October 27, 2020

Floating a floating Caribbean airport

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68962917From MRO Network

Now and again, I am informed of aviation development ideas which are sufficiently out-of-the-box for me to want to write about them immediately. One such idea was shared with me earlier this week.

Two aviation professionals have been cooperating to promote the idea that a floating airport with a runway 5,000 feet (1,525 metres) in length would make a great deal of sense technologically, ecologically and economically for any one of several island nations in the Caribbean.

Some Caribbean islands which could develop their economies quickly were they only to boast airports with runways capable of handling single-aisle mainline jets such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 are hampered by the fact their airport runways just aren’t long enough to do so. Invariably, extending the airport’s runway to the degree necessary to support larger aircraft isn’t an option for these islands: they just don’t have enough land available to do so.

Another worry for them is that extending the runway of a land-based airport out into the sea to lengthen it is a highly expensive and an ecologically perilous proposal. The major tourism draw for nearly every Caribbean island relies on its beaches remaining pristine, its flora and fauna remaining untouched and its tourists being untroubled by increased levels of aircraft noise.

But Terry Drinkard, a structural engineer who is an executive for aircraft MRO company VT San Antonio Aerospace, points out that offshore floating airports could solve problems for many islands throughout the world. Among others, such islands exist in The Maldives, the Pribilof Islands (a seabird-watchers’ paradise) in the Bering Sea and in the Caribbean.

Drinkard says Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) is a good example of an island which would benefit from having a floating airport located several miles offshore.

At present, Tortola’s Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport is restricted to operations by regional aircraft operating from other Caribbean islands because its runway is only 4,642 feet long. Theoretically, some regional jets could serve the airport but at present only turboprop airliners such as the Twin Otter, the Dash 8, the ATR 42/72 and the Saab 340 fly there.

The BVI government would like to extend the airport’s runway so mainline single-aisle jets could serve it directly from North and Central America, but funds and the political will required potentially to upset Tortola’s fragile ecology are both in short supply.

However, Drinkard argues a floating airport located in deep sea several miles offshore, with a 5,000-foot-long by 300-foot wide runway buoyed by floating legs extending far enough down into the ocean not to affect its marine ecology, could satisfy Tortola’s desire for greater runway length.

By engineering the airport for complete processing and containment of all fuel and waste spillage, it could operate with zero ecological impact, according to Drinkard. In fact, by incorporating structures which would encourage growth of marine flora and corals, it could provide a net ecological benefit by creating a large new marine-life habitat.

It could also create new economic benefits for Tortola, by hosting technologies such as electrical-power generation from sea-temperature thermal gradients (which would also provide cold water to cool the airport buildings), kinetic energy from waves, and solar-panel fields. In addition to producing all its own electrical-power needs, the airport could generate a net surplus for the island.

Facilities for light manufacturing for aircraft maintenance and other uses could also be included – also operating on a completely pollution-free basis. All effluents and particulate emissions would be captured by the airport’s processing and containment areas and all the carbon dioxide produced by on-board industries would be captured usefully by passing the gas through greenhouses, where fruits, vegetables and flowers would be grown.

The airport could even offer a secondary tourism attraction by hosting a sizeable boating marina – in any case a necessary facility, to dock the ferries or hovercraft which would transfer passengers between the airport and the shore of Tortola.

While an offshore floating airport would present substantial technological and engineering challenges, none would be insuperable. For decades, oil companies have demonstrated that floating-leg deep-sea oil rigs can routinely withstand the enormous waves and wind forces generated by hurricanes and severe storms in the North Atlantic and elsewhere.

Drinkard notes that nearly 20 years ago Japanese engineers actually built an experimental offshore floating airport, the MegaFloat in Tokyo Bay. Although a one-fifth scale model of a proposed 5,000-metre long airport, the 1,000-metre-long MegaFloat saw several successful trial aircraft landings. These demonstrated that precision instrument landing approaches to the structure were possible despite wave action.

But building such an airport would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, money which would need spent before any potential economic benefits could be realised. Where would a cash-strapped Caribbean island government find this large sum?

Potentially it needn’t do so at all. Drinkard and Cdr. Bud Slabbaert, an aviation business development executive based in Sint Maarten, argue that by representing a floating airport to engineering, materials, construction, chemical and other companies as a valuable opportunity for technological research and development, many might be willing to invest in its construction.

Such companies would be able to obtain tax credits and balance-sheet write-offs by making substantial R&D investments and/or contributing to the project through charitable donations, so the net cost of the airport to companies participating in its development could be zero.

The Solar Impulse solar-powered aircraft, which cost $112 million to develop and involves 80 corporate partners, is an excellent example of a multidisciplinary cooperative project, notes Slabbaert. He points out companies and islands developing a deep-sea floating airport could obtain additional benefits by encouraging academic institutions internationally and locally to cooperate in the R&D effort required to build the airport and develop its core technologies.

Not only would this encourage participation by academics and students worldwide, but it could stimulate interest in the project’s scientific and engineering disciplines among the island’s young people. It could provide them with higher education and training to prepare them for future well-paid jobs and the airport – both during construction and afterwards – would provide many skilled jobs for local people.

If all this sounds pie-in-the-sky, Slabbaert says Tortola, Dominica (which wants to replace tiny Canefield Airport, which serves the rugged island’s capital Roseau) and St. Lucia (which wants to replace the constrained airport at its capital city Castries) are obvious Caribbean candidates for floating airports. Undoubtedly, others also exist among the many land-limited Caribbean islands.

For more on this story go to: http://www.mro-network.com/opinion/2015/12/floating-floating-caribbean-airport/6323#sthash.05U2cXi3.dpuf

IMAGE: Tortola’s Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport vg.geoview.info

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