New airport control tower has a blind spot: More than 300 feet of runway obscured by FedEx hub will be closed, dozed to give controllers view

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Indianapolis International Airport this month will launch a highly unusual project-shortening a runway.

Perhaps just as odd is the reason: Controllers in the airport’s new air traffic control tower, opening next spring, won’t be able to see the southern 324 feet of the 7,604-foot crosswind runway.

The FedEx hub is in the way.

“The control tower needs to see the surface of the runway,” said John Kish, manager of the $1 billion midfield terminal construction project that necessitated the new control tower.

The Indianapolis Airport Authority will accept bids on Jan. 12 for shortening its shortest runway, which is expected to cost $5 million to $10 million. The work also includes repairs to apron surfaces near the runway.

So unusual is a runway amputation-airports tend to lengthen them-that one might reasonably wonder whether someone goofed in picking the location of the 340-foot-tall, $32 million control tower complex.

Absolutely not, insists Kish, saying the need to shorten the runway was known from the start. It’s not one of the midway terminal’s better-known projects, like the relocation of Interstate 70 and the dramatic ramp system that will connect the interstate and the new terminal.

The question of whether spending millions of dollars to shrink a perfectly good runway is the best solution is open to debate, however.

“To chop up 130 feet and no longer use the rest is stupid,” said Michael Boyd, president of an Evergreen, Colo., aviation research and airport-consulting firm.

“Does it help safety? No. Does it make it unsafe? No. It’s still going to cost you some money.”

Boyd, who often has been critical of the Federal Aviation Administration, said he still has to wonder whether the agency could have picked a better spot for its new tower to avoid the expenses of shrinking runway 14/32.

Most of the runway amputation is paid for under the federal Airport Improvement Program, funded by aviation user fees. The other 25 percent comes from local matching money.

Tower location ideal

Kish said the new control tower location was chosen based on a number of considerations, including the need to optimize views of the airport’s two principal runways. One of the parallel runways is 11,000-feet long and the other stretches 10,000 feet. The new terminal is being built between them.

“We didn’t want to screw up the visibility of the main runways in bad weather,” Kish added.

He also said lopping off portions of FedEx’s second-largest U.S. hub wasn’t cost effective or practical.

Building the tower taller than its current 340-foot height, to see over the FedEx hub, would have been costly and would have violated airspace restrictions, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

“The airport has to be careful what they say because the FAA is like the Gestapo if you tick them off,” said Boyd.

But airport officials did suggest to FAA a more cost-effective solution: installing cameras at the obscured end of the crosswind runway so tower controllers could view the area.

According to airport officials, the FAA responded that a camera might not give controllers a clear view of smaller, general aviation aircraft that share the runway with big jets. Also, the federal agency said a variety of service vehicles that go to and fro might be hard to spot.

Arguably, though, the new tower is so far to the west of the current tower that controllers will need binoculars on the best of days to see in detail the unobstructed part of the crosswind runway.

Safety issues?

Perhaps more important than cost considerations is whether shortening the runway to 7,280 feet from 7,604 feet significantly hurts the safety margin for takeoffs and landings.

Just last month, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 overshot Midway Airport’s notoriously short 6,500-foot runway while landing in heavy snow. The plane crashed through an airport fence onto a city street, killing a 6-year old Indiana boy in his parents’ car and injuring 10 others on the ground.

Breathing room in Indianapolis is nowhere near as shallow as Midway. There’s about 2,400 feet of grass between the south end of the crosswinds runway and High School Road-slightly less between the north end of the runway and Perimeter Road.

Airport officials also point out the crosswind runway is used infrequently by airliners-usually when winds make landing on the main runways precarious. However, at times pilots will request to use the crosswind runway to shave off arrival time because it is close to the main terminal and thus requires less taxiing.

Runway length matters the most where larger aircraft land. Generally, the largest planes using the airport with any frequency are FedEx’s DC-10s. According to FAA guidelines, the desired minimum runway length for those jumbo jets ranges from 6,600 feet to 6,780 feet, depending on model variation.

FedEx also flies Airbus A300 aircraft, for which the FAA recommends a minimum desired runway length of 6,840 feet to 7,280 feet for an airport at Indianapolis’ elevation.

“It’s still long enough to accommodate all the uses we need. The final length is still in excess of 7,000 feet,” Kish said.

But FedEx was concerned about the runway-shortening plan when it was first proposed, according to an airport official. Others also had misgivings as well.

“Originally, it was causing us some concern,” said Mike Wells, a member of the Indianapolis Airport Authority board.

But Kish said consultants studied the issue and found the runway reduction would have negligible impact. FedEx spokeswoman Paula Bosler said the company and the airport developed a solution, but she would not elaborate. “There aren’t any concerns on our part.”

While aircraft type dictates runwaylength guidelines, companies that fly aircraft also have their own policies, said Betty Stansbury, director of Purdue University’s airport. “That 350 feet [reduction] could make a big difference.”

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