City to roll out new airplane tracking system in an effort to ward off runway size reduction

“City staff is concerned with the shortening because it will limit larger aircrafts to one runway," Public Works Director Joe Schroeder said of the potential impact a runway sizedown could have.

Mitchell Airport.jpg
A plane lands along the runway at the Mitchell Municipal Airport.
(Sam Fosness / Republic)

MITCHELL — To avoid shortening the length and width of a runway at Mitchell’s Municipal Airport, the Mitchell City Council approved an agreement on Monday with an aviation data collection company that will better track airplane traffic along the runways to comply with federal regulations.

The agreement to tab VirTower, an airport operations tracking system, to collect data on airplane traffic is an approved tracking system recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Public Works Director Joe Schroeder said the city’s existing air tracking system is not an approved FAA method, which led the FAA to recommending the airport’s secondary runway be sized down.

While the airport currently tracks incoming and outbound flights, Schroeder said the system does not track the runway that each aircraft uses at the airport, located on the north edge of Mitchell. The new VirTower system will track each runway’s use, along with additional operational data.

“During the FAA’s review, they stated they are interested in decoupling the runway and reducing the length of the runway. Their justification for shortening the length and width is that our airport is not meeting the requirement of 500 operations per year on that runway,” Schroeder said. “There is some other data we collect, but the FAA does not recognize that as accurate.”

The FAA recommended the length of the runway be shortened from 5,500 feet to 3,600 feet and the width be reduced from 100 feet to 75 feet.


The potential of shortening the runway – which runs north to south – was concerning to Schroeder and airport officials because it could limit larger airplanes to one runway. Schroeder pointed to the influx in air traffic at the airport during hunting season as one example that could have a negative impact on the city.

“City staff is concerned with the shortening because it will limit larger aircrafts to one runway. The airport has a significant increase in larger aircrafts during pheasant season and other times throughout the year,” Schroeder said.

Mitchell Airport Director Mike Scherschligt had high praises for the VirTower system and said it boosted air traffic numbers up at the Brookings airport, which is another like-sized South Dakota city that utilizes it.

“The FAA has moved the goalpost on us a few times in this project, and this is really the only tool we have. The FAA is saying you don’t have enough operations on that runway, and if somebody were to ask me, ‘How many do we have?’ I couldn’t tell you that. We don’t have a way of capturing each runway,” Scherschligt said.

As one of Mitchell’s runways is potentially at risk of being sized down, Scherschligt said rolling out the VirTower tracking system now is more critical than ever.

Among the additional data that the new tracking system will allow the city’s airport to track are take-off and landing times, along with aircraft types flying into the airport, according to Scherschligt. The city entered into a $6,000 one-year agreement with VirTower to begin using the company’s aircraft tracking methods.

The city was recently awarded $59,000 in grant funds for the airport, which Schroeder said will pay for the tracking system fee.

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
What To Read Next
Get Local