April 13, 2012

For nearly 60 years, the small airfield serving the community of Thermopolis, WY has been something of a compromise. The airport is constrained by geography, with no room to grow and little in the way of safe overrun areas. It may have been enough for the piston-powered aircraft flown by the oilmen who originally built the field, but it’s inadequate for many of today’s larger, heavier and faster airplanes.

Soon, however, Thermopolis will benefit from the first brand-new airport built in the state since 2004. Christy Yaffa, planning and budgeting manager for the Wyoming Aeronautics Division, said the new facility represents the culmination of years of efforts to improve the airport.

“We’ve been talking about expanding the airport for decades,” she said. “We’ve come to the site selection process at least twice prior to now, but for one reason or another it was decided then not to proceed. Now, the county has stepped up to the plate and said they need to replace it.”

Local officials finalized the purchase of land for the new airport in March. Comprised of 482 acres of ranch land about 12 miles northwest of Thermopolis, Yaffa noted it offers space for a 6,300-foot runway, with room to expand that to 7,700 feet if needed down the line. Like the current airport, the new field will exclusively handle general aviation traffic.

At a field elevation of 4,600 feet, the current Hot Springs County-Thermopolis Municipal Airport (KTHP) poses several challenges to larger general aviation aircraft operating from its 4,800-foot runway, particularly on warmer days.

“It’s doing the best it can now, but has significant limitations,” said Yaffa. “The current facility is in a ‘saddle’ between two hills, with extremely short runway-safety areas of between 10-15 feet. There are significant drop offs at both ends, with a river at one end and the town at the other.”

It’s not an inexpensive proposition to build and maintain an entirely new airport, of course. Current estimates peg the construction cost at around $20 million, with the Federal Aviation Administration shouldering up to 90 percent of that burden. Yaffa said the new field would benefit the state’s finances in the long run, as Wyoming will be able to share maintenance costs with the federal government.

“Maintaining an airport is a pretty significant financial burden on the state,” she explained. “The current airport cannot meet federal standards, and is ineligible for federal funding. By opening a new airport, we’re also opening a new funding source.”

Crews should start “moving dirt” on the new airport later this year, with tentative plans for an opening within 2-3 years. “We’ve been working on this so long, we have a good idea how to transition to the new field,” Yaffa added. “They’ll be able to relocate the above-ground fuel system now in place, and the new field will have a full-service FBO as well.

“This is a big deal!” she concluded. “This is obviously a huge investment, but we think it will certainly improve the safety and serviceability we offer.”