On a cold, clear, windswept day, Airport Manager Steve Stork drove his pickup on the runways and taxiways of Ely Airport/Yelland Field, inspecting their surfaces. Stork, an Ely native and pilot for almost 20 years, pointed to large cracks that had been sealed years ago, but now showed signs of breaking through their repairs.
“You can see here where the runway is unraveling,” Stork said. “The seals were like big band-aids.”
Laid in 1979, the asphalt on the runway is now 37 years old. A dirt runway hosted aircraft as early as 1929. Today the main runway, 18/36, runs north-south and is 6,000 feet long. An almost 5,000 foot crosswind runway, 12/30, was added by 1934.
Stork is in the process of securing the funding to completely repave both runways and all taxiways. Phase I of his Airport Capital Improvement Plan has already been approved, earning almost $2 million. Road and Highway Builders, LLC, a Sparks highway construction company, won the bid for the project, and will reconstruct about one-quarter of the main runway.
Stork expects the second phase of the grant, $2.6 million, to be awarded in April or May, at which time he will distribute requests for proposals. He hopes to have construction started by July.
The Nevada Department of Transportation last inspected the airport in December. NDOT performs the inspection on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration now that large scale commercial air service to Ely has ceased.
The inspection report details NDOT’s concern about the condition of the runway, explaining that “degradation of the pavement base at this point in time requires complete pavement
reconstruction.” Snow and icy conditions wreak havoc on the runways and taxiways, degrading the surface and breaking the asphalt into pieces that become foreign object debris, or FOD. A loose chunk of pavement can severely damage a turbine jet engine.
The report also describes faded surface markings and signs, as well as runway ending lights that are too far away. The latest FAA regulations also require Stork to move his north taxiway 40 feet further away from the main runway.
The airport once hosted passenger service for large airlines such as United, Frontier and Skywest, companies that were propped up by federal government subsidies to fly in and out of Ely. A commercial operator fee also earned the airport revenue, but Congressional budget cutting combined with low passenger counts ended the subsidies and the service. The last passenger jet to fly out of Ely, a Great Lakes airliner, took off in 2012. Once commercial air service ceased, Stork surrendered his required FAA 139 certificate in order to save the county money.
“People thought we were closed,” Stork said. “But it saves us some dollars. People need to know that we’re still open, we’re still operational.”
The airport houses a two-engine air ambulance, as well as tow-planes used during the summer soaring season, when pilots from around the world come to Ely to fly gliders through the valley’s air currents. UPS freight flights land every weekday, and the airport offers various air taxi and charter flight services. The Bureau of Land Management houses its seasonal firefighters at the complex, and the airport remains part of the federal transportation system.
Two single engine aircraft landed within an hour.
“Since the federal government funds 93.75 percent of it, it’s a pretty good deal,” Stork said. “It’s here for people to use. To be viable, any community and any business has to have an airport to serve it. We still have the capability for charter service. The only thing that’s changed is that we don’t have scheduled commercial service. Other than that, it’s business as usual.”