It's been awhile since the Lawrence Municipal Airport has had a capital improvement project such as a new terminal or major new hangar. But there is evidence the 70-year-old complex is gaining some momentum to help it become a better and more versatile installation.
The ultimate goal is new development and expansion to give Lawrence the kind of airport it needs to meet business, industrial and recreational needs.
As far as commuter service is concerned, however, it seems unlikely such service will be re-established for some time, perhaps never, because geography works against Lawrence.
OVERSHADOWED by larger airports in Kansas City and Topeka, the Lawrence site is too often overlooked by aviation people. Bob Newton, local radio station executive, is chairman of the city-appointed Aviation Advisory Board. Newton replaced Bob Walters, who left the post after his election to the city commission. Newton, who flies himself, says he is amazed at the number of aviation-oriented people he meets who are not aware Lawrence has an airport as big or as good as it has.
Newton thinks better facilities and promotion could change that to the community's advantage.
``With Kansas City and Topeka so close, we tend to be overlooked by a surprising number of people,'' says Newton. ``We need a lot of things, most notably a full instrument landing system (ILS) and more hangar space, to name two items right off, but we also can use more awareness by people of what we do have so we can heighten our prospects for more facilities and greater use.''
Newton and others familiar with the local situation say commuter service prospects remain low because of the lack of an ILS and because most air travelers can so quickly and easily get to Kansas City and Topeka by auto.
``We're literally betwixt and between because of the way surface travel has improved and facilitated trips to KC and Topeka,'' says Newton.
LLOYD HETRICK of Air Services, fixed-base operator at the airport since 1987, can quickly cite a trio of improvements he would have tomorrow if he could push a magic button.
1. A complete instrument landing system, which would cost about $1.3 million. (There seems a good chance that $250,000 of this amount soon could come through a federal grant for which U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., has been working for some time.)
2. More hangar space to store aircraft of people who want to use the airport here but can't.
3. Relocating fuel tanks from the old terminal area of the airport to the new site to do away with trucking of supplies to aircraft.
Hetrick thinks traffic and use would pick up dramatically if his wish list could be met. But Hetrick also realizes conditions probably won't be right and money won't be available to alter this too much during the coming year.
``I'd say that there was a slight increase in airport use here the past year, though nothing major,'' he says. ``Kansas University basketball, with its increased victories and interest, has been bringing in more planes, sometimes 25 and 30 at a time. Back in 1983, we might get as many as 100 planes for a big football game. But football interest has dropped off, basketball interest has increased and now it's basketball that brings them in. With the right facilities, we could have a lot more activity out here, and help the town a lot more.''
HETRICK points out that the presence of KU gives the airport high potential for far more traffic than would be possible in a community as big as Lawrence but without a university.
``You've got the business and industrial traffic, sure, but look at all the traffic KU events can generate, like flying in personalities, people coming for games, things like that. How great it would be if we could fly charters in and out for athletic teams and similar groups. With the right facilities, we can step up the pace a lot and make a lot more people aware of us and what we have to offer. It's a chicken-or-egg thing, though: You don't get the visibility without the facilities, and you can't promote, or sell, much until you get them. The ILS, of course, is far and away the No. 1 need.''
Lawrence has a north-south runway of 3,900 by 75 feet and a northwest-southeast runway of 5,000 by 100 feet. They seem suitable for most traffic that would choose the local airport. It's hangar space and fueling facilities, along with the all-weather landing setup, that most authorities agree are the priorities.
In the past 12 years, more than $4 million has been spent at the airport. The ``new'' terminal was completed in 1986 and major hangar space was added in 1987. The airport was formally opened on Oct. 12, 1929.
THE EXCITING development the past year was the beginning of an 18-month tryout of a ``localizer'' navigational landing aid by Aviation Systems Inc. of Lenexa. Under an agreement between ASI and the city, ASI put in the localizer, which sells for $125,000, for a test period. Instead of buying the unit, the city is paying a $10,000 fee. Ultimately the city may be able to buy the device at a much lower price if it can raise the money.
``But the localizer is only part of the kind of ILS system you can find at airports in cities such as Hutchinson, Salina, Newton, Olathe, Dodge City, Liberal and Manhattan,'' says Newton, Aviation Advisory Board chairman.
``The localizer takes care only of the glide slope (up-down). The rest of an ILS system includes the left-right factors and a number of other things that will allow people to use the airport with as little as a 250-foot ceiling. Now, the best we can do is 700 feet, and that's not nearly good enough for a lot of fliers. Without the right system, you don't get the traffic, and your airport doesn't get the attention it needs to survive and prosper.''
Good news came the past year in the form of a $22,500 federal grant, boosted by $2,500 in local funding to $25,000, for future planning for the Lawrence airport.
``Muller, Sirhall and Associates, Inc., of Aurora, Colo., has been retained as a planning consultant and this will be the first time since 1975 that a major planning project has been focused on the Lawrence airport,'' says Newton. ``Obviously, our needs and conditions have changed a lot, and it's hoped we can get a better perspective on the future through this planning program.
``This could help us bring about a better image and increase the visibility of a facility that needs to be much better than it is if the community is to do as well as it deserves to.
``I can't overemphasize that an airport is not just a plaything for rich people, or for doctors who don't play golf,'' adds Newton. ``To be able to attract and retain and enhance business and industry, you must have the kind of airport where you can land corporate-type aircraft for personnel, materials, any number of things. And it would be great if there could be charter service for travelers in the various KU programs.''
ACTING CITY MANAGER Mike Wildgen also is optimistic about the planning project this year and is hopeful about progress toward getting more private hangar space, better taxi and access facilities and improved general maintenance including skid-resistant surfacing.
``There may not have been anything too dramatic over the past year, and it's unlikely there will be anything of that nature this year,'' said Wildgen. ``But things are moving along in the right direction, the planning project has a lot of us excited and we're by no means sitting still. There are the usual money constraints, but once the planning project is completed, we can get a better perspective and perhaps devise some ways to get some vital things done. That's certainly our goal.''
Probably the major setback at the airport during the past year came when a local aviation research firm planning to construct a new hangar-type building scrapped the venture and decided to move to Colorado.
Dave Kohlman, president of Kohlman Aviation Corp., said his plans to develop an airplane wing ice protection business here had fallen through. The former KU professor of aerospace engineering said he has decided to pursue another business opportunity in Colorado Springs. He did not elaborate.
Kohlman once planned to put up an 8,100-square-foot, $200,000 building on city property at the airport. He planned to use the building to install ice protection systems on aircraft, to manufacture de-icing fluid used in the system, to store aircraft, and to use the hangar for business and engineering office space. The Kohlman business was to have been the first to move into the airport's new ``enterprise'' zone authorized by the state of Kansas and established by the city.