The Influence of Aircraft Development

on Runway Design

 

Copyright 1998, Scott D. Murdock

(From a report submitted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 1995)


Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to show the relationship between the development of larger, more powerful aircraft and the corresponding development of paved, longer runways to support them.  I discovered that information on runways in general, and civilian/ commercial runways in specific, is scarce; and so I limited the scope of this paper to military runways and aircraft. Also, due to the limited information available, I was unable to consider such factors as load bearing capacity or instrument flight capability and have looked at runways in simpler terms of being soft surfaced (such as sod or dirt) or hard surfaced (such as
asphalt or concrete); and also by considering the length of the runways.

Through a variety of references, I was able to piece together the basic runway-development chronology on a limited number of military airfields, and compare this information with the aircraft using the runways.  My sample of airfields is therefore not random, but upon critical examination it does encompass a wide variety of missions, aircraft types, and geographical locations.

I also found that other factors bear considerably on this issue; for instance budget considerations have affected runway design perhaps as much or more as developments in aircraft.  For these reasons, this paper is necessarily shallow in its coverage of what is really a fairly complex subject.


Background

Early airfields were normally sod, and many were indistinguishable from athletic fields, golf courses, and parks (Wells, 1992). Military airfields often were actually the post polo grounds or drill field.

Hard-surface runways became commonplace in the United States during World War II.   Even though combat use was often from unimproved, soft-surface runways the hard-surface runways were far more useful stateside.  They were not as affected by dusty or muddy conditions, allowing more use for the war effort.  In fact, it was noted that paved runways were more succeptible to bombing damage than the "All-Over" landing field (Sharp, et al, 1944).

The trend to more sophisticated runways was certainly partly due to more sophisticated aircraft.  According to a text of the day, "The design and engineering of runways must keep pace with the development of aircraft and the increased use of the airways." (Sharp, et al, 1944).


Analysis of Selected Military Airfields

This considers only the primary, or longest, runway at each airfield. Runway lengths are rounded to the nearest 500 ft for clarity of presentation.

Altus AFB OK - Built in 1943 (Mueller, 1989) with a 6,000 ft hard-surface runway (Department of Commerce, 1944); extended to 13,500 ft (Air Force Association, 1995) in 1955 (Mueller, 1989), for B-47 and KC-97 aircraft (Ravenstein, 1984).

Barksdale AFB LA - Built with soft-surface landing area (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1938) in 1931 (Mueller, 1989); hard-surface 10,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) built in 1941 (Mueller, 1989). New 12,000 ft runway (Air Force Association, 1995) built in 1959 for B-52 (Mueller, 1989) and KC-97 aircraft (Ravenstein, 1984).

Bergstrom AFB TX - Built with hard-surface 7,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1942 (Mueller, 1989). New 12,500 ft hard-surface runway (Air Force Association, 1995) built in 1958 (Mueller, 1989) for B-52 and KC-135 aircraft (Sligh, 1993).

Cannon AFB NM - Built with hard-surface 10,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1942 (Mueller, 1989).

Davis-Monthan AFB AZ - Built with soft-surface landing area (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1938) in 1925 (Mueller, 1989); hard-surface 8,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) built in 1942; extended to 13,500 ft in 1956 for B-47 and KC-97 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Dyess AFB TX - Built with hard-surface 5,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1943 (Mueller, 1989). New 13,500 ft hard-surface runway (Air Force Association, 1995) built in 1955 for B-47 and KC-97 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Eaker AFB AR - Built with hard-surface 5,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1942 (Mueller, 1989). Extended to 10,000 ft in 1956 (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1993) for B-57 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Fairchild AFB WA - Built with 8,000 ft hard-surface runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1942 (Mueller, 1989). Extended to 14,000 ft (Air Force Association, 1995) in 1952 for B-36 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Griffiss AFB NY - Built with 6,500 ft hard-surface runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1942 (Mueller, 1989). Extended to 12,000 ft in 1958 for use by B-52 and KC-135 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Grissom AFB IN - Built with 5,000 ft hard-surface runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1942. Extended to 12,000 ft in 1959 for B-47, B-58(Mueller, 1989) and KC-135 aircraft (Ravenstein, 1984).

