Kent County moved a step closer to having a fully functional regional airport last week with the announcement of a $5 million grant to expand the Delaware Airpark near Cheswold.

The project, which will begin next month, will include construction of an additional runway, a new perimeter road and new hangers, as well as converting the existing runway to a taxiway.

The work will be the latest phase in a series of projects that began a decade ago, said Jim Salmon, a spokesman for the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which manages the airpark under a lease from the state of Delaware.

“This will bring it up to Federal Aviation Administration standards and improve safety at the airpark,” Salmon said.


Aviation instruction

The expansion is seen as a real boon for students at Delaware State University, which uses the airpark for its aviation instruction program. The university has a lease at the airpark through 2026.

“The improvements will help us improve our training,” said DSU aviation director Steve Speed, a retired U.S. Navy pilot. “Students will be better able to learn more through trial and error instead of allowing the instructors to demonstrate.”

For example, because the current runway is only 60 feet wide, an instructor must immediately take the controls if a student is landing too far from the center line. With a new 75-foot-wide runway, students will have more leeway in correcting this type of error before the instructor is forced to take over, Speed said.

At 4,200 feet, the new runway will be almost 700 feet longer than the current one, which will be converted to a taxiway during the improvements. The new runway also will be built further west so a plane landing from the east can avoid the steep descent needed to avoid a string of nearby power lines.

A small plane hit those lines during a nighttime landing in October 2003, resulting in the death of the pilot.

“You need to have a runway of a certain length and a certain width to meet FAA standards,” Salmon said. “It’s becoming more and more an airport for general aviation use in the Dover area, and we’ve been finding it’s being used by NASCAR teams and parties interested in NASCAR.”


$25 million in all

Plans for the upgrades date back to early 2001 and have been proceeding in stages since, Salmon said. All told, more than $15 million has been spent on the project, he said; that figure will jump to $25 million once the expansion is completed.

The DRBA requested $7.2 million to complete the airpark upgrades, with the federal government bearing 90 percent of the cost. The rest will be split between the DRBA and the state of Delaware.

The remainder of the requested money, above the $5 million announced Monday, will be funded in coming years, Salmon said. Timing depends on when the FAA provides the remaining cash. The latest project should be completed by Fiscal Year 2016, Salmon said.

The airpark began in 1954 as an 1,800-foot turf field constructed by area resident by Floyd Durham, who continually improved the field until he sold it to the state in 2000.

Currently, the airpark serves propeller-driven aircraft and a small number of business jets, acting as a supplemental airfield for the Civil Air Terminal, located at Dover Air Force Base.

The airpark is the largest nonmilitary airport in central Delaware but, according to a 2008 DRBA report, its use is limited because of the need for a longer runway.

With expanded facilities, the report noted, the airpark could attract pilots who don’t use the CAT primarily due to security restrictions imposed by the Air Force.

Although the airport has no control tower and is staffed only eight hours each day, the runway is available 24 hours a day.

Cheswold residents also may find the airpark work a benefit to their town.

“I’m really excited that it’s about to get some improvements,” said Mayor Don Tinari, a licensed pilot who regularly flies in and out of the airpark. “It’s a little jewel sitting on the outskirts of Cheswold. We’ve been looking at it as something town could really benefit from. I would say it brings a lot of potential for growth and new jobs.”