CHARLESTON — More than two years after a massive landslide at Yeager Airport in Charleston took out an emergency runway overrun area, state and federal officials gathered to announce a $13.5 million federal grant to finally repair the damage.
“This took an act of Congress,” said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, adding that repairs to the hillside above Keystone Drive in Charleston, where the landslide occurred, were technically not eligible for federal help.
“We were told ‘no’ more times than you could count,” Carper said. But thanks to the efforts of U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. and other members of the state’s congressional delegation, Carper said federal funding was found to repair the emergency overrun.
State and local officials called a press conference to announce the federal repair grant on Monday, Sept. 11. The press conference was held on the brink of the collapsed area, just feet from where the landslide occurred.
Yeager Airport Director Terry Sayre said the repairs could not have been made without federal help. Yeager Airport officials have been in a lengthy legal battle with contractors who did the work on the runway extension, which gave way in March 2015.
The landslide, on March 12 and 13, 2015, dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth onto Keystone Drive, destroyed a church and several homes and took most of the airport’s EMAS system. EMAS, which stands for engineered materials arrestor system, is a length of collapsible blocks placed at the end of a runway designed to slow down and stop an aircraft that overshoots the runway.
Getting the EMAS system replaced has been a major goal of airport officials since the collapse of the hillside. “Lives were saved by the EMAS,” said Carper.
On Jan. 19, 2010, a U.S. Airways flight scheduled to leave Yeager Airport bound for Charlotte, North Carolina was forced to use the EMAS system after the pilots aborted a takeoff. The EMAS system worked as designed, stopping the plane, which likely would have plunged over the side of the mountain had the EMAS blocks not been in place at the end of the runway.
Loss of the EMAS has meant that flights into and out of Yeager Airport are not as safe as if the system were still in place.
“Being a pilot myself, I know how important (the EMAS) is,” said Manchin. “You need every inch of runway. We use it all.”
Capito, who frequently flies into and out of Yeager Airport with Manchin and other officials, said funding the repairs was important. “We really use this airport,” she said.
Jenkins called the fight to find funding for the airport repairs was a “collective effort.” But in West Virginia, he said, “We take care of one another.”
Sayre said the $13.5 million federal grant will be met with another $1 million or so in county and state matching funds. Another $13.5 million grant is expected next year to complete work to repair the EMAS and shore up the mountainside underneath.
Plans call for building 352 feet of new EMAS and building a large retaining wall below the new overrun area to reinforce the hillside. Sayre hopes work will be completed by the fall of 2018.
Ed Hill, Chairman of the Central West Virginia Regional Airport Authority, said the authority would have to vote to accept the federal grant. The authority, which technically owns Yeager Airport, met right on the tarmac during Monday’s press conference and agreed to take the money.