Neighbors Lash Out At Airport Commission: Proposed Approach Change Prompts Fears Of Increased Air Traffic

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Airport

Chatham Municipal Airport.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – A proposal to allow direct instrument approaches to Chatham Airport during poor weather was attacked Monday as a significant change that will lead to greater use of the facility by larger and louder aircraft.

The proposal, included in a draft of the airport master plan update, will not make the airport safer, as the airport commission claims, but will change it “from being a good weather airport to being a bad weather airport,” said critic Tom Wilson.

“This is a profound change in the nature of Chatham Airport,” Wilson said.

His comments were among many made by critics of the plan during a nearly three-and-a-half hour airport commission meeting at the community center Monday evening. A standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people criticized the plan for what many said amounted to expansion of the George Ryder Road airport, while others said the commission had predetermined the outcome and were dismissive of the concerns of those who live in the area.

“They have nothing but contempt for residents who live around the airport,” said David Bixby.

Resident Juris Ukstins threatened to pressure the board of selectmen to fire commission members if they didn't listen to residents.

“We will contact the board of selectmen, and if they can appoint you, they can unappoint you,” he said.

In anticipation of the large crowd—some of whom held signs and protested the proposal outside the community center prior to the session—the meeting was moved to the building's large upstairs room. The commission was seeking to clarify a section of the master plan update that proposes changing the instrument approach pattern at the airport during times of poor visibility. Currently the facility has an outdated non-direction beacon, and pilots fly a circular approach pattern which requires planes to descend to 600 feet and then circle over an 11-square-mile area until able to land visually. The proposed non-precision approach with vertical guidance takes advantage of modern GPS technology and allows pilots to make a straight approach to the runway from either north or south, covering just 1.7 square miles and eliminating the need to circle. Airport officials say this is safer and cuts down on noise.

The proposed approach could also require the trimming or removal of trees at 46 properties within the approach zone, as well as the taking of air right easements, at an estimated cost of $5.2 million, according to the draft master plan update. That work will be a general benefit to aircraft, and 95 percent of the cost will be paid by the Federal Aviation Administration, commissioners said.

Changing the poor weather approach will not allow larger aircraft to use the airport, commission members said; that is governed by the length of the runway. However, it will make it easier and safer for aircraft to land during times of poor visibility.

“Non-ideal weather is quite common” in Chatham, said commission member Rene Haas. Instrument approaches have been allowed at the airport for more than two decades and “greatly increase the utility and safety of any airport.”

The current circular instrument approach pattern covers “a pretty big chunk of Chatham” and requires that pilots continue to fly at high power while searching for an opening to land. Under the proposed straight-in pattern, pilots start their approach farther out and can power down as they near the runway, “basically almost gliding,” Haas said. Industry studies say the straight-in approach with vertical guidance is eight times safer than the circular approach, he added, with a 90 percent reduction in noise.

Tree cutting is required because in many locations, trees have grown into the vertical flight path. Properties where trees need to be trimmed or removed are identified in the master plan, but details of exactly what work needs to be done have not yet been finalized, said Matthew Caron of Gale Associates, the engineering firm working with the commission on the master plan update.

The commission has never discussed expanding the airport, said Haas, who is also a pilot.

“There is nothing in the master plan update that in any shape or form enables larger aircraft to land” than can land now, he said.

While the airport can't be physically expanded, its use can be expanded by developing infrastructure, such as the new jet fuel system proposed in the master plan update, said Paula Lofgren, a former airport commissioner and frequent critic of the facility. Carol Bliss added that she feels the change is an attack on her George Ryder Road South neighborhood, which is under the straight-in flight path.

“You may not use the word expansion in the plan, but that is what it is, ultimately,” she said.

Several people referred to a charter jet that frequently flies into the airport as an example of how use has increased in recent years. The Pilatus PC-24 can carry eight passengers and is larger than the “critical aircraft” the airport is designed to handle, the Beech Baron 8-58, said Lofgren. The Pilatus also holds more than 400 gallons of jet fuel, nearly twice as much as the Beech Baron, she said. Several people said the Pilatus is also one of the loudest aircraft using the facility, along with a biplane used for sightseeing. Several pilots at the meeting said changes in technology allow aircraft like the Pilatus to land at airports with runways the size of Chatham's, whereas in the past, jet-powered planes needed longer runways.

Charter companies want to be able to use the new instrument approach so that planes can land in any weather, Wilson said. “People are paying big bucks to land here” and don't want to have the flight diverted to Barnstable due to poor weather, he said. If the new flight pattern is approved, planes will be coming in at lower altitudes “closer to the roofs of our homes,” he said. A website maintained by airport manager Stick and Rudder lists six air charter services that are available to fly into Chatham, said Lofgren.

Planes land at Chatham all the time using instruments, said pilot David Rogers.

“Pilots don't want to crash into anyone's houses,” he said. “The whole point of this master plan is to make it safer.”

Brewster resident and commercial pilot Ian Day said he understands that neighbors are upset, but it's important to upgrade the airport's technology. “If you stop progress, you decrease safety,” he said.

Several people accused airport commissioners of working on behalf of pilots and not for the good of the town.

“This process of trying to seduce the public into thinking you have our best interest at heart is a circus, and you all should be ashamed,” said Bliss.

“Where do we come in, other than to help you with the local share?” asked Nicole Stern of Sky Way.

“I've heard you say there wouldn't be expansion. Are you willing to commit to limiting of use?” airport critic David Bixby asked the commission.

“I can't do that, no,” replied chairman Peter Donovan. Bixby said the commission has treated airport critics like adversaries for years.

“That's not good. This doesn't have to be this way,” he said. The commission has dismissed the opinions and concerns of neighbors and townspeople who would like to work with the town, “but we can't because you don't trust us,” he said.

James Fulton said the owners of the 46 properties targeted for air navigation right easements won't give them up voluntarily; he asked where the commission would get the “seven figures” necessary for legal challenges.

Commissioners made it clear that Monday's session was to listen to residents' concerns, and provided few responses.

The master plan update is still in the draft stage, and while several sections have been submitted to the FAA for review, none of the recommendations are cast in stone, said Caron. Several sections have yet to finished. Once a full draft is completed, a “public open house” will be held; that has yet to be scheduled. The commission will review public comments before finalizing the document and submitting it to the FAA.

Several people said they felt the commission had already decided on many elements in the plan, and others were critical of the fact that the final master plan update won't go before voters for approval. Bernard Werschler asked if 1,000 or 2,000 names on a petition would change the minds of commissioners.

“We're going to review every comment we get,” said Donovan. That didn't satisfy Werschler.

“I don't hear that the town is being represented in this process at all,” he said.

Sections of the draft airport master plan update, as well as frequently asked questions, can be found on the airport commission's page on the town's website, www.chatham-ma.gov/airport-commission.