Dec 2, 2012

Charleston's Fly-In Strip Mine Tour

I don't bore my readers with every day trip I go on, but yesterday I visited a place with an interesting applicability to the purpose of this blog. Coonskin State Park in West Virginia is a lovely urban park mere minutes from downtown Charleston. There's a conference center and head quarters, athletic fields, some season decorations and a number of hiking trails that summit the hills that isolate this park from the nearby urban center. From this vantage point, the visitor can see exactly how close they are to Yeager Airport, named for famed test pilot Chuck Yeager who was born in Myra, West Virginia. It happens to be a very strange airport, indeed and an very unusual place to go for a hike.

West Virginia is a lumpy place. It is the US state with the highest mean elevation East of the Mississippi river and it is well covered by steep slopes, countless hills and mountains and very, very few flat surfaces that aren't in a river flood plain. The city of Charleston, the capitol and largest urban area in West Virginia, needed an airport, but since the flat area near the Kanawha River that flows through downtown was already taken up by neighborhoods, builders looked to the nearby mountains. There, surface mining for coal had already leveled the top off of a mountain that created a tabletop surface on which to install two runways at 910 feet above sea level.

For more incredible images like this, check out the Yeager Airport Facebook page and look at their albums.

Because Charleston isn't a very big city, most of the commercial airliners are pretty small, so the airport's small size wasn't a big problem. The airport's artificial plateau is so small, however, there's not enough room for the lights that usually extend beyond the runway to guide pilots in. Instead, a long girder with vertical support columns were added to give pilots a longer target for night landings on either side of the main strip. For a little added protection, the ends of the runway are made from an Engineered Material Arresting System which helps keep planes from rolling off the edge of the mountain in a manner similar to a runaway truck ramp.

Because Yeager Airport also is home to Charleston's Air National Guard Base, nine C-130 Hercules transports and the Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing and an Air Mobility COmmand unit of the West Virginia Air National Guard, some much, much larger aircraft use this harrowing landing strip, including the Boeing 747 called Air Force One (whenever the president is actually in it). It is not uncommon to see a blue airliner with a presidential seal practice touch-and-gos on this challenging runway which is about 350 miles from Andrew's Air Force Base in Washington DC. As you might imagine, your ability to watch the planes from the park is somewhat limited during these exercises. C-5s are a different matter, though.

The vantage point from Coonskin State Park looks like this:

My reaction to watching takeoffs and landings looked like this:

The point here of course, is that flat ground to build infrastructure is very scarce in West Virginia, particularly the farther south one goes. Much of the debate around Mountain Top Removal (MTR) mining that originates from out of state tends to forget that many West Virginians are thankful for any activity that results in sites appropriate for development. Of course coal comes with a high cost, but there are some pretty big benefits for West Virginia residents. If you intend to tour the coal country protesting MTR or surface mining with a minimum of irony, best not fly in to Yeager Airport.


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