Langley AFB VA - Built with soft-surface landing area (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1938) in 1917 (Mueller, 1989). Hard-surface 7,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) built in 1941 (Mueller, 1989). Extended to 10,000 ft (Air Force Association, 1995) in 1957 for B-57 and F-100 aircraft.

Loring AFB ME - Built with hard-surface 10,000 ft runway in 1948 for B-36 aircraft. Extended to 12,000 ft in 1955 for B-52 (Stevens and Tyson, 1980) and KC-135 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Luke AFB AZ - Built with 4,500 ft hard-surface runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1942. Extended to 12,000 ft in 1954 for F-84 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Mountain-Home AFB ID - Built with 10,000 ft hard-surface runway in 1943. Extended in 1954 to 12,000 ft for B-47 (Mueller, 1989) and KC-97 aircraft (Ravenstein, 1984).

Pope AFB NC - Built with soft-surface landing area (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1938) in 1919. Hard-surface runway built in 1940 (Mueller, 1989) to 5,000 ft (Department of Commerce, 1944). Extended to 7,500 ft (Air Force Association, 1995) in 1970 for C-5A aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Reese AFB TX - Built with hard-surface 6,500 ft runway in 1942 (Mueller, 1989). New 10,500 ft runway (Air Force Association, 1995) built in 1954 for TB-25 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).

Richards-Gebaur AFB MO - Built with hard-surface 5,500 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1944. Extended in 1953 (Mueller, 1989) to 9,000 ft (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1994) for F-86 aircraft (Maurer, 61).

Travis AFB CA - Built with hard-surface 7,500 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) in 1943. Extended in 1953 (Mueller, 1989) to 11,000 ft (Air Force Association, 1995) for F-86 aircraft (Maurer, 1969).

Wurtsmith AFB MI - Built with soft-surface landing area (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1938) in 1924 (Mueller, 1989). Hard-surface 5,000 ft runway (Department of Commerce, 1944) built in 1942. Extended to 12,000 ft (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1994) in 1959 for B-52 and KC-135 aircraft (Mueller, 1989).


Data Comparison

Of the 19 airfields in this sample, only five were in use by 1940, and only one of these had a hard-surface runway. By 1945, 18 of the 19 were in use; all with hard-surface runways. In 1950, all 19 were in use with an average runway length of 6,921 ft.

By 1955, almost half of these airfields received an extended runway, bringing the average runway length to 9,263 ft (an average increase of 34% in length in five years). These increases are attributed as shown:

Altus AFB   B-47 & KC-97
Dyess AFB   B-47 & KC-97
Fairchild AFB   B-36
Loring AFB   B-52 & KC-135
Luke AFB   F-84
Mountain Home AFB   B-47 & KC-97
Reese AFB   TB-25
Richards Gebaur AFB   F-86
Travis AFB   F-86


By 1960, almost another third of these airfields received an extended runway, bring the average runway length to 11,395 ft (an average increase of 23% in length in five years). These are the increases:

Barksdale AFB   B-52 & KC-97
Bergstrom AFB   B-52 & KC-135
Davis-Monthan AFB   B-47 & KC-97
Eaker AFB   B-57
Griffiss AFB   B-52 & KC-135
Grissom AFB   B-47, B-58 & KC-135
Langley AFB   B-57 & F-100
Wurtsmith AFB   B-52 & KC-135


After 1960, only one of the sample airfields received an extended runway; Pope AFB increased from 5,000 to 7,500 ft to accommodate the C-5A aircraft.

In the period of 1945 - 1970, the average runway length increased from 6,750 ft to 11,526 ft (a 71% increase). Only one of the sample airfields, Cannon AFB, did not extend its runway.


