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Local airport has come a long way from grass runway days

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

Many residents may not give the local airport on County Road 400 South a second thought, but it’s come a long way since its grass runway days in the 1950s. It is a busy place – and becoming busier all the time.

That’s especially true this week.

A flurry of activity continues at the facility as plans continue taking shape for Saturday’s fly-in and new runway dedication ceremonies renaming the New Castle-Henry County Municipal Airport “Marlatt Field” in honor of the family founders. Board of Aviation Commissioners (BoAC) are also actively involved in planning for the facility’s future, including applying for federal funds to seek an additional runway extension that would allow bigger corporate jets to land here.

A discussion of bird problems, wildlife assessments and receipt of funds for snow removal equipment also highlighted the most recent Aug. 27 BoAC meeting. Here is a recap of those issues.

Dedication ceremony

An official dedication ceremony, including the unveiling of a plaque renaming the facility “Marlatt Field” will begin the fly-in festivities at 10 a.m. State Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) will be in attendance along with a representative from U.S. Sen. Todd Young’s office.

The plaque reads: “In 1952, a 2,350 ft. grass runway was built by Clifford (Bill) Marlatt. The first structure was built in 1953 and the runway was expanded to 3,000 ft. in 1960. Through a partnership between the Marlatt family, Henry County and City of New Castle, the runway was extended and paved in 1965 to 4,000 ft. This partnership continues and is celebrated today with the dedication of the new 4,200 t. runway.”

BoAC member Tom Green said it’s an important achievement for the facility.

“This is a completely new runway with almost 500 feet of additional runway available for landing aircraft with the possibility of an extension for another 800 feet,” Green said. “The new runway is wider and can accomodate heavier aircraft and has improved lighting for safer night operations. It is located a few hundred feet north of the old runway. Additionally, it is laid out in roughly the same direction but with an emphasis on safer and clearer flight paths avoiding trees and buildings.”

Michiana Contracting is busy at the airport this week finishing up items on the new runway in preparation for Saturday’s Fly-In and dedication activities.

Some BoAC members, particularly New Castle Mayor Greg York, expressed concern about the company’s delay in getting remaining electrical work and clean-up done in a timely manner. It is about two months behind schedule.

“This portion’s been slow, getting them back out there,” Woolpert Consultant Ryan Robinson said of Michiana.

“What can we do to speed that up?” Mayor Greg York asked.

“They have to have everything in place for the fly-in in order to open up the taxiway. I said that was non-negotiable,” Robinson replied.

Monday, York said he had talked to Michiana officials, who promised “they would have full crews there until the job gets done.”  

“What got us behind the eight ball is when they got the air runway portion done, a lot of the parts for the taxiway were back ordered,” Airport Manager John Marlatt said. “So they (Michiana) were at a stopping point and went somewhere else. Well, the stuff came in and they were somewhere else. Then, getting them back has been a problem. They got back in the middle of August instead of the middle of June.

In response to a question from BoAC member Gene Clark, Marlatt explained Michiana was the second low bidder on the project, but got the job because the low bidder was deemed unqualified.

“In somewhat to their defense, everybody in the state is behind on their projects,” BoAC member Tom Green said.

“I would tell you they are the best electrical contractors for airports in the state,” Robinson said. “The fact that they’ve won so much work and had projects they are currently on is the reason why it took so long for them to come back and mobilize.”

Saturday’s dedication will kick off a day of fun at the airport, which also includes a fly-in, plane rides, a car show and food served by the New Castle Kiwanis Club.

Runway extension 

Even as dedication ceremonies were being planned for the new runway, BoAC officials were already talking about seeking grants for an extension.

Ryan said he had put together a preliminary application for the next round of funds available.

“They did say it’s going to be difficult, just because of the justification requirements, that you guys don’t have the operations necessary for the extension at this point,” Robinson said.

“The one good thing I will say, though,” Robinson added, “is that it does include funding for land acquisition. So I think that might be an appropriate and capable use of the funds.”

Robinson said a runway extension coming up in the facility’s long-range planning, but that federal officials had pushed it back. 

“We had the runway extension in there for 2019 or 2020 and they pushed back a few years,” Robinson said, “just because they don’t see the justification for it at this point.”

BoAC officials believe, however, an extension could help economic development recruitment efforts here.

Grant funds

Robinson said grant funds were released for snow removal equipment and a wildlife site visit.

A total of $150,000 was received to purchase snow removal equipment. Robinson said a request for quotes was sent out to eight different suppliers. BoAC President Maurie Goodwin has authorization to order equipment from the firm offering the best quote.

The quote package asks for pricing on a truck, two different plows and additional accessories, including a blower.

“There would be a requirement to deliver the equipment within a 90-day period,” Robinson explained. “We estimate it will be here by Dec. 4.”

New snow removal equipment was deemed necessary because the current vehicle being used belongs to the Marlatt family and is old.

Wildlife issues

Money for a required wildlife assessment is in hand, according to Robinson. Marlatt acknowledged there has been a bird problem lately.

“I’m not too sure what that is, but it’s gone away here in the last few days,” Marlatt said. “I don’t know what it is. We’ve had some pretty wet times. I don’t know if we’ve got some water standing that’s causing it. It’s been mostly doves and starlings.” 

“They’re going to tell us we can grow grass four inches high, but we can’t grow it six inches high,” Clark said. “It’s not allowed to go to seed because the birds will come in and get the seed.”

Robinson told BoAC members a site visit was better than a complete assessment, which could run $50,000.

“We are way too out in the open and too far from any water for deer,” Green said. 

“Michiana did say we had some coy dogs chewing on the wire we have above ground,” Marlatt said.

In other business:

• Marlatt said the airport had passed inspection for another year.

• Board members approved a payment of $4,327.55 to Pfenninger, Claxton and Estelle Insurance Group for liability coverage for directors and officers.

•  Robinson from Woolpert Engineering said a recent runway inspection went well. “They were really pleased with the condition of the airfield,” Robinson said.

• Board member Ed Hill said a letter has been received from U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly’s office offering best wishes to the airport on its runway dedication ceremony Saturday, but expressing regret that he will not be able to attend.