After nearly a year of all jet traffic avoiding Hay River, the paved – and bumpy – main runway at the airport will be fixed this summer.
The territorial Department of Transportation is investing $2.5 million in repairs, expected to be completed in July or August, and announced the tendering process on June 7.
Kelly O’Connor, airport manager at the Merlyn Carter Airport, said the work is only estimated to take about a week and most planes will be diverted to the secondary, shorter runway.
“The airlines are very interested in getting this work done,” said O’Connor. “This airport was built to be a back-up for Yellowknife in case of bad weather and we can’t do that right now.”
The current back-up airports include Fort Smith, Fort McMurray and elsewhere.
The work this summer will take place on the larger of Hay River’s two runways, which is 6,000 feet by 150 feet. O’Connor explained that jet aircraft typically need about 5,000 feet of runway to land and take off safely, and the combination gravel and asphalt secondary runway – measuring 4,001 feet by 150 feet – just isn’t enough. Furthermore, newer planes are not equipped to deal with a gravel runway, which again limits the traffic to the airport.
The state of the runway also prevents the larger Electra waterbomber used for fire suppression from landing and taking off while full. Instead, the smaller DC-4 aircraft are used, as they can land on and take off from the bumpy runway. However, they will not be able to take off with full tanks from the shorter runway when the primary runway is being repaired.
Judy McLinton, manager of public affairs and communication for the Department of Energy and Natural Resources, said there would be no interruption in fire suppression services in the week or so it will take to repair the runway, and that, if needed, the Electra aircraft is fast enough to come from Fort Smith to service the area around Hay River.
“We have other tankers that can land in Hay River and the one Electra we have on contract in the territory can service the area from Fort Smith,” McLinton told The Hub. “There will be no disruption in service.”
The majority of the airlines that use the airport will not be greatly affected by the repairs. The only regular flight that will require extra consideration will be the Northwestern Air Lease (NWAL) service to Edmonton, as it will be able to land safely on the secondary runway, but not take off from it with a full load.
“We will only be able to take nine or 10 passengers for the duration,” said NWAL’s general manager Brian Harrold, adding the normal number is 15. “The only problem will be, if we don’t get the call saying when the work is being done in a timely fashion, we won’t be able to close off the seats.”
Kathy McBryan of Buffalo Airways said that none of its regular service would be affected, but that she is looking forward to the patching work getting done.
“If they don’t repair that runway this year, by next spring and summer only the DC-3s will be able to land,” she said. “Talk about a step back in time. Instead of moving forward in transportation, we’ll be back where we were in the 1950s.”
McBryan stated jet manufacturer Boeing has sent out a letter advising airlines against landing their jets at the Hay River airport, and that the runway’s current state makes landing even the DC-4s a “marginal” choice.
“If it deteriorates any more, we’re going to have to stop,” she said.
This will not be the first time the runway has been patched. Aerial photos hanging at the airport show the darker patches of asphalt that line up with the remnants of streambeds and creeks that used to crisscross the area before the airport was built.
O’Connor maintains that much of the ongoing maintenance issues have to do with the location of the airport on Vale Island. Not only is the ground in the river delta less stable, there is water, houses or roads in every direction.
“When this place was built, it was on the outskirts of town,” O’Connor said. “Now with the highway and how Hay River expanded, there isn’t anywhere else we can put it.”
With regards to the cost of continuously repairing the bumpy runway, O’Connor said it is only practical.
“The airport is important to the community,” he said. “We’re supposed to be the hub and we need to be able to keep serving all four sectors of transportation: road, shipping, rail and air. It’s not a bad expense if it keeps us in business.”
— Sarah Ladik