Got turf? Study breaks ground on maintaining turf runway

It happened at every meeting of the homeowners association Bill Tuccio attended.

A resident of Yellow River Airport, an airpark in Holt, Fla., Tuccio said that one question came up every time: What do other airports do to take care of their turf runways?

“A lot of time was wasted on these constant discussions,” said Tuccio, who participates in the maintenance of the airpark’s 2,500-foot runway. That’s why he decided to conduct a Turf Airport Study as his graduate project for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, as part of his work toward his Master’s degree in Aeronautical Science.

Turf runways account for 60% of all the runways in the U.S. with many, of course, being on airparks. Nationwide, they account for 44,165 acres of land.

“The turf quality of these airports is a direct reflection of the quality of the airport and is a factor in the real estate value of the properties adjacent to airports,” Tuccio noted in the study. While turf research has become a mature science, most of the focus has been on golf courses, athletic fields and homeowners’ lawns. No studies have been done on turf runways, according to Dr. J. Brian Unruh of the University of Florida, considered a leading expert on turfgrass management.

When Tuccio asked Unruh for his help on the study, it was the first time he’d been asked about turf runways, he noted. “In all my years of doing turf extension work, I have never heard of a colleague providing expertise in this area,” he said. The first-of-its-kind study began when Tuccio mailed surveys to about 650 airports in Georgia, Florida and Alabama in June 2007. Using an online survey, he collected data from about 200 of those airparks in the next two months.

While most of the survey was done electronically, Tuccio did get a chance to speak to about 25 people on the telephone about their turf runway maintenance practices. “One fellow even stopped by the house while passing through on his way home,” he said with delight. “A few people even invited me to stop by their airports. Meeting the people was one of the wonderful side benefits of doing the survey. Turf airport people are usually unique people.”


The study’s survey asked a variety of questions ranging from turf species, soil testing, use of extension services, common pests, mowing practices and irrigation to the use of county extension services. While his hope was to discover the relationship between soil testing and turf quality, that didn’t happen, Tuccio admitted. In fact, of the airports responding, most — 108 — had never tested their soil.

That would be the first bit of advice Unruh, the turfgrass expert, would give to owners asking for help on how to best maintain their turf runways. “There’s not a simple answer to this one, but probably the best advice would be to conduct a soil analysis,” he said. “Apply fertilizer at the appropriate rate and time and employ proper mowing practices. With these in check, many of the maintenance problems will be eliminated or reduced.”

Tuccio’s study found that those who maintain turf runways are missing out on a great resource: Their county agricultural extension services. “A lot of people have questions, but they don’t go to the county extension services,” Tuccio said. “They’ll come out and give advice and it’s already paid for through our taxes. It’s a very underutilized resource.” Unruh agrees, noting that county extension agents can provide soil testing, with samples from your runway sent to the state lab. Once the results are in, the extension agent can provide recommendations on maintenance.

“County extension agents are typically the ‘first line of defense’,” noted Unruh, who is a state extension specialist. That means he provides backup to the county extension agents, writes publications and conducts other activities to increase knowledge in this area.

Tuccio’s study ends with the recommendation that more studies need to be conducted. A larger geographic area and a longer time period to collect information would be the place to start, he noted. More questions need to be asked, he said, adding that he put a lot of questions at the end of his study which, he believes, would garner valuable information for turf runway owners. Many questions he wanted to ask weren’t included, to keep the length of the survey reasonable or to avoid sensitive areas that would have caused respondents not to participate, he said. “I had to avoid financial questions,” he said. “And I was really interested in how many respondents owned aviation easements.”

Many respondents came up with questions of their own, with one noting that a question on soil types would be helpful, while others wondered what measures are taken to keep landing surfaces smooth. Unruh agrees. “We are having to extrapolate information from the golf sector and the forage sector to come up with turf runway recommendations,” he said. “It would be great to actually conduct research to determine optimal
fertilizer rates, management practices, etc., for turf runways.”

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The man behind the study

Bill Tuccio started flying in 1981 when he was 16 years old. He was a captain for American Eagle for eight years, flying Shorts and ATR aircraft. A full-time systems engineer, he also is a part-time flight instructor. His wife, Barbara, is a pilot, too, and his 15-year-old son is nearing solo in the family’s Maule.