In the 1960s, locals built Hardin’s airport at the edge of town, near some grain elevators, the railroad tracks and the Big Horn County fairground grandstands.
“A bit of north wind through those elevators would cause a bit of a roller-coaster ride. You’d get gusts with areas of calm and then get a stronger gust,” said Ed Auker, Big Horn County’s Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, who learned to fly at the town’s airport.
Now, after 20 years of planning, Big Horn County is replacing Hardin's general aviation runway with a $6 million airport. The new runway will be built to Federal Aviation Administration standards two miles west of town.
“It’s going to be a tremendous asset for the county and for Hardin,” Mayor Joe Koebbe said. “There’s going to be some more people who fly in to use the Bighorn River for hunting and fishing.”
Montana Civil Contractors of Belgrade is moving dirt to prepare the future runway, which will be 75 feet wide and 4,500 feet long, or 1,000 feet longer than the current runway.
Both airports are designed for general aviation, meaning they are used by private pilots like crop dusters, not commercial airlines. But Hardin’s new airport probably won’t be finished until 2014.
Fred LeLacheur, senior airport engineer at Morrison Maierle Inc. in Helena, said the Belgrade contractor needs three months to stabilize the poor clay and gumbo soils under the future runway, including laying down a three-foot layer of granular material to strengthen the surface. Paving should be done next year.
“And the following year, or maybe even next year if we can combine the funding, we’ll get the airfield lighting done,” LeLacheur said.
In the late 1990s, Hardin’s airport lost its fixed-base operator, who was making a living as an airplane mechanic, selling aviation fuel and crop dusting. When many pilots had to haul their own fuel, airport activity dropped, Auker said.
“When I was flying, it was fairly busy with private stuff,” he said. “We have high hopes the new airport will bring that activity back.”
Mobilizing contractors over three years costs more money, but that’s the way this federal budget works, Auker said.
The FAA is paying 90 percent of the $6 million cost using Montana’s share of the Federal Airport Improvement program.
Gary Gates, FAA’s airport engineer and planner in Helena, said Montana should receive about $4 million to $5 million this year to spread out among four or five small airport projects. Of that, Hardin was granted $2.5 million, or nearly half of the state’s FAA budget this year.
“For a project of this size, most definitely we’d all like to have it done sooner rather than phased in over several years, but the reality is to fund multiple projects in Montana, we have to break up the funding,” Gates said.
Also, by building the Hardin airport in phases, a Montana contractor was able to win the bid for the groundwork and the FAA avoided the overhead of a general contractor, Gates said.
The FAA budget has been contentiously debated, even filibustered, in Congress in recent years, and future funding of the Hardin airport and other Montana projects depends on congressional approval.
Big Horn County is paying its share of the project from mineral royalty payments. The county bought 227 acres for the new airport, which leaves plenty of room for hangars. When the new airport is finished, most of the existing airport land will be used for a fairground expansion project.
Moving out of town is a loss for pilots in one respect.
“The advantage of these airports, that a lot of these old towns have lost, is you can land and walk to town,” Auker said.