FAA, airports, pilots all gird for Irene

August 26, 2011

From the Carolinas to New England, preparations accelerated Aug. 26 to either get out of Hurricane Irene’s path, or meet it head on.

The FAA Safety Team announced a Hurricane Irene Airspace Coordination Area, and urged pilots to check for special notices to support safe operations and possible rescue flights. Temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) might be ordered in hard-hit areas, the FAA said.

General aviation airport communities along the coast kept up their spirits while working fast to take care of customers and their aircraft in light of the various scenarios for Irene’s track and intensity—most of which had her barreling directly up the coast into New England.

“We’re in tiedown-lockdown mode,” said Robert Benson, director of the Dare County Regional Airport in Manteo, N.C. The airport planned to limit traffic Saturday in support of any needed rescue operations to be staged from the airport with helicopters, he said. By early afternoon Friday, there was not yet any rain, but there was a 2,000-foot broken cloud deck, high humidity, and increasing winds, Benson said.

At Norfolk International Airport in Norfolk, Va., a large number of Landmark Aviation’s approximately 100 based customers were departing for potentially safer ground, said an employee who answered the FBO’s phone. The crew was busy trying to get as many of the other aircraft as possible safely into hangars.

“Everybody’s trying to get out,” she said, noting that staff was well supplied with essentials such as water, flashlight batteries, and “bread and peanut butter and jelly.” The weather Friday afternoon was clear with 86 degrees.

In Ocean City, Md., where evacuations had been ordered in town, Mike Freed of Ocean Aviation had already moved his two Cessna 172s and a Piper Arrow that he had acquired only three weeks before inside a 10,000-square-foot hangar. A sport utility vehicle was positioned between the aircraft and the hangar doors, he said.

“I decided to batten down the hatches and pray,” he said Friday afternoon.

Still, Freed was second-guessing his decision not to fly his aircraft inland to Hagerstown or Cumberland County, as others had, he said. But Freed said he had his family to think about first—and as soon as possible he planned to gather them up and head for a family home in New York.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan had already declared a local state of emergency Thursday. Ocean City’s emergency management officials announced that they would initiate phase three of the hurricane action plan in preparation for Hurricane Irene. “All persons other than identified emergency personnel are ordered to evacuate. Visitors are asked to return to their principal residences. Ocean City residents are asked to seek shelter elsewhere,” said an advisory on the municipal website.

Despite stress, Freed was looking ahead to a post-Irene booking. A major daily newspaper had contacted him about scheduling a flight Monday to survey storm effects.

“They want to be in the air first thing Monday morning, and honestly, so do I,” he told AOPA.

In New Jersey, the Cape May County Airport in Wildwood had become a staging area for fire and emergency vehicles.

“We’re packing everything up,” said an employee of Big Sky Aviation. Local pilots had either left or moved aircraft into hangars, with storm impact expected by Saturday night. The FBO would close Friday evening around 6 p.m., he said.

At Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y., “they are suggesting that you leave altogether,” said Jim Orehosky of Mid-Island Air Service. Following an airport safety meeting, crews had “cleared off the ramp of everything that can possibly move,” he said, adding that one aircraft had just departed to the west, bound for Lancaster, Pa. Another safety meeting was also scheduled.

As for the weather: “It’s gorgeous. Literally, the calm before the storm,” he said.

In Duchess County, N.Y., the airport’s impromptu role as a haven for aircraft evacuated from more vulnerable places did not stop the Poughkeepsie Pilots Association from advising pilots to take precautions before Sunday afternoon. The Poughkeepsie area could expect “winds in excess of 40 miles per hour, heavy sideways rain and thunderstorm activity,” said en email message sent to members.

In Connecticut, weather advisories placed the hurricane in the Bridgeport area by Sunday morning. At the Waterbury -Oxford Airport, Manager Matthew Kelly sent out a memo urging pilots to check tiedown ropes. Kelly wrote that he was checking on available hangar space on the field. Airspace at the towered airport would revert to Class G if winds reached 50 knots for the safety of tower personnel, he wrote. Kelly explained procedures in the event of an extended general power loss—when the tower would still have partial power—and he urged aircraft owners to refrain from driving out to the airport during the storm.

Bob Mezzetti, manager of the Beverly, Mass., Municipal Airport, also had urged tenants to secure their tiedown ropes, and an FBO on the field was making room in hangars for aircraft, he said. With late Sunday the expected time for the storm to hit in north-coastal Massachusetts, it was too early to tell Friday whether Irene’s path would place the airport on the windy side or the rainy side, as the storm’s contours were being described. Mezzetti said that both Civil Air Patrol volunteers and FAA staff in the tower would keep an eye on the ramp, and report any developing hazards to airport management.

At the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Maine, Sunday afternoon was Irene’s estimated time of arrival. The ramp, normally full of vacationers’ aircraft as a summer weekend was beginning, was considerably quieter than usual, with “people heading out,” said an employee of Columbia Air Services, the FBO. The schedule of expected traffic for Sunday and Monday was “quiet.”

The safety advisory issued by the FAA Safety Team on procedures and airspace during the hurricane provided pilots with guidance on how to stay abreast of changes in airspace coordination areas or TFRs.

“For specific procedures and access requirements within any ACA/TFR, pilots should check Jacksonville ARTCC (KZJX), Washington ARTCC (KZDC), New York ARTCC (KZNY) and/or Boston ARTCC (KZBW) NOTAMs frequently prior to operating within any ACA/TFR issued for Hurricane Irene Recovery Operations.

“Specific instructions and restrictions are available at http://tfr.faa.gov once the Special Notice/NOTAM has been issued,” it said.