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3 Vital Maintenance Considerations for Gravel Runways

By John Burnett on 02/10/2016

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Gravel and unpaved runways present unique challenges to thousands of small airports across North America— here’s what those airports can do to improve safety, save on maintenance costs, and better serve their communities.

Gravel and unpaved runways form a huge part of North American aviation infrastructure — particularly in remote areas. According to Indexmundi, 8,459 North American airports have gravel runways, while 6,760 of these have runways 3,000 feet or shorter.

Since these runways operate at a smaller scale than their paved counterparts at big airports, they face some unique challenges. Once you know that a loaded Boeing 747 tips the scales at 825,000 pounds with a takeoff speed of 229 miles per hour, it’s obvious that runways must be in impeccable condition to allow safe takeoffs and landings — even if the gravel runways never see the force of something as big as a 747. Here are three big factors to concentrate on when maintaining an unpaved runway.

1. Treat Every Day Like Inspection Day

From even before the moment that the first plane is ready to take off from the airstrip, conditions need to be in tip-top shape. Gord Drysdale, a gravel runway inspector with nearly 50 years experience, explains: “All runways have to pass certain specifications. For one, they have to be firm enough. Planes only have so much power, and if a runway is too short or degraded, planes can’t reach the necessary speeds to take off.”

BAE Systems adds that an unpaved runway must have “no standing water, deep ruts, or deep loose gravel on the runway” to be considered usable. Making sure that the runway passes the eye test is the first step in prepping it for takeoffs, and the runway surface should be assessed daily.

2. Apply Proven Soil Stabilizers for Pavement-Like Strength

But once the runway has passed inspection, that doesn’t mean the job is done — far from it. Soil stabilization is hugely important as the airstrip takes a beating from both traffic and the elements. The unpaved runways can be vulnerable to freeze-thaw damage during cold weather, which loosens the surface and creates irregularities in the strip, along with the typical wear and tear from plane traffic. Keeping these runways in optimal working order is essential for safe, delay-free travel to every corner of the country — so using some type of stabilization agent is absolutely necessary.

3. For Safe Flights, Keep Dust to A Minimum

Along with these stability concerns, dust from inadequately maintained gravel runways can cause hazardous visibility issues, as well as the possible risk of foreign object damage to aircrafts from loose gravel. If any communities are near the runway, it’s important that its fines are adequately preserved. If not, the released dust can cause not only visibility issues for pilots, but health issues in nearby communities as well.

The costs of keeping gravel runways properly maintained can easily balloon, especially in rural areas where heavy equipment and raw materials aren’t always readily available. The cost of repairing or resurfacing an airstrip can run into millions of dollars. A study by EBA determined that the minimum cost of maintaining a relatively small gravel runway over a 20 year period is well over $2 million. Particularly for smaller airports running on tight margins, such a sum is a huge burden.

Introducing Midwest’s Strategic Maintenance Programs for Gravel Runways

For airport operators looking for strategic maintenance and cost savings, Midwest has developed an all-inclusive program that is proven to lower costs and improve the quality of the running surface for pilots and passengers. Midwest Industrial Supply, Inc. initially developed the unique Fines Preservation™ Program for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Alaska’s harsh weather and rural communities reliant on air transport for life’s necessities made for an intense test environment.

The results? After treatment, runways show greatly improved CBR — and average overall maintenance savings of $40,000 a year. Our fines program and patented products are currently used by over 30 airports in the US and Canada.

EnviroKleen® and EK35®, Midwest’s industry leading products for runway maintenance, make good sense both in the long and short term. EnviroKleen and EK35 work by binding surface aggregate and fines, preventing dust release, and creating a smooth, durable surface. After treatment, gravel surfaces are ready for use immediately and are hardened by traffic pressure over time, in contrast to water and mineral based treatments.

As well as being non-toxic and safe for the environment, EnviroKleen and EK35 are performance certified by Boeing. Midwest’s expertise and products are the clear choice for cost effective, reliable maintenance of gravel runways so that every airport runway, no matter its size or surface type, can be cleared for takeoff.

(Image credit: Jim Sher/flickr)

About Author

John Burnett

Written by John Burnett

John Burnett is the Business Manager for the Midwest's Gravel Runway and Village Roads Group. He is experienced in business development and sales operations and management.

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