The Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Municipal Airport has been closed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics.
On Thursday, May 31, two representatives from MnDOT who visited the airport to do a routine inspection found the runway condition had deteriorated enough to warrant closure.
"It really is a tough decision," said Rick Braunig, aviation safety and enforcement manager with the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics. "We, in general, are airport supporters. We like to have as many airports as we can for pilots to use. But the condition of the pavement was continuing to deteriorate and we started hearing some stories about people having damage to their aircraft related to the runway."
The office performed a check in the fall and noticed the condition of the pavement. Braunig said the Silver Bay runway was on a "declining trajectory" and MnDOT met with the City in the fall about the situation.
"We took some data and did some measurements and we decided that it was still safe to operate from, but we told them, 'You know, it's only a matter of time before this runway gets in such a condition that it's no longer safe and then the runway will have to be closed,'" Braunig said.
Runways don't get potholes like regular roads, Braunig said, but the pavement starts to open up over time and cracks form. If routine maintenance isn't done, such as filling cracks, weatherization causes widening cracks as well as secondary cracking.
"Those secondary cracks are falling into the initial cracks and they're getting to be fairly wide. So they are starting to have an effect on the aircraft using the runway," Braunig said.
Braunig believes the runway would need to be reconstructed to rectify the problem.
"If you keep up with the maintenance, you can keep your costs lower for maintaining the runway," he said. "But if you don't keep up with the maintenance and the runway starts to deteriorate, it gets to the place where the only fix is only to do a reconstruction, tear up the old pavement and fix the issues and put down new pavement.
"I'm not an engineer, so I couldn't say that's for sure where we are; however, I've got decades of experience and I'd be surprised if the answer was anything but," he said.
For now, the City was instructed to shut off all the lights, issue a Notice to Airmen about the situation and place Xs on the runway, remove the windsock and notify the tenants. All directives have been completed.
Short notice for pilots
Tofte resident Tim Norman, a pilot who flies out of the airport, said he was disappointed with the situation.
"It would have been nice to have had a several-month warning on this," Norman said. "It's going to be a difficult process for all of us to move our planes. You can't just grab a hangar overnight. (A) lot of times, there are waiting lists to get on. And planes that sit outside just deteriorate faster. And if you've got that kind of investment in a plane, you really don't want it sitting outside."
Norman moved to the Silver Bay hangar three years ago. He previously kept his 1958 Piper Tri-Pacer in the Grand Marais airport hangar. He's also worried about flying conditions now that there isn't a runway between Grand Marais and Two Harbors.
"Grand Marais will probably now be the furthest airport from any other airport in Minnesota," Norman said. "It's around 85 miles between those two, which was what was so nice about Silver Bay. It was an extra little spot to hang out and dodge a storm cloud."
Council not surprised, takes next steps
When Silver Bay City Administrator Lana Fralich reported the situation to the City Council during the regular meeting June 4, Mayor Scott Johnson said he wasn't surprised.
"I'm not surprised and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. The bad thing was that they didn't give us any notice, a chance for us to notify our local pilots," Johnson said. "The Council has, for a number of years, supported closing the airport."
Johnson cited a number of reasons for wanting to close the airport, including increasing Federal Aviation Administration mandates, lack of local interest, lack of federal entitlement funding due to lack of local interest and increasing debt.
Small city airports receive entitlement funding from the FAA to do maintenance, such as runway upkeep. Usually, the city is responsible for 5-10 percent of the funding, with the grant making up the other 90-95 percent.
However, Fralich said, the Silver Bay Airport didn't have enough home-based pilots to be entitled to funds earmarked for the airport, which then raised the question as to whether the grants already paid would need to be repaid.
That was one of many unanswered questions raised, including who specifically owns the land on which the airport sits and, ultimately, if the airport can or will be permanently closed. There will be a special Council meeting Wednesday, June 13, at 2 p.m. with the FAA to figure out what comes next.
"We are a unique case. We've honestly just been asking what can we do," Fralich said. "I mean, it doesn't make sense financially and yet our intention is not necessarily to close it for the purposes of development or anything. But, we don't want to encumber our future residents with the financial burden and with the constant changes. So, what do we do?"