CALDWELL — The Caldwell Industrial Airport sees more take-offs and landings than any other airport in Idaho. The lone runway that’s hosted that activity for the last three decades has been ground to rubble for renovations.
The airport serves as an economic hub for the city, supporting over 200 jobs. The runway, over a mile long, is lined with roughly 15 businesses such as a flight school, aerial photography business and a skydiving business. Each operates aircraft that cause wear and tear on the runway.
Though it doesn’t offer passenger travel, Caldwell’s airport sees about 150,000 take-offs and landings each year, according to airport manager Rob Oates. That compares to just 124,917 takeoffs and landings at the Boise Airport in 2017.
Air traffic in Caldwell has dropped by about a third since runway construction started in August, Oates said. The project is slated to wrap up in early October. In the meantime, aircraft can use the taxiway “alpha” next to the ripped-up airstrip.
“We’ve been able to continue operations, but we’ve asked our local pilots — if you don’t have to fly, don’t,” said Oates, who has been with the airport for about eight years and oversees the airport projects. “We’re keeping it open so people that really need to get in or out can come and go if they need to, but it’s a very temporary situation.”
THE BUSINESS IMPACT
Silverhawk Aviation Academy has continued teaching helicopter flight training for its students, but Silverhawk instructor John Stoltz said construction has complicated things.
“It’s definitely busy,” Stoltz said. “It’s really, really congested the traffic and become much more challenging to fly and conduct flight instruction in the area.”
The biggest impact, Stoltz said, is the lack of different types of maneuvers the academy can complete, influencing the quality of training students receive.
“There’s certain maneuvers we only do here at this airport because they’re a little bit riskier,” Stoltz said. “We’re not really able to get those types of maneuvers in.”
This airport is home to businesses like the flight school and skydiving because its size allows for more freedom and flexibility for what instructors can accomplish, Oates said.
Even with some impact, Stoltz said he has not seen a change in the number of flight hours the academy is able to complete.
According to Oates, some of the training operations such as Silverhawk have looked to other airports in Nampa or Emmett to practice temporarily.
“I don’t get a sense it’s (the construction) impacted anyone really too much,” Oates said. “A certain number of pilots are just putting off flying for a little while if they’re a recreational flyer. Thankfully, the pilots are adjusting and adapting to the temporary situation and are doing things in a safe manner.”
REVAMPING THE RUNWAY
The runway upgrades are needed to comply with federal regulations and represent the most significant work since the runway was built in 1987, Caldwell Public Works Director Brent Orton said. The revamped runway will have new asphalt and paint and adjusted light fixtures.
Runway asphalt wears just as normal streets would, but the process to repair it is considerably different. Completely rehabilitating a runway requires the process of a mill-and-overlay, where a portion, if not all, of the asphalt is milled and a new layer is laid down. Oates anticipates the project will be complete by Oct. 5.
Every few years, runways are patched up and cracks are filled, extending the life of the asphalt for years longer than it might normally last, Oates said.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s design for a runway is intended to last upwards of 20 years, but the Caldwell airport’s runway has been used for more than 30 years.
“Because we’ve put oil down every so often to help preserve and extend the life of the asphalt’s surface, we’ve gotten really a spectacular life out of the asphalt,” Oates said.
To kick-start the project, the city-owned airport received a $2.1 million FAA infrastructure grant in early June. Grants are prioritized based on need, with the highest priority on safety-related projects like runways, Orton said. The total planned project cost was about $2.3 million, which was also funded with help from the city and state, Oates said.
A LONG HISTORY
Previously, the airport was located in downtown Caldwell, just near Simplot Boulevard. At the time, the airport’s runway was much smaller.
“It was more like what our temporary runway is now,” Oates said.
It wasn’t until the ‘60s that the airport began to grow, Oates said. As the community grew and the Caldwell Memorial Hospital — what is now known as West Valley Medical Center — expanded, conflict grew due to the proximity of the hospital to the takeoff and landing path for the airport.
“They (the city) realized that this particular airport location was physically too close to the community,” Oates said.
The airport moved to its current location off Linden Street in 1976. It plays a critical role in Caldwell’s economy, supporting 222 jobs and $20 million in economic activity, according to the most recent report from the Idaho Transportation Department completed in 2009.
“The use of our runway we see only going up,” Oates said. “We’re well-positioned to be a regional business airport here for this end of the valley.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Eventually, Oates said the plan is to expand the airport’s runway onto parts of where Linden Street and Smeed Parkway are now. That expansion is a ways off and will most likely be done in phases with a lot of public input, Oates said. The plan is to extend the runway 1,300 feet when demand warrants. The extra length will help accommodate bigger planes.
Oates said the airport will also look to expand the apron just behind the 9,000-square-foot Hubler Terminal, which already hosts jets. In the next few years, he anticipates that apron will grow dramatically because most of the airport’s available, undeveloped land is near the terminal.
“We’re one of the few airports in Idaho that has space to continue growing,” Oates said. “We’re excited — everything is lined up to show a bright future for this airport. Our location within the valley and the fact that we have space with which we can expand and have more businesses come here — everything is really aligned for a really positive future for our airport.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been edited to correctly identify the name of the aerial photography business at the airport.