The 315-acre Eagle Creek Airpark, a reliever airfield for Indianapolis International Airport, has just one runway and two taxiways, yet it still serves a full 126 aircraft with more than 40,000 operations per year. So, when the airfield found itself in need of renovations in 2012, the Indianapolis Airport Authority (IAA) knew it couldn’t simply hand off the facility’s flight load to one of four other airports in the metro area. And, even if it could, it would still have to deal with the fiscal hit to the facility’s businesses, including fuel vendors, maintenance companies, and flight schools. Basically, this wasn’t an option. “[The businesses] represent an $11.9 million economic impact each year, so it was important for us to complete the project quickly with limited closings,” says Susan Zellers, the IAA’s deputy director of planning and development. Armed with a 20-year plan that’s updated once every decade, Zellers scrutinizes each of IAA’s airfields and organizes maintenance work to limit interruptions in service. At Eagle Creek, this entailed some creative scheduling.
To complete the project as quickly as possible, Zellers organized a week of night closures, followed by a weekend runway overlay and resurfacing—an important upgrade last performed in 1996. “We opted for a weekend closure to minimize the financial impact to local operations and reduce the inconvenience for corporate customers who fly during the week,” Zellers says.
“We opted for a weekend closure to minimize the financial impact to local operations and reduce the inconvenience for corporate customers who fly during the week.”
Deputy Director of Planning and Development
Once the resurfacing was complete, crews returned to apply a process known as “grooving,” which transversely scores the runway with uniform lines. The grooved surface minimizes skids and makes braking easier for safer landings in inclement weather.
The FAA and the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) helped the IAA with project funding, which came through in September 2012. Zellers pushed her team to move quickly and set up a test strip, which cleared the way for construction to begin only one month later. Rieth-Riley served as the contractor, and a team led by Jacobi, Toombs & Lanz, Inc. provided design services. To smooth things over further, the IAA posted early notices for Eagle Creek’s tenants and operators.
Despite these efforts, though, some factors remained uncontrollable. “The rain,” Zellers recalls. “There was always rain in the forecast.” Luckily, the construction crew escaped with just a two-hour rain delay, and workers produced the runway’s asphalt mix off-site in advance to push the project ahead quickly once surfaces dried.
With so many variables and tight deadlines, communication was key. “We made sure to get everyone talking, and we had an experienced contractor working closely with an on-site inspector,” Zellers says. Having the inspector stay on-site helped prevent costly delays and led to on-time completion.
In addition to Eagle Creek, the IAA, created by state lawmakers in 1962, manages Indianapolis International Airport, Indianapolis Downtown Heliport, Hendricks County Airport, Indianapolis Regional Airport, and Metropolitan Airport. It’s the largest airport system in Indiana, and Zellers and other IAA staff work closely with INDOT on management plans to determine timelines for all upgrades and changes. “Our ongoing mandate is to keep everything in good condition while we assess facilities and stagger major renovations,” Zellers says. Additionally, a robust asset-management plan helps her watch for and coordinate larger capital improvements by adding them to the master plan.
Most recently, Zellers has led two other aggressive renovations: she planned and implemented a cargo-apron expansion to meet tenant needs at Indianapolis International Airport, and she oversaw the replacement of a canopy damaged in an ice storm. While these projects were strenuous, they didn’t approach the challenges of the Eagle Creek runway overlay, which forced closures of the entire airport while crews worked day and night to reduce downtime.
Zellers grew up a mile away from an airport in Wisconsin and took airport-design classes early in her university career, then earned her pilot’s license 18 years ago. Zellers’ passion for aviation and her experience as a private pilot help her understand why pavement widths and clear runway approaches matter, and that technical knowledge has made her management of projects such as the one at Eagle Creek flawless. As she says, “there are some things you can only really learn by doing.”