betts said. When a jet is loaded with people, luggage and fuel, 4,000 feet can disappear quickly.
“The problem with 4,000 feet is they (jets) can get in here alright, because normally they’re low on fuel, but taking off is the problem,” he said.
To do so, jets would have to leave without a full tank. That would require such planes landing at a nearby airport such as New Bern or Jacksonville to top up.
“What this does is gives them the opportunity to come in and leave with more fuel,” Mr. Betts said, adding that the 5,000 length is also important for insurance purposes.
The project, which is one of the largest to take place at the airport since it was constructed almost 70 years ago, began in August, shortly after the state dedicated grant money toward the work. The airport authority had been working on securing the funding for 21 years, but the project didn’t rise to the top of the priority list until 2012.