Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…Cessna…4…4…Mike…on short final…21…and I have a question…Big Sandy…what kind of animals are in the field near the runway?
Unicom—Winds 2…0…0…at 8 knots…my guess…you are seeing a herd of elk…4…4…Mike…
I think we have one of, if not the prettiest, airports in Kentucky. I love it when people fly into Big Sandy for the first time and talk about the beautiful approach over the mountains, the big wide runway and how pretty the grass, trees and wild flowers are. On any given day we are likely to get guests from anywhere in the country. I like to say our 5,000 foot runway is a welcome mat for Eastern Kentucky. That’s why I believe it’s important to keep our airport clean, grass cut and flowers planted. For some people it’s their first look at Eastern Kentucky and I want to make a positive impression on them.
The airport is only part of the positive experience around here, Airport Road is important as well. The three miles from route 3 to the airport are a very scenic drive. The apple orchard is intriguing, the view of the sky is magnificent and the wildlife is interesting to see. Elk, deer, turkey, rabbits, raccoons, horses and birds of prey, we have it all on Airport Road. I have even spotted a bear a few times. I tell everyone that I operate the only zoo in America with a 5,000 foot runway in the middle of it.
Pilots who are familiar with our airport sometimes fly all the way around the area before they land to check for elk. Sometimes elk are beside the fence while planes are taxiing in or grazing on the hill about half way down the side of the runway. It’s always a topic of conversation when they are spotted, especially for people who see them for the first time.
We now have a security fence that goes completely around the airfield. That hasn’t always been the way it was. When the airport was built in the 1980’s there was a security fence around the hangars and terminal but not around the airfield. Deer at night was a major problem. I used to get a lot of business after dark when Massey Energy was using our airport and the pilots knew to give me a ‘heads up’ about 15 minutes before they landed so I could take a spot light to find and then chase all the deer away from the runway environment. I would have to do that all over again before they took off, too.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife informed me that they were dropping off about 400 elk about two miles from the airport as part of the Kentucky Elk Restoration project. I was against it! I told them how much trouble we were having keeping just deer away from our runway and now I was going to have to deal with elk also.
The people at Fish and Wildlife told me I might never see elk around the airport. Elk are totally different animals, I was told. They were wrong. I think the elk liked my big flat fields on each side of the runway and taxiway. I believe it must have reminded them of whichever western state they came from. Every morning the first thing I had to do was chase them away from the airport. Deer are mostly a night time problem but the elk are a problem almost anytime of day.
Jason Plasico, the guy in charge of the elk restoration project would come here almost every day checking on them and he and I got aquainted pretty good. He knew that I was having a problem and there wasn’t much I could do to keep them away. We needed a fence around the entire airport but that was about 12,000 feet of 8 foot high security fencing and that’s not cheap. I liked looking at the elk as much as everyone else did but my job is taking care of the airport and it’s pilots and airport safety is always my top concern. Talks with the Fish and Wildlife, Kentucky Department of Aviation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had everyone agreeing the airport needed a fence, now to find someone to pay for it.
Then one morning when I came to work there were about 50 elk standing beside my runway, happy as could be, grazing on our grass. I got in my truck and slowly herded them onto the middle of the runway, took a picture, before I carefully chased them off. The following week was the state aviation conference in Louisville. When we were meeting with our FAA administrators I showed all of them my picture. I made sure every single one of them got their chance to see what I had been talking about for about 6 months. About 20 elk standing on a runway will make quite a mess for the elk and any jet that would hit them.
As they say, one picture is worth a thousand words; turns out it’s also worth about $250,000 worth of fencing. That’s what it cost to get a fence entirely around our airport. It still took about a year to get the money, do the bid process and construct it but by the next aviation conference it was completed.
Phillip Breyden the head administrator from Memphis, the regional office where we get our monies, made a joke during his speech about how all the airport managers and board members are always asking him for money to do all these different projects but no one ever sends him a thank-you card. I made a mental note to make sure I sent him a thank-you note after I got my fence. Knowing that the picture of the elk standing in the middle of my runway was fresh in his mind, after the fence was completed, I sent him a picture of a few elk standing outside the fence looking in. My note said, “Thanks to you Phillip, the elk can no longer get through airport security!”
At the following aviation conference, Phillip made me stand up and told the fence story and about the thank-you note. We all had a good laugh.
Of course after I got the fence around the airport it was very important to not get any animals inside it. It was much harder to chase them away, now animals would have to be chased through a gate in the fence. I once had a crew of guys cutting trees at the approach end of runway 21. When they left for the evening, I never thought to ask them if they had closed the gate. I was going to check it before I left for the evening but didn’t think about it until I was about half way home. I started to drive back and check on it but didn’t. “If it is open, it will be fine just for one night,” I thought. I was wrong, when I got back to the airport the next morning there were about 75 elk grazing inside the fence.
I didn’t know what to do. Runway and taxiway lights are made to break easily if they are bumped by an airplane. That’s to limit the damage to aircraft if they get off the runway and hit the lights, it’s also to make it easier to repair the lights if they are damaged. It was important to not scare the elk and get them running around, they could break all of the lights. The first thing I did was to slowly drive to the end of the runway and make sure the gate was completely open. I had a gate located in the corner of the fence just in case any wildlife got inside the fencing it would be easier to chase them to a corner to get them out instead of somewhere in the middle of the fence.
Next I tried to walk them to the other end where gate was, that wasn’t working very well, it was like herding cats. They would just circle back around me and I couldn’t get them going in the same direction. It was obvious I was needing help, so I called my friends at Fish and Wildlife and told them of my problem. My friend, Jason, quickly came from Paintsville and we got more help from the people at HealthNet Air Medical base. The six of us formed a line about 500 feet wide and slowly walked them to the other end, then we guided them to the corner and watched them walk through the gate. Gate was secured and problem solved.
When the elk were first brought to the airport, I wasn’t very happy about it. I was having a difficult time keeping the deer away from the runway and now a much larger animal was moving in. To say the least, I wasn’t a ‘happy camper’ but the fence made all the difference. Now our airport is kind of famous for the elk herds, pilots ask about them all the time. Airport Road is actually a ‘tourist attraction’ for Martin and Johnson Counties, people drive here from hours away to see the elk. Jenny Wiley State Park brings their guests here on the elk tours and it is good for business at the Cloud 9 Cafe’, too. I guess you could say we have learned to respect each other’s space. I now completely understand that famous saying, “Good fences make good neighbors!”
Aircraft—Cessna…4…4…Mike departing runway 3 to the north…
Unicom—Thanks for stopping in….
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager, owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties)