Safety improvements are underway at Fond du Lac Airport. The construction project was awarded to Whitford Construction, at a cost of $14 million. Rock crushing began in early November with construction scheduled for completion in the fall of 2021.
Safety improvements include construction of turn pads at both ends of the runway, strengthening and resurfacing of the runway, taxiway and apron and replacing existing low-intensity lighting with high-intensity LED lights.
The fly-in community of Fond du Lac has been dealing with infrastructure problems amid an outbreak of Coronavirus. Fond du Lac Chief Louie Mercredi said the circumstances make airport infrastructure that much more important.
“This project is important, since it is essential for moving people to and from the community,” Mercredi said.
“This has become much more urgent due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, further delays to this project may restrict landing and take-off weights while increasing a number of other costs associated with air transportation.”
The federal government provided $12.1 million in funding over three years for the project through the Airports Capital Assistance Program.
The province will fund the remaining cost to the tune of $1.9-million and will finance ongoing operations and maintenance at an average cost of $215,000 a year.
“Our government is committed to investing in the north and this includes air travel in northern Saskatchewan,” Highways Minister Joe Hargrave said.
“Maintaining and improving infrastructure that is critical to services like air ambulance and firefighting is vital for those living in the north.”
The province said it has invested more than $628 million in northern highways and airports since 2008, including $60.3-million this year.
Fond du Lac has long called for funding to widen and lengthen its runway, especially after a fatal crash in 2017.
That winter crash, resulting in the death of one passenger and serious injuries of others, was eventually attributed to improper de-icing procedures, and an order was made to remedy the situation at remote airports across Canada.
Investigators ruled out runway length. Still, late last year, West Wind Aviation, which operates flights out of Fond du Lac, called for an expansion to runways there and in Wollaston Lake.
West Wind Aviation operates West Wind and Transwest Air and flies into the community. The runways at the Wollaston and Fond du Lac airports are shorter than other small airports, measuring at just 3,800 feet long and 75 feet wide.
Fond du Lac was hoping for government funding to expand the runway to 5,000 feet and widen it to 150 feet.
A larger runway was needed to operate larger aircraft West Wind said were needed to meet the demand.
“We work closely with our regulator to ensure we are following the most up-to-date practices and guidance for the unique aspects of northern airfields such as Fond du Lac and Wollaston,” said Michael Rodyniuk, president and CEO of West Wind Aviation.
“We always operate with safety as our priority. It is currently cost-prohibitive to fly large aircraft into the community because we can only fly a handful of people out. The proposed improvements to Fond du Lac airfield would remove some of the unique issues created by the shorter runways.”
Smaller planes mean stopovers in Stony Rapids for passengers, as well as longer supply routes and delays.
According to West Wind, smaller airports in the province have 5,000-foot treated runways, including Stony Rapids and Buffalo Narrows.
Ministry of Highways spokesperson David Horth said turning pads are being constructed at both ends of the runway as part of a solution.
“We will be constructing turn pads at both ends of the runway and we will also be resurfacing the entire runway to taxiway the apron. As far as the enlarged turning areas go we consulted with the air carriers that use the facility and that was why that was determined to be an important change,” Horth said.
“I think it’s going to be really positive. We’re going to have a brand spanking new runway.”
Horth said the province has been making investments in Fond du Lac Airport over the recent years such as installing an automated weather observation system and a web camera. He said improved lighting at the will also improve safety for airport users.
“The initial plan called for an upgrade from low intensity to medium intensity but the province decided that it would be better to install high intensity lighting instead. So they’re getting a higher quality light,” Horth said.
Horth said Saskatchewan-based contractor Whitford Construction was awarded the contract due to its track record hiring local and Indigenous workers.
“We always try and consider community benefits whenever we assess a tender… We always try to make sure that the benefits of government investment go to local workers that we consider local employment as part of the grading process when we’re grading tenders. This is a Saskatchewan based company that received a high community benefit score, because it’s using Saskatchewan-based and Indigenous workers.”
He said the province recognizes the importance of the airport as an essential service in Fond du Lac.
“The airport is a vital piece of infrastructure in a place like Fond du Lac. It’s what connects Fond du Lac to the rest of the province. It’s what allows them to move people, to move goods, and this is critical so that aircraft can keep safely using the runway, and so that the people of Fond du Lac have that ongoing connection to the rest of the province,” Horth said.
“Rehab on this runway occurred, I think it was about 20 years ago. And it’s time to freshen up the pavement.”
With files from Peter Lozinski/Prince Albert Daily Herald