Monday, January 28, 2013

Tweed-New Haven (KHVN), New Haven, Connecticut: Safety issues hound airport; gaps in fence raise concerns

A fence around Tweed-New Haven airport that stops by a stream near Dean Street and Morris Causeway in New Haven January 25, 2013. Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

NEW HAVEN — Try to fly from any commercial airport in the United States — including little Tweed New Haven Regional Airport — and you’d better be ready to take off your shoes and be scanned, have your bags searched and sometimes searched again, and occasionally even be frisked. 

But while the Transportation Safety Administration is putting you through those paces, virtually anyone or anything — at least anything that can wade or swim — can walk in the back gate at Tweed and onto the runway.

Large swaths of Tweed have no fences.

This was demonstrated in dramatic fashion Sept. 20 when three deer that wandered in from East Haven through a gap on the far southeast end of the airport ended up grazing near the main runway.

One deer collided with a small, private Learjet air ambulance that was taking off.

It didn’t end well for the deer or the plane, which, according to its Canadian owner, has lost much of its value and has yet to fly again after having both wings and its landing gear replaced.

In the wake of the accident, which he said has cost him millions of dollars in repair bills and lost business, David Fox, owner of Fox Flight in Toronto, has hired a local lawyer, Jonathan J. Einhorn.

Einhorn said he is planning to sue the city, most likely in federal court.

“It’s not a game preserve. It’s an airport,” Einhorn said, “and if the city’s going to hold it open as an airport, they ought to make it reasonably safe for use as an airport.”

Tweed is now working with the Federal Aviation Administration to enclose the remaining unfenced sections of the airport perimeter.

It also is actively working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to control wildlife at the airport, including birds and deer.

“The (FAA) is working with Tweed New Haven Regional Airport to complete perimeter fencing around the airport,” the FAA said in a written statement.

“The airport has drafted an Environmental Assessment (EA) on the project to identify and mitigate potential impacts to inland and tidal wetlands and wildlife. The EA is under review by appropriate state and federal agencies.

“The FAA conducts annual airport certification inspections, and has determined that the airport is in compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations,” the FAA said. “The airport also has a Wildlife Management Program to address deer and other animals that may access the airfield.”

The USDA and Tweed operations staff have used “bird bangers” and other pyrotechnics to scare wildlife away, and the USDA even has employed sharpshooters in some cases to remove deer from the property.

The most difficult challenge with regard to fencing, officials say, is an approximately 1,000-foot-long stretch off the south end of the main runway that runs along Ora Avenue, an abandoned, never-built “paper street” in East Haven, and through sensitive wetlands that would require special state approval.

Gaps also exist along Dean Street in New Haven, officials have said.

But as Tweed works to close those gaps, Fox has some questions he thinks ought to be answered.

“You’ve got gates and security at both ends,” Fox said, referring to the commercial passenger terminal and Robinson Aviation, the fixed-base operator that runs the general aviation side of Tweed, “yet you can walk right out on the property?”

He asked, rhetorically, “Is New Haven the only airport in the United States” that remains unfenced?

It’s a question worth answering, but one the TSA declined to answer for security reasons. A spokeswoman said that information is part of individual airport security plans that are confidential.

A spokesman for the FAA, which is working with Tweed on the permits and funding process for additional fencing, referred questions about airport security to the TSA.

In the wake of the accident, which Fox witnessed and which occurred with a Saudi patient on board who was fully ventilated and ready to be flown home after being stricken while traveling here, “we were shocked,” he said.

“We travel all over the world,” but haven’t seen that sort of situation previously, he said.

“I witnessed the accident. I was standing, watching it take off,” Fox said. “The thing literally blew up. I didn’t realize it was a deer. I thought we blew up an engine. Then I heard the guys from the towers yelling and screaming.”

But horrible as the accident was, “we were lucky,” Fox said.

The plane now is in Lincoln, Neb., where about $1 million in damage is being repaired, Fox said.

“So now I have a Frankenstein airplane, they call it,” he said. “It’s not made up of one airplane. It’s made up of two airplanes.”

“In June, it was valued at $3 million” in an annual appraisal, he said. “Now it’s worth about $500,000-$700,000.”

Fox also criticized Tweed for not putting out a “notice to airmen,” or NOTAM, warning of the possibility of deer on the runway, saying, “had we known there was a wildlfe problem, we wouldn’t have gone there.

“I think they’re reckless (for) not telling people. I think people should … be informed,” Fox said.

“They also should put up a bloody fence. ... What happens when the next airplane hits and people die? Is it then taken seriously? Is it necessary for people to die in order for people to take it seriously?”

Tweed Airport Manager Lori Hoffman-Soares said Tweed did issue a NOTAM long before the Sept. 20 collision, warning of general wildlife issues.

And Tweed New Haven Airport Authority Executive Director Tim Larson said that the only gaps that exist in the Tweed fence are over water.

“It’s always been explained to me that we effectively have had a moat around the airport with the watercourses, so up until we created this runway safety area, we had what was presumed to have an appropriate buffer with the watercourse,” he said.

“You could jump the bridge on South End Road, go into the water and swim onto the airport property” but you can’t walk in “without getting wet,” Larson said.

But at least one of those areas is shallow enough to wade through.

Hoffman-Soares said that even an unbroken fence is no guarantee that deer won’t get in because, “I know that a deer can jump an 8-foot fence. ... I mean, JFK’s fenced in and they’ve got a wildlife problem.”

The portion of Tweed that’s not fenced “was never fenced, and my guess is ... it wasn’t fenced because the portion that’s not fenced is in the wetlands — and it is considered a natural barrier,” she said. “It’s very far from the terminal. It’s the southeast corner of the airport.”

TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said that the agency “maintains regulatory authority over the nation’s 450 airports to ensure compliance with minimum security requirements, including perimeter security.”

Through a security plan developed by each airport, “TSA annually assesses every airport individually to ensure the appropriate level of security is maintained.”

 The resources used for security “are both seen and unseen and may include physical barriers as well as routine patrols and other perimeter monitoring activities designed to prevent intrusion,” Davis said.

Hoffman-Soares and the FAA said Tweed is meeting all the requirements for airports of its size.

That said, additional fencing “is in my security plan” and “it’s always been on our capital plan,” she said. “It’s been on our capital plan for years to put a fence ... but we’ve had to prioritize our capital budget.”

In addition, “there are permitting issues” with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Hoffman-Soares said.

With regard to the proposed additional fencing, she said, “This is a wildlife fence. We’re not calling it a security fence.”

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