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N.H. runway with storied past to get a makeover

FILE - In this Monday June 25, 2012 file photo, Air Force One lands with President Barack Obama at Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington, N.H. On Wednesday Sept. 4, 2013, the Executive Council approved $2.4 million for renovations to the legendary runway. The runway is more than 2 miles long and was one of 7 launch/abort sites for space shuttle orbiters.  (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter,File)

FILE - In this Monday June 25, 2012 file photo, Air Force One lands with President Barack Obama at Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington, N.H. On Wednesday Sept. 4, 2013, the Executive Council approved $2.4 million for renovations to the legendary runway. The runway is more than 2 miles long and was one of 7 launch/abort sites for space shuttle orbiters. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter,File)

It has been the runway to presidents, statesmen and soldiers, and it’s getting a major overhaul.

The 2-mile-long Runway 16-34 at Portsmouth Airport at Pease was designated one of seven airstrips worldwide where the space shuttle could land if a takeoff was aborted, and it was long enough to accommodate the Concorde supersonic plane.

The runway, said airport manager Bill Hopper, is the last U.S. soil that thousands of soldiers nationwide set foot on when they deploy and the first they step on when they return – always to scores of cheering volunteers.

Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Executive Council last week voted to spend $2.4 million to repair pavement and drainage on the runway and to reroute a perimeter road the Federal Aviation Administration deems too close to the runway. The FAA is funding nearly 95 percent of the project, with the balance coming from the state.

“Any aircraft in the world could operate here,” said Hopper, including the Airbus A380 – the world’s largest commercial aircraft that can accommodate up to 853 passengers.

Pease, a former Air Force base that was shuttered in 1991, and its Air National Guard 157th Refueling Wing were selected this spring to be home to Boeing KC-46 refueling tankers now in production. The midair tankers are expected to arrive in late 2017 or early 2018 and bring 100 jobs to the base.

Every sitting U.S. president in recent history has landed at the airport, with the elder George Bush frequently parking Air Force One there when he summered in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Hopper notes that New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary brings a huge influx of business and that Middle East leaders frequently flew to Pease when meeting with Bush and other U.S. leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin landed there in the summer of 2007.

The pilot who flew the bombing mission that killed al-Qaida mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 returned to Pease and presented the airport with an American flag.

The runway was built in 1954 for the Strategic Air Command, 11,321 feet long and 300 feet wide. The width was trimmed to 150 feet during a project from 1995 to 1998. By comparison, the longest runway at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport is 9,250 feet.

The airport, part of the Pease International Tradeport, averages 110 flights a day.

Hopper said the airport is on the “great circle route” from Europe and planes often stop there because it has an on-site U.S. Customs operation, making it attractive to international corporate private jets as well.

Next month, commercial airliner Allegiant Air will begin regular flights between Pease and Orlando, Fla.

Hopper said the $2.4 million repair project may involve some nighttime closings on the runway, but much of the work will be to drainage systems alongside the runway.

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