Numerous departments, spanning at least two counties, responded to a sinking aircraft at the Ennis – Big Sky Airport July 15. “It was good to see the community response for sure,” Choice Aviation manager, Troy Hunter said. PHOTO COURTESY MADISON COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

Sinking Aircraft

Need for FAA grant funding reassured at the Ennis – Big Sky Airport

A private aircraft at the Ennis – Big Sky Airport began sinking through the pavement of the south parking apron around 3 p.m. July 15. 

Madison County has prioritized upgrading its airports to accommodate larger aircrafts, which are already coming through, for several years and federal grant funding is available to help. The Ennis – Big Sky Airport applied for a $2.4 million Airport Improvement Grant from the Federal Aviation Administration but was unsuccessful for the 2019 construction season.

According to Jani Flinn at the Madison County Commissioners Office, the $2.4 million grant will be used to improve and upgrade the parking and taxing areas, including the south apron where the wheel the Bombardier Global 7500 aircraft mistakenly rolled over and sunk into the pavement. 

“The plane stopped in an area that it wasn’t supposed to be in,” Flinn said.

The aircraft swung too wide when it maneuvered the turn on the taxiway and entered the edge of the south parking apron, which isn’t rated to withstand the aircraft’s operating weight of 56,800 pounds. As it momentarily stopped for clearance, the 29-year-old pavement beneath it failed and the plane’s right main gear wheel began to sink. 

Rain puddles reflected a gloomy sky on the black pavement as multiple departments responded to the airport. A week of heavy rain storms preceded the Global 7500’s intended departure, raising the water table beneath the hard surface. Director of Madison County Office of Emergency Management, Joe Brummell, said the aircraft’s wheel was sinking an average of quarter of an inch every 30 minutes. 

The Madison Valley Fire Department pushed high-pressure airbags under the aircraft’s wing to temporarily raise it. Bozeman Airport sent help as well, bringing mattresses to stack under the dropping wing as its hinges bended from the strain. 

“I thought bringing mattresses was an interesting choice,” Brummell said. “But it was actually a brilliant idea.”

The aircraft was sprung from the hole around 3:30 a.m. the next day. It’s not known the extent of the aircraft’s damages but is estimated to cost at least a million dollars. The aircraft’s estimated worth is over $40 million.

It’s fairly common for big airplanes to land in smaller airports, especially in western Montana. It’s up to the pilot’s discretion whether their plane can land, park and take off at a particular airport. But it’s relatively uncommon for the pavement to fail from the weight, according to the airport engineer and project manager at Robert Peccia & Associates, Lance Bowser. 

“The asphalt was well beyond it’s useful life,” Bowser said.

Grant funding is necessary for the Ennis – Big Sky Airport to meet FAA standards of its current plane-traffic. It is s a process that the county is dedicated to and wants to accomplish as soon as possible. About 20 thick binders containing the guts of Madison County’s airport grants, line a hardy shelf in Flinn’s Virginia City office. 

“We do care,” Flinn said. “That’s why we’re getting the improvements done. Timing is everything.”

 An over $9 million grant was approved for the airport, pending on an ongoing environmental assessment of the airport’s future construction and expansion. The FAA can’t allocate grant funds until the assessment is complete, and it contributed to the grant’s hold up.  The designs for the south apron improvements are mostly completed and could be ready for bidding in the upcoming weeks, according to Bowser.

“It’s taking longer than I expected,” Bowser said.

The $2.4 million from the FAA wasn’t a guarantee. There were many factors that caused the construction plan for the south apron this fall to waver, according to the airport manager, Troy Hunter.

A temporary patch covers the hole until more sufficient funding is in place. Hunter said that opportunities for emergency FAA funding are being looked into. In a press release, the Ennis – Big Sky Airport stated that it anticipates to fully reconstruct the entirety of the 29-year-old pavement during construction in 2020. 

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