By Chris Sasser
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
The first time I met Upton County Judge, Bill Eyler, at the 2015 Texas Aviation Conference, it left quite an impression.
“We used to have an airport that was in such poor shape a fellow would not have crash landed there,” exclaimed Judge Eyler when I introduced myself as the Wingtips editor. “I bet it would make a good story for your newsletter.”
I agreed and several months later ventured out to far West Texas to visit with Judge Eyler and airport manager, Carl Absher.
The Upton County Airport (E48), located in McCamey, about 50 miles south of Odessa, was established in 1940 as a DC-3 training base. Over the years, the hangars and barracks were torn down or destroyed by fire. Other than the occasional passenger and freight service operations, the airport endured little use and became nearly desolate—particularly after a lightning strike in the early 90’s that destroyed the airport’s lighting controls, rendering the facility only operable for day use.
“Between 1995 and 2012, the airport was not well maintained, and flights in and out became few and far between,” said Absher. “The runway and taxiway had severe vegetation encroachment. One taxiway was basically loose recycled asphalt pavement.”
The situation at the airport started to reach critical mass when Angel Flight pilots began to voice their displeasure over the severe pavement issues and in some instances even refused to return to the airport.“ We are in a remote location with an aging population,” said Absher. “We need the Angel Flights to carry patients and their families to metropolitan areas for medical treatment.”
In stepped Judge Eyler, who began his tenure in 2011.
“When I was campaigning for office, I asked the community ‘what would you like to see improved?’” explained Judge Eyler. “And many answered that they wanted something done with the airport. It really got us thinking about how important this airport truly is to the county’s residents.”
Working together and with support from TxDOT and the commissioner’s court, Judge Eyler and Absher set out to begin what seemed impossible for those familiar with the condition of the airport: rebuild the airport from the ashes.
In 2011, the team applied for a TxDOT grant and received funding to make the following improvements:
- Reconstruct runway 10-28 (4100 X 75)
- Demolish and reconstruct the taxiway
- Remove the existing LIRL system and replace with new MIRL system
- Remove and replace the beacon and tower
- Construct a new electrical vault
- Install PAPI-2s
- Remove and replace the windcone
- Improve the existing segmented circle
Additionally, the county also improved the existing terminal building by adding central heat and air.
Future plans for the airport include remodeling the terminal building to include a pilot’s lounge, installing an AWOS, extending the runway, building hangars, adding a fuel station and replacing the existing fence with a security/game fence.
Absher, who serves a dual role as the county’s Veterans Services Officer, admits he knew little about aviation before taking on the large task of renovating the airport.
“If you asked me 10 years ago what an AWOS or PAPI meant, I would have looked at you with a blank stare,” laughed Absher. “But I certainly got a crash course and learned in a hurry!”
The ambitious team is proud of their greatly improved airport and what was once a community eyesore at the edge of town now holds an important place for Upton County residents.
“The projects have certainly increased the safety and usefulness of the airport,” said Judge Eyler. “We are excited about being able to safely bring Angel Flights back into the airport to help the community get the healthcare access they may someday need.”