April 25, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
The signing of an agreement between two Connecticut mayors has broken a long deadlock over removing an approach hazard at the Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport, where the fatal crash of a Piper Navajo in 1994 has long underlined the need to take down a blast fence at the end of a runway.
The agreement signed April 17 paves the way for construction of a long-planned runway safety zone featuring an engineered materials arrestor system, built to collapse under an aircraft’s weight on impact. It could be completed in 2015, while a related runway improvement project would also go forward with completion expected in 2016. An early—and costly—step in the $46 million project will be the removal, under strict environmental controls, of hazardous materials discovered at the site, including lead and asbestos.
“It’s a huge victory for us, getting this far,” said David Faile, AOPA’s Airport Support Network volunteer and a member of the Friends of Sikorsky Airport organization. Faile said AOPA’s then-regional manager Craig Dotlo played a key role, facilitating efforts to contest bills regularly submitted in the state legislature by opponents to block necessary engineering work on the project. AOPA has long been engaged in the Bridgeport issue, and is satisfied with the new developments, said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airport advocacy.
A long-running dispute
The airport, which is owned by the city of Bridgeport but is located mostly in Stratford, has long been a source of contention between the two communities’ officials over a laundry list of issues, many catalogued, along with proposed resolutions, in the agreement. On signing, Stratford announced that it would drop legal proceedings it had pursued against Bridgeport over some terms of a 1978 airport pact.
With the safety improvements long in limbo, movement toward resolution began in July 2012 when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called state and local officials to his Washington, D.C., office to hammer out an understanding. The resulting agreement contained assurances for Stratford that its objections to the project would be dealt with—including a commitment that issues of ownership, tax revenue, “blight,” and the flooding of a local road would be addressed.
The agreement also “locked in” the existing lengths of the two runways.
Crash was ‘a direct result’
On April 27, 1994, eight people died when a twin-engine Piper PA-31-350 collided with the obstruction. The National Transportation Safety Board said probable causes included the captain’s failure “to use the available ILS glideslope, his failure to execute a go-around when conditions were not suitable for landing, and his failure to land the airplane at a point sufficient to allow for a safe stopping distance; the fatalities were caused by the presence of the nonfrangible blast fence and the absence of a safety area at the end of the runway.”
The NTSB also said in its accident summary that “the destruction of the airplane and the resulting occupant injuries were a direct result of the collision with the blast fence. FAA interaction and communication with local communities, although persistent, were unsuccessful in gaining support for runway safety area improvements and for the installation of approach lighting for runway 6.”
In a news release, Stratford Mayor John A. Harkins expressed satisfaction. “The time has come to move forward and make progress in a positive way. By setting aside years of bad will and focusing on working together for the common good, we have been able to reach an agreement that will benefit Stratford, as well as all of the other stakeholders, for years to come,” he said.
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch issued a statement saying he was proud “that our City and the Town of Stratford were finally able to hammer out an agreement to an age-old controversy that left the aviation public at peril. Once this safety zone is installed, we can breathe a sigh of relief that we have done our part to help ensure the safety of those who fly into our airport and its neighbors on the ground.”
The mayors were joined at the signing ceremony by Gov. Dannel Malloy, and FAA and state officials.
Faile, although upbeat about the agreement, said he still worried that federal budget cuts taking effect across the FAA might impede progress on the improvement project.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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