Two years after an airplane struck a passing sport utility vehicle while landing at a private airstrip near Georgetown, Delaware, state officials have begun to scrutinize the state’s non-public airfields.
The accident killed a man and his daughter, who were driving past the runway’s end at the time. The threshold is only about 18 feet from the road. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the runway should have displaced threshold markings, but does not.
After federal officials investigated the 2005 accident at Joseph’s Airport, owned by the Melvin Joseph Construction Co., some state and county officials were surprised to learn that Delaware does not license or regulate private airstrips. State Rep. Daniel Short, a Republican from Seaford, promptly sponsored a resolution to establish an aviation safety task force in Delaware. The House approved it, to little public notice, last month.
Among other things, the proposed task force would make recommendations to determine what costs and fees should be assessed for licensing private airstrips, a move not popular with pilots and owners of the 38 private-use airports in Delaware.
Short said his resolution was prompted by the accident at Joseph’s, which killed Benjamin Van Sciver, a friend of Short’s, and his 14-year-old daughter, Bethany. “It’s very personal for me,” Short said. “I think we would be remiss if we allowed it to happen again.”
Richard Horstmann, president of a pilots’ organization called Delaware Aviation Support, agreed that some state oversight of private strips would be beneficial, “but then it comes down to, OK, who’s going to pay for it and how are you going to implement it?” he asked. He said that safety issues at airstrips such as Joseph’s need to be addressed, but emphasized that the state “should focus for now on ensuring the vitality of public-use airports and the economic benefits they bring.”
The state’s Department of Transportation was looking into collecting information on private airstrips in Delaware even before Short’s resolution, in response to concerns expressed by the NTSB, whose report attributed the 2005 accident mostly to pilot error, but commented on the lack of state oversight of private airstrips.
According to the final NTSB report: “Factors associated with the accident are the pilot’s improper use of the flaps, and the state of Delaware’s insufficient standards for private airports, which allowed the runway threshold to be in close proximity to a public road,” noting that Delaware is one of only six states without a dedicated licensing or inspection program for private airports.
“They basically suggested that we start regulating,” said Mike Kirkpatrick, administrator of Delaware’s Office of Aeronautics, which currently has no regulatory authority over private-use airstrips. Although there are 38 private airstrips listed officially in Delaware, some no longer operate while others “aren’t even on that list,” said Kirkpatrick, whose office oversees 10 of the state’s 11 public-use airports. The U.S. Air Force oversees the 11th, the civil air terminal at Dover Air Force Base.
While Delaware officials are not yet embracing licensing of private airstrips, they do plan to conduct an inventory of them, Kirkpatrick said, visiting known sites and using aerial photographs and county land use permits.
Kirkpatrick, whose office runs on a shoestring budget of about $50,000 a year, said he is looking for the most “benign” solution to ensuring safety at private airstrips. “I’m not an over-regulator,” he said. “We need first to protect what’s in place now.”
He agreed that someone has to ensure that whatever safety requirements might be established are being followed, but pointed out that his under-funded agency has trouble carrying out its required annual inspections of public-use airports now, let alone adding private airfields to its tasks.
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