Our View: A Safer Airport? Really?


Just as certain political factions gain support by stoking the fear that their base is being replaced by “the other,” so too do critics seek to curtail operations at Chatham Municipal Airport by relying on the fear factor.

The sponsors of two proposed bylaws – petitions that will appear on the May 14 annual town meeting warrant – hope to limit use of the airport by cutting back on the usable landing area of the runway and banning aircraft with wingspans greater than 49 feet. Both would, if implemented, prohibit any plane with a larger wingspan or which needs a longer landing area from using the airport.

The safety of pilots and people on the ground are the chief reasons the sponsors give for these proposals. Pilots, however, say cutting back the available landing space from 3,001 feet to 2,200 feet would make the airport less safe, even for the small single-engine planes that predominantly use the facility. They should know. The larger turboprop planes these measures are clearly aimed at have become more common in recent years, but there's no reason to believe that they are any less safe than the smaller planes. Yes, they carry more fuel, and could, just like a smaller plane, end up crashing into a business or home in the airport protection zones at the ends of the runway. Crashes, however, are extremely rare at Chatham Airport.

Let's look at the data. Several sources, including the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, list between 20 and 22 aircraft accidents in Chatham dating back to 1983. These are accidents that rose to the level of an investigation, and many were minor incidents that did not involve any injuries or damage; some overshot the end of the runway, a few happened off the airport property, and many were minor incidents such as poor landings. That's about one incident every two years. Three of the accidents within that timeframe resulted in five fatalities. That does not include the plane that went down in waters off Orleans last October. Some of the databases also do not list the May 2012 crash of a skydiving plane into Lover's Lake, since there were no injuries, while others list a serious skydiving accident that same year as an aviation accident.

It's safe to say that there are far fewer airplane accidents at Chatham Airport than accidents on the roadways, with many fewer injuries (although there has been only one fatality from a motor vehicle-only crash and several pedestrian fatalities, according to the Chatham Police). All of the crashes involved the small single-engine planes that are most common here, except two: a helicopter crash in Crow's Pond in 2016 and the 1990 crash of a P51-World War II era plane known as the Passion Wagon. None involved turboprop aircraft.

Like airport, Chatham is only as safe as the pilots who fly in and out. Passing the proposed bylaws – which, we might add, may be counter to federal law and FAA regulations – won't make it safer, based on the accident history. It won't even draw back the runway protection zones from their current location, as the proponents say, since the entire length of the runway will still be available for takeoffs. Town meeting votes on these articles are a good opportunity to take the measure of public support for Chatham Airport. If they fail – which they should – airport critics will see that the majority of residents support Chatham Airport just the way it is.