Pilots, Chicago Executive Airport in dispute over possible runway closure

Chicago News

Citing safety concerns, several small-plane pilots who use Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling are calling for the facility to reconsider a proposal to eliminate its only east-west runway as part of an updated master plan awaiting final approval.

It’s the latest development in the controversial plan that outlines future growth and development for the airport co-owned by Wheeling and Prospect Heights.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Last year, Chicago Executive officials dropped from consideration a proposed runway expansion beyond the airport’s borders after residents and elected leaders from Prospect Heights, Wheeling and Mount Prospect strongly objected.

Now a group of pilots who frequently use the facility are protesting a proposal within the plan to close Runway 6/24. The pilots say that because it’s best to take off and land directly into the wind, Runway 6/24 should remain open as a means to avoid dangerous crosswinds.

In a position paper, Chicago Executive Pilots’ Association members say the runway is a “lifesaver,” particularly when strong southwest winds occur.

“I just want to make sure it’s put on the record that taking out this runway is not the safe thing to do,” Rhett Dennerline, a commercial pilot who advises aviation companies and has been flying from Chicago Executive for 32 years, told the airport’s board Wednesday. “This actually may be relevant in the future. There may be an accident.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

But an airport consultant says improving safety is behind the recommended closure.

The Federal Aviation Administration considers the area where Runway 6/24 meets the facility’s other two runways to be a confusing “hot spot,” said Craig Louden, a project manager with infrastructure consultant Crawford, Murphy and Tilly Inc., of Aurora.

In addition, the consultant cited the potential for runway incursion, which the FAA defines as an incident involving an unauthorized airplane, vehicle or person on the surface.

After hearing from the pilots who want Runway 6/24 to stay open, airport board Chairman D. Court Harris said the decision must be made based on logic and not emotion. He said the runway — the airport’s shortest at 3,677 feet — accounts for just 2% of an average 211 daily takeoffs and landings.

While the FAA and state help fund maintenance of the two larger runways, such is not the case for Runway 6/24, according to Chicago Executive. The runway needs a comprehensive renovation within five years, costing at least $1 million, officials said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

“Money spent on third runways that is not reimbursable (by the FAA or state) is money that cannot be spent on safety measures for the other 98% of operations for the facilities and the resources for them,” Harris said.

Chicago Executive’s revised proposed master plan also calls for new hangars, taxiways and aprons, along with the runway’s closure. The document soon will be presented for approval by the Wheeling and Prospect Heights boards, as part of a process that also involves the FAA and the Illinois Department of Transportation’s aeronautics division.

About 80,000 corporate, charter and light-aircraft flights are handled annually at Chicago Executive as a reliever for O’Hare International Airport.

Rob Mark, treasurer of the organization representing the general aviation pilots, told the Chicago Executive board that small planes are about two-thirds of the facility’s business and 20% of hangar revenue.

“You need to understand that as airport customers, closing this runway is like stealing the wheels from the airplanes,” said Mark, a former Chicago Executive spokesman. “I mean, it just really is an unsafe issue that’s going to happen.”

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