February 03, 2001

AvTurf: Ready for takeoff?

Tinley Park man creates artificial turf for airports

Sunday, February 25, 2001

By Howard Ludwig
Business Writer

Pat Carr is trying to convince airport managers to do something many homeowners have dreamed about replace their natural grass with artificial turf.

The Tinley Park resident is testing his invention, AvTurf, at Midway Airport.

The turf costs a hefty $3 to $5 per square foot, but Carr and others say lower maintenance costs and improved safety are worth the expense.

"It blows in the wind just like grass, the only difference is you will have better drainage," Carr said.

Although he avoids comparisons to the turf used on athletic fields, AvTurf is made of a similar, fire-retardant synthetic material.

Unlike athletic turf, AvTurf is laid over eight inches of gravel and sand, making for faster drainage. A thin layer of sand on top of the turf holds it in place and absorbs fuel spills.

"I came up with the idea about a year ago in January. It was around the anniversary of when I lost my good friends in the military," Carr said.

His boxing coach, Ron Stevenson, and base roommates, Richard Smith and Andrew Nair, were among 19 people killed in a plane crash Jan. 31, 1989. Carr was supposed to be on the flight with them.

Since the accident, the Air Force Reserve pilot has been brainstorming about ways to improve airport safety.

While working on a project for the Reserve, the Gulf War veteran came up with AvTurf.

He then began Airport Surface Technologies Inc. and completed a prototype in October. Carr said his AvTurf prototype was made by a U.S. company, but decline to name it.

The prototype was installed at Midway Airport on Dec. 13, and was immediately blanketed by a storm that dropped 14 inches of snow.

When the snow melted, the 80-by-20-foot strip of turf was revealed along a taxiway on the west end of Midway.

"It is great being from Chicago and being from the area. We have Midway and O'Hare and they gave us the opportunity to try our invention," the Beverly native said.

AvTurf has met all of the Federal Aviation Administration's requirements, but many airports are waiting for the results of Midway's tests before installing the artificial turf.

Midway plans to conclude its tests this summer and present its findings to the FAA.

The tests will help determine whether the FAA will pay for installing AvTurf as part of its airport improvement program.

If the FAA approves funding for AvTurf, the 350 acres of natural grass surrounding Midway's five runways would be replaced, said Monique Bond, Chicago Aviation Department spokeswoman.

"We are very satisfied with the test results and will just have to wait and see," Bond said.

Replacing the grass around the airport would cost up to $76.2 million. But AvTurf, which is expected to last at least 15 years, could pay for itself in lower maintenance costs, said Al Perez, assistant commissioner of operations for Midway.

Midway now pays overtime for maintenance crews to cut the grass around its runways between midnight and 5 a.m. to avoid interfering with flights.

Rather than cutting the grass once a week, crews would need to vacuum the turf just twice a year.

The turf would also reduce the amount of birds at the airport. Eliminating the grass removes the major food source for birds, Perez said.

Jet engines frequently suck birds into their engines and smaller airplanes often collide with birds.

These accidents, called bird strikes, cost the U.S. aviation industry more than $400 million a year, according to the Bird Strike Committee USA.

Reducing bird traffic and eliminating maintenance equipment could decrease the 429 runway accidents logged last year by the FAA.

Also, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles would be able to drive over the AvTurf without causing any damage. This could speed up response times to airport emergencies, Carr said.

Unlike grass, AvTurf does not die in the winter. Improved visibility of the green turf is intended to aid landing pilots.

"It is very, very green grass. It looks no different than what you would see at Pebble Beach," Bond said.

But, the product also has its critics.

The price of the turf could be too high for smaller airports such as the Lansing Municipal Airport.

"I think (turf) has some good qualities, but we couldn't allocate (the money)," said Robert Malkas, manager of Lansing Municipal.

Larger airports are more likely to have the means to install AvTurf.

Carr said his office has been flooded with calls from airports nationwide since installing AvTurf at Midway.

Nazim Uddin, a professor of aviation at Lewis University, said increased safety and reduced cost could make AvTurf the product of choice for many airports.

Uddin said: "I think it has great potential."

[Chicago ATC News]