Every morning, before any planes take off or land at the county-owned Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, someone from the airport manager's office goes for a drive on the main runway.
It's an important ritual. The driver looks for small cracks or holes that could eventually pose a threat to aircraft. And, lately, the drivers have been finding more and more of them to patch.
The main runway is a concrete and asphalt strip nearly 2 miles long, part of which was built 50 years ago when it was a military airfield. That section passed its anticipated useful life sometime in the 1970s, a few years after Suffolk County Air Force Base was transferred to the county and renamed Suffolk County Airport.
The airport was renamed again in 1991, as Francis S. Gabreski Airport, to honor the World War II flying ace who commanded a fighter-interceptor wing in Westhampton in the 1960s and later became president of the Long Island Rail Road.
The long main runway at the airport, designated 6/24, has held up remarkably well but is overdue for repaving, said airport manager Anthony Ceglio.
The work is expected to begin in March or April, depending on the weather, and will take about three months. It is expected to cost more than $9 million, almost all of which will be covered by two federal grants, Ceglio said.
The busy airport - it averages about 1,200 flights a day, with the heaviest use in the summer - has two other, smaller runways, and those will be used during the work.
The airport handles both civilian aircraft and the helicopters and HC-130P Hercules transports of the 106th Air National Guard, heavy planes also used for midair refueling.
Because of the weight of those planes, the new runway asphalt will be at least 6 inches thick.
No commercial airlines operate scheduled flights at Gabreski, but it is used by air taxi services and has two fixed base operators who provide services for private and corporate planes.