Hungry hogs have harvested the ground out from under pilots at Williston Municipal Airport’s historic grass runway.
The grass runway, spanning 2,600 feet, has been closed to the public for about a year, but not to the hogs. Since World War II, the runway has been open on and off. Despite local efforts, wild hog damage and maintenance issues are preventing the runway from getting approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The closure is expected to affect the bi-annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s pig roast on Nov. 15.
“Gee wiz, we got the longest public use, grass runway north of the Okeechobee — I can’t understand why we don’t use it,” said Stan Barry, a 40-year veteran pilot and president of the Williston EAA chapter.
Without the FAA’s blessing, if an accident were to happen on the grass runway, the city would be held liable. Damage from the feral hog infestation added another hurdle to seeking federal approval, Williston City Manager Scott Littman said.
Within the next 30 days, Williston city management will begin a runway assessment to determine recovery potential.
Many local pilots have expressed interest in seeing the runway fixed. Some have even offered to help maintain it themselves, said Ryan Foote, owner of the Sky Chiefs Aviation school operating out of Williston Municipal Airport.
Grass runways are particularly favorable as landing spots for antique and experimental aircraft, many of which are “tail-draggers,” or old-model planes with two wheels in the front and one in the back. Over the past five years, many pilots and owners of these specialty aircraft have brought their planes to the EAA’s pig roast, at which dozens of different aircraft models are on display.
The pig roast, funded by donations, last April brought in a fewer number of pilots due to the runway closure. Barry said pilots called in admitting they would rather stay home than run their tires out on a concrete runway.
There are also year-round uses for the runway other than the pig roast. As one of the few remaining grass turf runways in North Florida, it has served as a valuable training tool for emergency landings, Foote said.
“Sure from the standpoint of upkeep it’s a money issue,” Foote said. “But it’s more about getting the city to accept the responsibility of keeping a good thing open.”
Recovering the runway comes down to equipment, time and manpower. Recently, a hired hunter and a fence upgrade around the perimeter have kept the hogs from causing further damage, said Wayne Middleton, supervisor of the Williston Municipal Airport.
“Holding them at bay is all you can hope for because you can’t (get) rid of them completely,” said Bill Giuliano, professor and wildlife extension specialist at the University of Florida. “They’ll always be attracted to areas that provide food for them.”