MORRIS – An out-of-state company’s board of directors recently thanked Morris Municipal Airport for its convenient location and accessibility.
After departing Shreveport, Louisiana, at 8 a.m. with the company’s full board and landing in Morris for a tour of a local plant, the corporate jet landed back in Shreveport by 3:10 p.m. the same day, Morris Mayor Richard Kopczick said.
It’s just one example of the smooth point-to-point travel offered by Morris Airport to nationwide businesses with locations in or near Grundy County.
“Transportation is huge for stimulating the economy,” Airport Manager Jeff Vogen said. “Executives can store aircraft here and hop in a rental car to their location, whether it be a nearby plant or a 55-minute drive to an office in Chicago.”
More than 50 corporate accounts are registered to land on the 5,000-foot runway and store aircraft, Vogen said, and there’s a waiting list that officials anticipate will only grow as airport development continues.
With the expected growth in mind, the city has a five-year forecast for airport improvements as part of its Transportation Improvement Plan. The most immediate part of the plan begins May 18 with the extension of the runway to 5,500 feet.
The city obtained numerous parcels of land in recent years to make expansion possible. Whitman Road was extended west of Ashley Road with a bridge and roadway to give residents on that road new access, since the airport work no longer allows direct access to Route 47.
The plan is done in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Illinois Department of Transportation Division of Aeronautics.
It’s just one more aspect that makes the Morris Airport attractive. It will add, for instance, to the existing perk of avoiding the airspace of Chicago O’Hare International and Chicago Midway International airports.
The Louisiana board of directors told Morris officials they would never fly into O’Hare again.
“You have to wait until they say it’s OK to land,” Kopczick said. “Even at Lewis [University] Airport, pilots wait for the go-ahead to land or take off. But our airport has no governing authority. We’re open for business.”
The work scheduled to begin May 18 is a $1.3 million project to extend the runway to 5,500 feet, along with an extended taxiway and upgraded runway lighting. The 500-foot extension will be at the north end of the runway, which runs North-South.
Morris City Engineer Guy Christensen said it’s become a straightforward project after the land was acquired and streets were altered.
Vogen said because of the current set up, weather can be more of a factor and deter a jet from landing in Morris.
“A 5,000-foot runway allows corporate jets to land here in nice weather,” Vogen said. “Fifty-five hundred feet allows for all-weather use. The aircraft may not know the difference, but the insurance companies do.”
The airport will use the Wide Area Augmentation System developed by the FAA and a localizer performance with vertical guidance procedure. The GPS-guided landing procedure will make the airport one of more than 1,700 U.S. airports using the set-up, according to FAA.gov.
Aircraft will be guided to a safe landing by the upgraded instrumentation during fog, rain, snow and low clouds. The new instrument landing system gives aircraft a precision approach from as low as 250 feet, Vogen said. Lighting arrays provide lateral and vertical guidance when approaching a runway.
“It just makes it a lot safer, especially in the winter,” Vogen said.
The hopes for airport improvements expand beyond the runway. Two local business owners and plane owners are in talks with the city to build private hangars for their planes, Vogen said.
“We’re in the process of negotiating the ground lease,” Vogen said. “The airport will lease the ground to jet owners a certain amount of years.”
Kopczick said an example of a hangar lease would be a 20-year agreement with a 10-year option. The city collects rent on the space, and if the deal expires without a new one being made, the land is city property again.
“Hangar additions will open up the airport for more aircraft without the city spending for it,” Vogen said. “It will free up our large corporate hangar, giving us more space to rent.”
The comfort provided to the plane owners benefits the city. With less space occupied in the airport’s general aviation hangar, planes from out of town will have space too.
With a waiting list on T-hangars for smaller planes, the airport may add 12 T-hangars.
“We’re fortunate all of our hangars are full,” Vogen said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Future: Crosswinds runway construction and widening of North-South
Aircraft on the existing runway line up directly North-South, but there are days when west winds are so strong it will alter takeoffs and landings of small planes.
For those days, a diagonal crosswinds runway gives small planes a safe alternative. Having a second runway that runs East-West that intersects with the existing one is a future hope for Morris Airport.
Much like the acquisitions for extension of the existing runway, the city would go through a lengthy process of acquiring land for the hoped-for crosswinds runway. The land acquisition is estimated at $5.2 million, Kopczick said.
It’s unknown how long acquisition would take.
Before that can happen, an environmental assessment of the potential construction area at a cost of $160,000, split 50-50 between the state and Morris, will be completed.
“In a perfect world,” Christensen said. “Morris would break ground on a 3,500-foot crosswinds runway in five years.”
To accommodate more frequent use from large corporate jets, the city hopes to have the soon-to-be extended North-South runway widened from 75 to 100 feet, estimated at $3.7 million, and strengthened with an overlay of more asphalt, estimated at $2.8 million.
“We’re talking about Gulfstream IIIs and IVs, [Dassault] Falcon 900s, [Bombardier] Global Express business jets,” Vogen said. “They can land daily instead of monthly.”
If approved by all parties, cost would be split 90 percent federal, 5 percent state and 5 percent Morris.
The city hasn’t calculated a cost for crosswinds runway construction, but if the proposed project proceeds it would come with a bonus: If constructed before the widening and strengthening of the North-South runway, the second runway would allow the airport to stay open for local air traffic.
If not, the airport would close for a year while the widening occurs.
“It would be a large hardship if it closed,” said Cindy Limbach, owner of Blue Sky Aero and member of the International Aerobatic Club Chapter. “So many planes are based there and it’d be difficult to find another airport with space nearby.”
The city considered widening first, but decided it’d be best to keep the airport open.
“A lot of it also depends on future leadership,” Kopczick said. “If someone else is mayor, there might not be the same push for airport improvements.”
If the city encounters too many obstacles in the environmental assessment and land purchase, Kopczick said, it may agree on widening and strengthening first.
“But the hope is to build a second runway first,” he said.