Jul 24 2007

Longer runway credited with saving Air Guard unit 2,000-foot extension cost $51 million

Birmingham News

By Charles R. McCauley

Moments before airport, military and other officials cut three ribbons Monday to dedicate the 2,000-foot extension to the Birmingham airport's east-west runway, a fully loaded KC-135 tanker took off from the runway on a refueling mission.

The tanker "had a rather long road for its takeoff," Col. Paul Brown, commander of the 117th Air Refueling Wing, said at the ceremony at an Alabama Air National Guard hangar.

Before the five-year, $51 million project to extend the runway to 12,000 feet was completed, the tankers made few departures at full capacity.

Now "you can land and take off with a 747 loaded with fuel and cargo" to international destinations without stopping to refuel, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said.

Shelby said the ceremony marked an important day in a campaign to expand and modernize the airport. He added that efforts "to make this a first-class hub" will continue at Birmingham International Airport.

The project gives the military unit in Birmingham a capability it didn't have before, Brown said. "We can actually cover a much larger portion of the country than we could in the past," he said.

Plus, the expansion project helped remove the threat of the unit losing its Birmingham hub after the 2005 base realignment and closure commission's proposal to close it.

"The runway basically saved the 117th," Brown said.

Airport Executive Director Al Denson said the project was done in phases and involved a lot of participants, from federal aviation officials to neighborhood leaders.

"This runway extension project has meant a lot to this airport and this community. It puts us in line to do other things on an international basis and we will move forward over the next few years with continued development of the cargo side and the passenger side of the business," he said.

Steven Hoyt, Birmingham Airport Authority vice chairman, said the runway means opportunities that didn't exist before at Alabama's busiest airport.

"Today, we become the gateway to economic development not only for Birmingham but for the entire state of Alabama. And now we say to Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai and all businesses in between, we're open for business."