Know your neighbors

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport.

Years ago when I was flying as an instructor out of Meriden Markham Airport in central Connecticut, I attended a meeting held in the city hall building in East Hartford, Connecticut. The concern on the agenda that evening was that then-Governor Lowell Weicker would purchase or lease access to the state’s second largest airport to act as a reliever to Bradley International in Windsor Locks.

The group that sprouted up to fight this action named itself RADAR, Residents Against Dangerous Airport Relocation. I have to admit I never entirely understood how using an airport that had been in regular use for more than 70 years constituted “relocation,” but the opposition was out in force that night, and I learned a lot about how the non-aviation public views those of us on the other side of the airport fence. In short, they are not enamored of us.

The neighbors were afraid. Not nervous, not concerned — they were afraid. There is a difference. These folks were solid, upstanding moms and dads who wanted the best for their families. And aviation was the elephant in the room. Not the cute kind of elephant that sways rhythmically while chomping a trunk full of hay, or bathes contentedly in the pool. Nope, from their perspective this was a wild, malicious elephant that would seek out and stomp your family to death on a whim. Then come back and do it again just for the heck of it.

These fine folks were honestly and openly concerned that if airplanes were allowed to fly into Rentschler Field on a regular basis (as they had been for longer than anyone in the meeting room had been alive) airplanes would crash into school yards, killing hundreds of children. The fuel from a large transport category airplane would wash down the hallways and incinerate everyone, leaving nothing but a dark smudge and a deep crater.

This is not an exaggeration. People honestly held this belief. And their fear grew as they dwelled on the potential for what misfortune might befall them if the airport were to be used as…an airport.

Rentschler Field was the private domain of a major engine manufacturer going by the name Pratt & Whitney. With two paved runways, one of which measured more than 7,000 feet, Rentschler was no pie-in-the-sky consideration. This was a big field with a rich history, and a central location that made it a natural spot for a reliever airport. In the 1950s American Airlines conducted limited operations out of Rentschler. And the fact that Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh had all slipped in to a landing on those runways at some point was not an insignificant point.

The field was also important because it sat beside the town’s largest employer – Pratt & Whitney issued paychecks to thousands upon thousands of the town’s inhabitants. The Pratt & Whitney name and its product was so important to East Hartford, in fact, that a radial engine was mounted on a wall at the town’s library. And entire section of neighboring Glastonbury, known as Wells Village, was built during World War II to house Pratt & Whitney employees. It served as low-income housing after the war, and still stands today.

Fortunately, a lot of people did get the opportunity to see Rentschler Field up close, at least once. Pratt & Whitney threw open the gates for a weekend celebration of its 75th anniversary, letting the public onto the field in droves. There was no cover charge. It was a freebie, a big wet kiss from the largest employer in town to the folks who made the engines that powered everything from B-17s right up through 747s.

There was a Boeing 720 testbed aircraft on the field for the weekend, as well as a 747-400, and a Lufthansa JU-52, too. Three F-14s rounded out the military presence on the field. Airplanes of all shapes and sizes were scattered across the field, and dotted the skies above East Hartford.

As luck would have it I would run into one of those F-14 drivers years later on the grounds of Sun ‘n Fun. Small world, huh?

I no longer fly out of Meriden Markham Airport, and I have only rarely been back to Connecticut over the past 20 years. But I no longer make any attempt to drive down Silver Lane and sneak a peek at the runways when I visit. Those runways were where my son and I watched three F-14s take off in formation and go vertical until they reached cruising altitude. They’re gone now. Both the F-14s and the runways. Rentschler Field is now a 40,000-seat sports and entertainment stadium. That’s not all bad, I suppose. But it’s not necessarily progress either. It’s just different. And all because fear took a front seat and reason took a hike.

Know your neighbors. Engage them on the issues as respectfully and forthrightly as you can. Because there are only so many airports in the world, and it’s much easier to turn an airport into a stadium than it is to turn a stadium into an airport. In a crisis situation when the roads are closed and the public is without electricity, water, and the food supply is dwindling, nobody ever said, “Quick, check to see if the stadium is up and running so we can get a ballgame underway.”

You can reach Jamie at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

Comments

  1. Dennis Baer says:

    Ann Arbor Airport (ARB) was trying to extend a runway a few hundred feet further out into an open field. The local anti-airport activists (they want the airport, which opened in 1928 and is home to some 150 aircraft, closed and converted into another neighborhood full of McMansions) flooded the local newspaper and city website with hysterical claims that light planes would be landing on a public street (they claimed that the runway would be extended CLOSER to an intersection, instead of making the runway longer at the OTHER end, which was the plan).
    When this claim was refuted, an engine-out forced landing by a C-152 on a golf course 5 miles from the airport, without harm or injury, was cited as why the runway lengthening would cause more hazard. When it was pointed out that planes can have engine failures anywhere, and a longer runway would not degrade the reliability of aircraft engines, they went back to claiming that a longer runway would be more dangerous. I finally made a standing offer to take ANYONE who opposed the runway project out to shoot landings on the runway in question to show them how a longer runway increased safety. There were no takers.
    Trying to win over as many of the neighbors as possible is a fine idea, but in the end, we need to rig the decision making process so that a board of intelligent people make the call about the airport, because you are never, ever, going to win over the mindless ones!

  2. Good points all. A longer-term solution needs to start with reducing the damn accident rate. I watch the message boards on news sites. Every time a GA plane goes down, especially if anyone on the ground gets hurt, posters come out of the woodwork screaming about how dangerous those little airplanes are and how crazy the people are that fly them, and how they fear for their lives every time one flies over. We can laugh, but these people vote, show up at airport meetings and talk to reporters. It’s time for pilots to concentrate on proficiency, return to the fundamentals of airmanship, educate themselves and make sure that they’re flying as safely as possible. When we reduce the accident rate, then we reduce the ammunition we hand to the anti-aviation crowd. You won’t reach everyone…some people are so terrified of flying that nothing will change their minds. Others can be reached, If we can point to the safety stats and demonstrate that safety is improving.

  3. More stadiums, less airports.

  4. Dave Brough says:

    I agree with Pogo: “We has met the enemy, and the enemy is us!”. In other words, start your PR campaign with your own crowd.
    What are the problems? First, there’s the fear of falling objects, something that happened here in our fair city of Ogden, Utah, just last week when, in zero-zero, a hotshot decided to break minimums and instead left a smoking hole in the middle of the neighborhood. That’s the injury, and it’s preventable. The insult is the annoyers, the idiots who break one thousand over populated areas and don’t or won’t quieten down their act. Lesson? Back it off as soon after TO as it’s safe, re-learn your pattern skills, and idle-it-in when possible. And when you witness a fellow with poor people skills, perform your civic duty and let him or her know about it. And if they continue, report ‘em.
    A little prevention may not be the cure, but it sure eases the pain.

  5. The pilot community definitely needs to start a PR campaign. Start simply with pilot related bumper stickers (My other car is a jet). But I think it would also be a good idea to have a monthly or quarterly open house at the FBO offering people free plane rides in the pattern. This will draw people to the airport and make them want to learn more about general aviation.

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