Local pilots say Friedman Memorial Airport is a little safer after about 200 cottonwood trees were removed from the south end of the runway over the summer.

According to airport Manager Chris Pomeroy, pilots have reported they feel more safe flying in and out of the airport after the trees, which obstructed a portion of the runway known as the “runway protection zone,” were removed following a public hearing process and environmental assessment accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Two local pilots, John Strass and Walt Denekas, said in an interview that any obstructions to the runway can be hazardous if an plane cannot gain elevation fast enough due to engine failure, weather conditions or anything else.

The trees, on the Eccles Flying Hat Ranch just south of the runway, were part of a $2.26 million purchase of 65 acres of the ranch to enable the airport to come into compliance with an FAA mandate to have a secure runway protection zone. The zone is defined as “an area at ground level prior to the threshold or beyond the runway end to enhance the safety and protection of people and property on the ground.”

The south end of the runway was deemed unsafe due to the trees, because they forced pilots to pull up sooner on takeoff, effectively shortening the runway by 400 feet.

Denekas shared a story of an incident that took place about 20 years ago when he was flying a twin-engine plane leaving Aurora Municipal Airport in Illinois. One engine failed and the plane stopped rising.

“I literally watched the trees pass by my window,” he said.

With the trees removed and a flat field south of the runway, Denekas said, the safety margins are much better.

“It’s just a lot safer, especially if anything goes wrong,” he said.

At the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority’s October meeting, Pomeroy said the first phase of the obstruction removal process—removal of the trees—is complete, and the second phase—removing the stumps and roots—would begin this month.

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