A Mix of Past and Present on RDU’s Runway

It’s not often that the past literally paves its way into the present.  This was in fact the case for Mr. Tom Blalock.  It turns out, Mr. Blalock read about current repairs to RDU’s primary runway, 5L/23R, and reached out to share his story about a similar project he oversaw. Fortunately, the Authority was able to invite Tom out to the airfield and spend some time learning about his experience repairing former runway 5/23 more than 50 years ago.

The repair of RDU’s primary runway, 5L/23R, is the cornerstone of campus construction, as the runway is undergoing an emergency preservation program to replace slabs of deteriorating pavement to keep the runway open until a new one is built. Modern technology and advanced engineering has greatly improved the runway repair process. However, similar to the past, the repairs still require the runway to shut down for 18-hours a day to allow crews time to cut out the damaged slabs, pour fresh concrete and allow it to dry in time for the international flights to take off in the afternoon. The process requires precision and costs approximately $100,000 per 25 foot by 25 foot slab.

During the fall of 1962, Mr. Blalock recalled the runway project he led at the airport. Eastern Airlines operated two flights a day out of RDU: the first arrived at 1:00pm and the second departed at 11:00pm, as Mr. Blalock recalls. Back then, jet wheels were landing and overloading the runway and causing gaps that required asphalt repair.

His construction crew had a meager equipment list comprised of a small back hoe loader, two small dump trucks and a makeshift light source. Mr. Blalock was the project lead for the asphalt replacement work. He chuckled as he described how his crew used a “borrowed” southern bell sign with two lights strapped to it, run by a generator, coupled with the headlights of the two trucks as their source of light for overnight work.

The six-man crew would get to work after the 11pm flight took off, manually digging throughout the night and into the morning. A days’ worth of supplies was delivered at day break and the crew would begin pouring asphalt, moving in sections of two to three inches at a time. The asphalt had to be poured and cool before the runway could reopen for the afternoon arrival. Mr. Blalock recalled two occasions when planes had to circle in the air as his crew hurried to finish work past the scheduled 1pm arrival. RDU only had one runway in 1962, leaving no other landing option.

Mr. Blalock was awestruck by RDU’s transformation over the past 50 years. While RDU has grown and modernized since his time on the airfield, Mr. Blalock said that one thing that came as no surprise to him is RDU’s recognition as a top airport. The airport makes lasting impressions not only in the community it serves, but on the lives it touches as well.

RDU thanks Mr. Blalock for his contribution to RDU’s history and for sharing his story.