Big Plans for Immokalee Airport
November 14, 2013
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  • Gateway to the Community – it’s a nice phrase often applied to airports, and it really says a lot.

    Just ask Immokalee Airport Manager Tom Vergo. He’s been manager there for three years and with the Airport Authority for 11, so he’s got the experience to know what he’s talking about.

    Naturally, everybody wants to put their best foot forward when company comes to call, and that’s just what Immokalee Regional Airport is working on.

    There’s a lot of competition out there and it’s important for everyone to see you at your best.

    That’s why Collier County is investing so much effort into upgrading the airport.

    Already, the building on site has seen some pretty nice renovations with a new pilot lounge and flight plan area, airport users can enjoy a comfortable respite. That goes a long way toward making folks want to come back.

    Outside irrigation and picnic tables are yet to be done, but they’re all part of the plan to increase the attractiveness of the facility.

    The “real stuff” -renovating the runways – will begin in just a couple months.

    Funding for this project has come from the Federal Aviation Association – to the tune of $6.7 million – with Florida Department of Transportation kicking in another $134,000.

    Generally, aviation funding is a three-way split: 90 percent federal money, five percent FDOT and five percent county.

    Mr. Vergo said the county is reimbursed for up to 5 percent of its project cost.

    The total cost of project will be $8 million.

    The renovation is coming none too soon. In 2011 FDOT rated Immokalee Airport’s two runways to be in very poor condition. An update is expected in December.

    Construction on runways 1-836 and 9-27 is to begin in several months.

    The two runways, which were joined when the airport was constructed as a training base in WWII, are scheduled to be decoupled at the FAA s request, for safety reasons. Runway 9-27 will shift 450 feet to the east to separate the two runways.

    According to Mr. Vergo, some pilots refuse to fly into Immokalee Airport because the surface of its runways is so rough.

    Runway 9-27 is to get a full rehab with removal of old asphalt.

    Runway 1-836 will remain at 150 feet wide, but will be slightly reduced in length to 4,550 feet (from 5,000 feet). Runway 9-27 will maintain at 5,000 feet, but its width will be reduced to 100 feet (from its current 150 feet).

    The runways will be designed to handle average business jets, which are a mainstay of Immokalee’s air traffic.

    Plans also call for three new taxiway connectors, according to the FAA guide of standards.

    A third runway is used as the drag strip.

    An additional 6,000 feet of fencing will discourage wildlife, especially deer and hogs, from creating a hazard and a nuisance on the air field and will also contribute to overall security.

    New runway edge lights will be installed for 9-27 and taxiway Bravo.

    During construction there will be no full closure of the airport, Mr. Vergo said. There will always be at least one active runway, He said runway 1-826 will be open except when the two runways are being decoupled.

    In addition, work will also be done to alleviate flooding along the runways, with land cleared and graded between the runways, ditches smoothed out and the installation of underground drainage to prevent ponding on the runways.

    New Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPIs) will show the proper length to land aircraft. Runway End Identifier Lights (REEL) will help pilots find the end of the runways at night and in low visibility conditions. Funding will also replace lights and the electrical vault building and blast pads – the first 150 feet or runway – will be rehabbed.

    Construction is expected to continue for nine months and be complete by July or August 2014. It will improve safety and be better for business class jets and general aviation, with the result of adding new traffic.

    Construction is planned in three phases: first, the reconstruction of runway 9-27, the primary runway, will be done first because it’s in the worst condition. The second and third phases will be concurrent: runway 1-836 closed at night while construction is ongoing.

    Mr. Vergo said the last rehab at the airport was done 20 years ago, when the runways were simply seal coated.

    Immokalee Regional Airport is the site of 36,500 aircraft operations (landings and takeoffs) per year.

    Mr. Vergo sees an airport ready to expand. He said that the Arthrex building in the area and Ave Maria are the catalysts for one or two new customers per month using a hangar or ramp.

    Currently there are 64 airplanes based here. The facilities area also used by eight flight schools as fuel and rest stops (from the east coast to Central Florida). Other customers include packing houses and co-ops and even colleges recruiters coming to Immokalee High School. In fact, recruiters from the University of Florida arrived via Immokalee Regional Airport.

    Mr. Vergo has spent lots of time working with tenants and users to schedule work and develop the project with the least disruption. In the end, the goal is for the community to be proud.

    “Rural airports don’t get this much federal money,” he said.

    He said he and previous Executive Director Chris Curry worked with the FAA and FDOT to secure this funding. They reasoned that Immokalee’s airport has a lot of uses, including a base for aerial photography, flight training, crop dusting, charter services and gliders.

    Immokalee Airport averages two-to-three aircraft per day just coming in to the casino – aircraft from little Cessna 150s to Citation jets, he said.

    He also pointed out that this airport, being 37 feet above sea level, has an edge over others near the water during natural disasters.

    Land for the National Guard is already leased and completely permitted – ready for whenever the National Guard gives the go-ahead to finally move in.

    Recent funding cuts from the county have left the airport with just three employees: manager Tom Vergo and two maintenance/operators.

    With the loss of the administrative coordinator, the airport now operates under the manager. One maintenance employee position has also gone away. All this activity and the construction is leaving the remaining personnel with their hands full.

    One more point: Mr. Vergo said that, during construction, Immokalee’s restaurants, motels gas stations and other businesses can expect to benefit from all the workers being brought in.

    Mr. Vergo has big plans for Immokalee Regional Airport and, by extension, Immokalee itself, saying, “You’ll start to see a lot of stuff happening out here” when construction is done.