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Deconstruction of Missoula airport terminal revealing aviation’s past

Missoula airport deconstruction
Missoula Airport Terminal Deconstruction
Posted at 1:13 PM, Sep 01, 2022

MISSOULA - One of the largest deconstruction projects in Missoula is quietly taking place next to the airport's new passenger terminal, where the old terminal is coming down one piece at a time.

The work has revealed surprises along the way, including old architectural elements, aviation history and the footprint of the original airport terminal.

Deputy airport director Tim Damrow said demolition work will take roughly three months to complete. The old facility represented a mix of additions that played out over decades, and the shell now stands as a ghostly reminder of the past.

Atop it all, the old airport tower stood as one of the facility's more prominent features, filled with defunct aviation equipment. It has drawn a bit of interest recently, Damrow said.

“We got a lot of questions about the old tower,” said Damrow. “The beacon on top of the old tower is kind of a momentous thing that guided people to the airport here during this operational period. This is one item we did choose to salvage. In the short term, it'll live somewhere in the main public areas for people to observe.”

Missoula's first landing strip was established in 1923 and sat south of the University of Montana campus. A second landing strip was later established on property near the fairgrounds that now accommodates Sentinel High School.

That landing strip was sold to Missoula County in 1927 and became the city's first legitimate airport, dubbed Hale Field. The Missoula chapter of the National Aeronautic Association spearheaded the effort, led by chapter president Harry Bell – one of the names now attached to the current airport in Johnson-Bell Field.

But Hale Field closed in 1954 as Missoula grew to the south. It had already been usurped by the Missoula County Airport, which opened at the current airport location in 1941. Elements of the original airport terminal have been uncovered during deconstruction.

“There's actually some stone pillars on the side of the old airport entrance,” said Damrow. “When they started to peel this back, those stones had just been covered up. Behind the brick, which was the old checkpoint building, is actually the old entrance to the airport.”

The airport recently opened the first phase of its terminal expansion, resulting in the new $70 million south concourse. The old terminal was used for operations during the construction of the south concourse.

Now that the work is done, the old terminal is being razed to make way for Phase 2 of the expansion project. It will result in a new east concourse at a cost of roughly $42 million.

Airport officials determined as far back as 2013 that the old terminal could no longer function under today's passenger counts and aircraft demands given the hodge-podge of additions and alterations that took place over nearly seven decades.

But in that work, the current deconstruction process has recovered several tons of materials that will be recycled or used in other projects. Items such as aluminum, steel and copper have been sorted and piled.

Even the insulation will find a new use, Damrow said.

“One of the surprising things to me was the roof insulation,” he said. “We now have pallets of 4x8 insulation tiles that were below the roof membrane. All in all, they were able to salvage around 1,500 of these panels. There's some type of foam shortage as well so these panels will be used on additional projects.”

The airport expects nearly 80% of the old terminal to be recycled or reused in some capacity, including the old jet bridges.

“We were able to sell those back to the manufacturer and they'll be refurbished,” Damrow said.