OU announces $36.5 million to expand Max Westheimer

Apr. 3—On Wednesday morning, the University of Oklahoma announced that Rep. Tom Cole has secured $36.5 million in federal funding for improvements to Max Westheimer Airport.

Improvements to the airport will include the extension and strengthening of the runway, the development of a new taxiway and adding hangar space to accommodate new aircraft for the aviation school and other increased airport traffic.

"What I love is the number of applications we have just went up by another 50% the next year. It is simply growing in ways that are incredibly exciting," said OU President Joseph Harroz Jr.

He said OU will soon teach 600 students in its aviation program, and it will increase the size of its fleet.

Last year, the university owned 19 aircraft. It will replace 16 of them, which will be sold, and it will expand its fleet to 28 total aircraft.

Between the 28 aircraft, the university owns Piper Seminole Multi engine trainers and King Air B90 Turboprop aircraft, which currently take off and land on the runway.

"We could not increase the number and frequency and size of the airplanes we have without extending and reinforcing the runway," Harroz said. "What this $36.5 million will do is add almost a third of a mile to our runway and reinforce it so it can handle aircraft it could never have handled before."

Harroz said a north hangar will be developed on 71 acres of land and a south hangar on 24 acres.

He said the university's move to the Southeastern Conference will prompt increased traffic, including larger capacity airplanes.

"This is an essential part of that infrastructure to move us forward," he said.

The school also secured a $1.7 million grant from the Oklahoma Department of Aerospace and Aeronautics, as well as a gift from the Pigman Family Charitable Fund to support the construction of a new aircraft hangar.

This year, applications to the school have increased 33%, 800 students, after Flying Magazine named OU's program the best aviation school in the country.

"Max Westheimer Airport is such an essential part of the local economy and the transportation infrastructure that serves the University of Oklahoma, the city of Norman, and surrounding communities," Cole said. "This is why I am proud to announce that I was able to secure $36.5 million in the Fiscal Year 2024 Appropriations package for the Max Westheimer Airport to make beneficial improvements."

OU Regent Rick Nagel said airport improvements are important for the local economy.

"This is something that we're doing not only for Norman, for you, but for the state of Oklahoma," Nagel said. "When you look ahead, and I think about five years from now, OU is going to have some new buildings here, there will be new hangars, and new commercial activity, the City of Norman is going to be proud of this as it is really going to be the door for the entire community."

He said airport expansion will require more jobs, including pilots, mechanics, aerial system pilots, and mechanics, which will be trained by, in part, by Norman Public Schools' Oklahoma Aviation Academy.

Norman Mayor Larry Heikkila said the runway will be too short for commercial airplanes, so Norman residents shouldn't get comfortable with the idea that they can take off on a Delta, American, United or Southwest aircraft.

"It will be long enough for a Gulfstream V aircraft, maybe even a Gulfstream VI. Gulfsteams are what folks in the SEC fly or ride in," Heikkila said. "The runway will be short for anything but a regional jet."

Brian King covers education and politics for The Transcript. Reach him at bking@normantranscript.com.