With clean, straight lines freshly painted and new landing lights shining brightly, the Challis Airport is “open for business,” according to JUB Engineers Project Manager Kent Atkin.
Atkin and Blackfoot-based Gale Lim Construction workers spent the last three months at the airport, ripping up and replacing the old runway and lights that dated to 1979.
Now that planes can again land safely at the airport, Atkin said the next step is to complete the paperwork from the Federal Aviation Administration for the airport’s new instrument approach system. This will take time, Atkin said. It can take up to two years for the FAA to process all the paperwork and deliver the equipment.
“We’re trying to speed that up as best as we can,” Challis Mayor Mike Barrett said.
Barrett said he and City Council members are happy and excited to see the project concluded. It was a team effort all the way to the finish line, according to Barrett, which is indicative of Challis residents.
“We all want to get projects up and going and build the community,” the mayor said.
Until the instrument approach system is in place, Atkin said he will fly into Challis monthly to work with city officials and check on the upgrades.
According to Middle Fork Aviation pilot Justin Keller, the airport is already doing well with the new runway. Keller flies supplies to outfitters in remote locations in the backcountry, so he’s used to rough landings on bumpy, dirt runways. However, he admitted it’s nice to make a smooth landing once in a while.
“They did a great job,” Keller said. “The old runway was getting kind of rough.” Keller said a big benefit to the Challis community is the new light system at the airport. The LED lights will allow pilots to land at night, which is important for emergency services, such as fighting forest fires.
Forest Service Heli-tack Superintendent Bill Pierson said if a forest fire is in full swing, his crew and their helicopter can take off as many as 15 times in one day. Having a functional runway with powerful lights helps make coming and going more efficient.
Pierson also said he’s happy to see the airport at full functionality because it means he can park his helicopter in the proper spot. While the airport was under construction, he and his crew had to store the chopper a couple hundred feet away from its usual spot next to their base of operations. Keeping the helicopter farther away is a safety hazard, Pierson said, because it adds precious seconds to his crew’s ability to respond to emergency situations. Now the airport is finished, the Forest Service firefighter said it’s one less thing he has to worry about.
As he looked back on the $4 million, months-long construction project, Atkin said one of the biggest reasons for its success was city officials. Construction was finished on time and on budget, and Atkin credited that to Barrett and City Council members being invested in the project.