- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - It sounds almost like science fiction when Col. Will Sparrow describes the view from the heads-up display inside the nation’s new high-tech fighter jets.

“When you put your helmet on, you can look through the floor of the aircraft you’re flying,” said Sparrow. “It’s like you’re flying through space with nothing around you. Wherever you look, there’s enemy targets, friendlies on the ground … you see everything with symbols labeling who’s where. It gives you an incredible level of situational awareness.”

Airport planners want the community to have the same level of awareness about what’s on the horizon for the Montgomery Regional Airport. They say that could be good news or bad news, depending on what course they take now.

Sparrow is the vice commander of the 187th Fighter Wing at the Alabama Air National Guard. The 187th doesn’t fly those new, $150 million F-35s he was describing. Instead, they have 23 planes that Sparrow said are the oldest F-16s in the military. Those planes are in danger of being phased out in order to buy new F-35s for other bases.

The 187th is near the top of the list to get the new planes because of its personnel’s track record and expertise as well as the River Region community’s history of supporting the military. But they may not get those F-35s because the Montgomery airport’s crosswind runway is about half as long as it needs to be for the new planes.

“We’re in competition with the rest of the Air National Guard,” Sparrow said. “If we had that second runway at 8,000 feet, we’d be a notch above them.”

Airport planners recently presented a $12 million plan to extend that runway during the first meeting of the Montgomery Airport Authority’s new Master Plan Committee. It’s part of a $90 million arc of improvements that they’re recommending over the next 20 years, changes that they say could bring in more companies and air cargo business while also making the airport more attractive to new commercial flights.

The changes have already started. Work is underway on the cracked access roads, work that planners say already makes the airport more attractive to new business.

That’s being done mostly with federal funds, a source that may not be available for the runway extension.

The airport has reported a massive jump in the number of travelers the past few months, but the level of traffic still isn’t high enough to make the runway extension project eligible for federal funding. That means the community may have to raise as much as $12 million to make it happen.

It’s possible that could change - improvement plans could lure new companies here and increase traffic, pushing the airport over the funding threshold. Or the Federal Aviation Administration may simply change its mind and decide to help fund the extension.

But Allenback isn’t counting on it. Instead, he said the River Region should look to Dothan, which raised $12 million through a wide range of city, state and community sources to help land a new commercial jet operation.

“They were organized,” Allenback said. “They got the community involved, and they brought 350 jobs back to the community.

“So, it’s possible.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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