NOAA Plans to Expand at Lakeland Linder Airport

Plans are in the works to expand the home of the NOAA Hurricane Hunters at Lakeland Linder International Airport to accommodate two new aircraft and 50 to 75 more employees.

A contract for the $13 million expansion should be ready for the City Commission’s consideration next month, airport Director Gene Conrad told a crowd of 320 people this morning at the 7th Annual Mayor’s Sun ‘n Fun Breakfast.

The project would expand the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Aircraft Operations Center at Linder from 106,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet, he told LkldNow after his presentation.

NOAA’s massive hangar in Lakeland houses its fleet of nine aircraft, including the three that are used for hurricane missions — the two most famous of them named Kermit and Miss Piggy. Two more aircraft are under contract and are scheduled to arrive in the next two years: a Gulfstream G550 for hurricane and tropical research and a Beechcraft King Air 350 turboprop with sensors to gather data for flood, river level and water supply forecasts.

Once construction is complete, NOAA’s Lakeland workforce of 110 will be supplemented by 50 to 75 more employees, Conrad said. They will include people involved in maintenance, engineering, operations and training, according to Jonathan Shannon, a NOAA communications specialists.

NOAA’s plans include renovating a next-door hangar that was vacated by Rob Dinic Interiors and adding offices and maintenance shops, Conrad said.

Current plans call for the city of Lakeland to pay $4 million to build out the shell, floor and hangar doors and add fire suppression, Conrad said. The rest of the project would be financed by the city and paid back through NOAA’s lease payments, he said.

Conrad’s talk focused on the airport’s growth plans. He was a last-minute fill-in for Matthew C. McCardle, head of policy for Amazon Air. (Conrad’s appearance brought him in from paternity leave; His wife gave birth to their second child Feb. 21.)

McCardle had been scheduled to talk about why Amazon chose Lakeland for the $100 million air cargo sorting facility under construction on the northwest quadrant of the airport.

But McCardle canceled his speech after Amazon halted non-essential travel because of Coronavirus concerns.

This morning’s event was hosted by the Aerospace Center for Excellence and held at the Skylight Hangar on the Sun ‘n Fun Expo Campus at Lakeland Linder.

Topics addressed by Conrad included:

  • Passenger service: The hopes of bringing American Airlines to Lakeland hinge on plans to add 18 new gates to Charlotte International Airport, expected by the summer of 2021. Airport staff is pursuing another option that would not fly to a large hub, “but American is our best bet at this point,” he said.
  • Runway: A $25 million project to fortify the longest runway is on schedule to be open in time for the March 31 start of the annual Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo and upgraded to the minimum standards needed by Amazon by June 1.
  • Masterplan: Still several years away, plans call for the relocation of the 523 crosswind runway that sends flights over the Morgan Creek community and other neighborhoods near the airport. All new development will occur on the north side of the airport, leaving the event area on the south side available for Sun ‘n Fun, he said.

Conrad’s slide presentation:

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