ITD partners team up for first backcountry airstrip paving project

A unique partnership of ITD highway personnel, workers from its Division of Aeronautics and a private contractor combined to accomplish something never done before in Idaho.

ITD celebrated completion of a paving project on a section of the Stanley airstrip this week. It is the first of the 31 airstrips owned or operated by ITD to receive an asphalt surface, explains airport maintenance manager Gary McElheney.

He said the need was identified many years ago, but it wasn’t possible until a highway construction project was scheduled in the area. Knife River of Idaho was scheduled to pave Idaho 75 from French Creek to Stanley. The proximity of that project made it economically feasible to pave about 1,600 feet of the Stanley runway.

Knife River set up an asphalt plant nearby in preparation for the highway project and made it available in advance to pave about one-third of the 4,300-foot runway.

McElheney kept an eye on ITD’s District 4 highway projects in hopes of combining one with the airport surfacing to stretch the division’s airport improvement funds. The Idaho 75 project provided that opportunity.

The department’s District 4 office, based in Shoshone, provided equipment and support, including removal of 1,500 cubic yards of dirt and gravel from the existing surface and replacing it with 1,350 cubic yards of crushed rock. Knife River applied 800 tons of asphalt to the runway. In addition to a 1,600-foot by 30-foot section of the runway, crews also surfaced an 80-foot by 40-foot access strip on one end of the airstrip.

“We couldn’t have done this without the help of the District 4 highway maintenance crew,” McElheney said. “We were able to complete the project a day early with their help and the equipment they provided. It was a joint effort.”

Highway maintenance workers who participated in the project were Alan Knight, Rupert; Val Elquist, Rupert; Tony Rigby, Stibnite; and Rafael Rodriguez, Stibnite. They joined Aeronautics workers Todd Glass, Erik Rabe and McElheney.

The Stanley airstrip has been plagued with dust problems for many years, and gravel on the runway occasionally resulted in damage to aircraft propellers and paint. ITD commits about $11,000 annually for dust abatement to minimize aircraft damage and reduce dust in the area.

McElheney said the airstrip serves between 1,500 and 2,000 operations a year, most of which are seasonal and provide access by outfitters and air charters to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The state acquired the airstrip early last decade through an easement from the Harrah family of Las Vegas.

The Stanley facility includes a small shop, a portable toilet, picnic table and shelter for visiting aviators.

ITD used crushed rock that it purchased previously for the project. Materials for the paving cost approximately $52,000. The collaborative approach saved ITD between $10,000 and $13,000, McElheney said.

“Highway District 4 was invaluable in this effort. We appreciate everything they did to make this happen. My personal thanks for all of their help,” said JV DeThomas, Aeronautics Administrator.

Idaho’s system of backcountry airstrips, the largest in the lower 48 states, attract many recreational users. They also play a crucial role in the state’s transportation system.

Airstrips are used for emergencies, such as wildfire suppression or medical transport, and some are used to deliver food, mail and other essential goods and services to residents who live in backcountry areas.

Photos: A Cessna touched down and broke through a ceremonial ribbon Monday to celebrate completion of a paving project on the Stanley airstrip (top). Paving a portion of the runway (middle, left) will reduce dust from the airport and reduce damage to aircraft from gravel. (Bottom right, l to r) Aeronautics Administrator JV DeThomas, District 4 Engineer Devin Rigby and ITD's Gary McElheney test the new airstrip surface.

Published 8-26-2011