Work toward a new airport for Letcher County has taken a giant step forward with the purchase of about 600 acres to add to the 75 the airport board already owns.
While there are some outlying tracts still to be purchased and the airport may still be years away, the investment by the state of Kentucky of $615,000 to buy the LaViers property makes it almost a sure thing that airport will be built, board chairman Joe DePriest said.
“That’s close to a million dollars they’ve invested right now, so I think it’s going to go,” DePriest said.
The tract was the largest of the parcels needed for the airport. The board had an option to buy the property and had extended that option already while it waited for the money.
“Our last option ran out December 26, and I think we got this done about December 20,” DePriest said.
The proposed Letcher County airport is one of only two left in the Statewide Aviation System Plan, a report from the Kentucky Department of Aviation says. That airport and an airport at Sparta in northern Kentucky will bring the total number of airports in the state to 61.
The report, completed in 2017, lists the Sparta airport as the state’s top priority, with Letcher County next. That report has not been updated since the state awarded $9 million for construction of an airport at Sparta in July of last year. Ground was just broken on the Sparta facility, consultant Paul Steely said yesterday.
Steely, of PDC Consultants in Franklin, Tenn., is a former commissioner of the Department of Aviation, and has been working on the Letcher County airport for several years.
The subject of a new airport in Letcher County has been discussed since the 1980s, when the Whitesburg Municipal Airport at Colson closed. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pulled its automated beacon from that airport in 1987 and moved it to the Wendell Ford Regional Airport in Hazard after vandals destroyed the hangers and terminal at the already closed Whitesburg facility.
The site for the proposed airport is on a former Red Fox Coal Co. mine near Daniels Branch at Isom. The City of Whitesburg had 75 acres there that was donated by the LaViers family, which founded South East Coal Co., but Whitesburg turned that land over to the county after the new airport board was formed in 2004, on the condition that the board use it to build an airport. The board has since been attempting to get money to buy the property. The land is one ridge over from the defunct Whitesburg Municipal Airport, and runs from Daniels Branch in the north to the Sextons Branch area in the south.
When an airport is built, it is expected to have a runway of about 4,500 feet. That could be expanded by 500 feet at a time, and would probably be no longer than 5,500 feet. Some have criticized the proposed runway length as too short, however Steely said last year that a 5,000-foot runway can handle “90 percent of the airplanes” in use.
The Canadair Regional Jet 700, which carries about 70 passengers, requires about 5,200 feet for takeoff.