Memphis International Airport runway project takes off

September 20, 2009

Scheduled to finish on time for holidays

By Wayne Risher

A nearly $50 million overhaul of Memphis International Airport's east-west runway is sprinting toward a November finish.

A total reconstruction of the airport's oldest runway was about 80 percent complete Aug. 31 and on pace for completion before FedEx's holiday shipping season begins.

Runway 9-27 has been closed for takeoffs and landings since March. The project was compressed into a single construction season with the added challenge of keeping crossings open for cargo jets taxiing between north-south runways and the FedEx World Hub on the north side of the airport.

Ajax Paving Industries of Troy, Mich., the general contractor, aims to have the project completed by Nov. 1, in time for a Federal Aviation Administration flight check scheduled for Nov. 8, project manager Pete Mann said.

The contract calls for Ajax to be done with construction no later than Nov. 30, so FedEx can have full use of the runway when package volumes jump after Thanksgiving, airport vice president of operations John Greaud said.

Greaud said the project had to be carefully sequenced "because of the number of crossings. Every FedEx jet has to cross that runway. It's also a tighter time frame."

Mann said, "Not a lot of airports in the country have done what Memphis has done in the last 15 years. They've built a new (airfield), and it's all in concrete. They've got a product here where all the runways will last for a good many years."

When 9-27 is completed, the airport will have four concrete runways built within about a dozen years.

Greaud said a concrete runway's service life depends on how heavily it's used, but airport officials expect theirs to last at least 25 years and possibly 40 to 50 years.

The runway's identifying numbers are abbreviated compass headings: 90 degrees (east) and 270 degrees (west).

In Detroit, Mann said, Ajax this summer began a comparable runway project that will take two years to complete.

"This is definitely one of our largest jobs and quickest-paced jobs."

He said credit belongs to the Airport Authority, for which big projects are old hat, and to Ajax's primary subcontractors: APAC-Tennessee, for the runway's asphalt shoulders and soil cement base; Hypower Inc., electrical work; and Kamminga and Roodvoets Inc., earth moving.

A mild summer didn't hurt. "The weather this year hasn't been too bad for paving. We were planning on doing a lot of night-time paving, and we didn't do so much."

Ajax and subcontractors deployed as many as 250 workers at a time.

The job started with milling and removal of 207,000 tons of asphalt, plus unknown tonnage of old concrete base from beneath the runway surface.

Ajax set up production plants in a staging area at the west end of the runway to mix concrete, crush old concrete and mix soil cement that's part of a new base.

Subsurface layers consist of 20 inches of soil cement, topped by 8 inches of cement-treated base and 4 inches of porous asphalt, plus a network of drainage pipes.

On top went a 20-inch-thick layer of concrete, 150 feet wide, applied in 25-foot-wide strips by a slow-moving paving machine. The concrete plant churned out up to 400 cubic yards an hour as it was fed crushed stone from Missouri, sand from Mississippi and fly ash from Eastern Kentucky.

Mann said the paving operation this week was about 600 feet away from the west end of the 8,946-foot-long runway. About 125,000 cubic yards of concrete had been poured.

The project also corrected a "profile deficiency" in the old runway, Greaud said.

"It had a dip in it in a place where it didn't belong. We had to raise the runway."

A 1,500-foot section toward the eastern end has been raised about 3 feet, he said.

As paving winds down, the contractor will push ahead with electrical work and airfield painting.

FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said, "Everything is going based on plan. They're going to meet their target dates for opening for us, in time for our peak shipping season. To my knowledge, everything concerning the project has gone smoothly."

Greaud said in addition to Ajax's $48 million contract, there are two incentives for timely completion: $1 million for the runway to be fully functional for the FAA flight check, and another $1.5 million to meet the Nov. 30 target.

"It's going to be tight, but we don't have a concern at this point about being able to meet that date," Greaud said.

-- Wayne Risher: 529-2874

Runway 9-27

Oldest and only east-west layout of four runways at Memphis International Airport

Nearly $50 million reconstruction replacing asphalt surface with longer-lasting concrete and eliminating a "profile deficiency," or dip, toward the east end

8,946 feet long by 150 feet wide, with 25-foot asphalt shoulders

Completion scheduled for Nov. 30

Owned by Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, memphisairport.org

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Copyright, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN. Used with permission.