Conclusions

Looking at the runway extension projects, some aircraft were listed more than others:

B-47, B-52, KC-97, KC-135   5 times each
F-86, B-57   2 times each
B-58, B-36, F-84, F-100, TB-25, C-5A   1 time each


From this analysis, bomber aircraft (B-36, B-47, B-57, and B-58) and their accompanying refueling aircraft (KC-97 and KC-135) account for 13 of 18 runway extensions during the period 1950 - 1960, or 72%. Another three runway extensions, or 17%, can be attributed to new jet interceptor aircraft (F-86 and F-84).

The growth from 1940 to 1945 is much harder to attribute to specific changes in aircraft design, as the airfields in the sample operated virtually every type of aircraft in the inventory at some point or another in that period. Add to this the budgetary and political factors mentioned below, and no clear pattern emerges.


Other Factors

Budgetary factors at times helped and at other times hindered the building and extending of runways, not necessarily in conjunction with corresponding changes in aircraft design.

Prior to our entry into World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 made funds available for construction of landing areas "...in the interests of national defense." (Wells, 1992). In 1940, Congress appropriated $40 million for Development of Landing Areas for National Defense (DLAND) (Wells, 1992). This was in addition to War Department appropriations. Of the 19 sample airfields, 18 existed in the DLAND time frame, and only one, Cannon AFB, was aided through DLAND (HQ Army Air Forces, 1943). Cannon AFB is also the only sample airfield with the runway length basically unchanged since its construction.

Lack of funds in 1948 changed the plans for Loring AFB. Originally planned to have one 12,000 ft and two 15,000 ft runways, it was instead built with one 10,000 ft runway. This was partly due to the high cost of building in Maine's climate and partly due to budget constraints brought about by the Korean Conflict (Stevens and Tyson, 1980).


Summary

This paper only scratches the surface, showing an apparent connection between the employment of medium and heavy bombers during the 1950s and the lengthening of U.S. Air Force runways during this same time. We have passed the point where new aircraft require longer runways. In fact, some new aircraft such as the C-17 use shorter runways than earlier aircraft. My analysis shows no lengthening of runways at the sample bases from 1970 to 1995.


References

Air Force Association (1995). Air Force Magazine, Guide to Air Force Installations Worldwide. May, 1995. Arlington, VA: Author.

Department of Commerce, Civil Aeronautics Administration (1944). U.S. Army and Navy Directory of Airfields (Continental United States) December 1, 1944. Washington, DC: Author.

HQ Army Air Forces, Buildings and Grounds Section (1943): Army Air Forces Station List, Army Air Forces Activities in the Continental United States, May 1st, 1943. Washington DC: Author.

Maurer, M. (1961). Air Force Combat Units of World War II. Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office.

Maurer, M. (1969). Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, World War II.  Maxwell Air Force Base AL: United States Air Force Historical Division, Department of the Air Force.

Mueller R. (1989). Air Force Bases, Volume I, Active Air Force Bases Within the United States. Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force.

Ravenstein, C.A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings, Lineage and Honors Histories, 1947 - 1977. Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force.

Sharp, H.O. et al. (1944). Airport Engineering. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Sligh, R. (1993). Bergstrom AFB: A History. Austin, TX:  Bergstrom/Austin Community Council.

Stevens, W.E. and Tyson, P.G. (1980). The Loring Episode. Loring Air Force Base, ME: 42d Bombardment Wing History Office.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Air Commerce (1938). Airway Bulletin No. 2, Descriptions of Airports and Landing Fields in the United States. Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service (1994). United States Government Flight Information Publication, Airport/Facility Directory, East Central U.S. 6 Jan 1994 to 3 Mar 1994. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service (1994). United States Government Flight Information Publication, Airport/Facility Directory, North Central U.S. 6 Jan 1994 to 3 Mar 1994. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service (1994). United States Government Flight Information Publication, Airport/Facility Directory, South Central U.S. 16 Sep 1993 to 11 Nov 1993.  Washington, DC: Author.

Wells, A.T. (1992). Airport Planning & Management, Second Edition.  Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books Division of McGraw-Hill, Inc.


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