Monday, December 29, 2014

Chapel Hill’s little airport: Horace Williams (KIGX) keeps hanging on

CHAPEL HILL —  Earlier this month, a plane took off from Horace Williams Airport, never to land at its destination.

Instead, it crashed into a house in Montgomery County, Md., killing the pilot and two passengers, as well as three people inside the house.

The tragedy has rekindled debate about the future of Horace Williams Airport.

The airport off Estes Drive is owned by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Until 2011, it was used for medical flights run by the N.C. Area Health Education Center. But since 2011, only small private planes have been up and down the runway.

The fight for space

The debate over the building’s future is longstanding. Supporters of the airport say that UNC has been trying to close it since at least 2001, when the University announced it would no longer allow the Chapel Hill Flying Club to operate from Horace Williams.

A 2001 press release from UNC cited “safety issues and community concerns” as primary reasons for ejecting the club.

The club, which had been based at Horace Williams since the early 1960s, had been involved in three accidents from June 1999 to May 2001, according to the press release.

The push continued in 2002 when the UNC Board of Trustees announced it would close the airport to make room for Carolina North, a research campus planned by the university. This announcement spurred the N.C. General Assembly to pass legislation requiring the University to keep the airport open until 2005.

Three years passed, and everything seemed clear for the University to take the steps it wanted to take. The Senate had passed a 2005 provision that would allow UNC to close the airport if AHEC moved to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The trustees voted to do just that, although they said no move would be made until construction on Carolina North was ready to begin, according to a 2005 press release.

In 2007, the Board of Trustees approved a lease at Raleigh-Durham International to build a new hangar slated for $3.5 million.

But it wasn’t until 2011 that the university actually moved all its operations from Horace Williams to the new hangar.

“We survived it pretty well,” said Gordon Kramon, director of UNC Aviation Services. He added that the only difference was that some people had to make a 20-minute drive to the airport instead of a five-minute one.

But even after the move, the airport remained open. Part of the 2005 Board of Trustees agreement stipulated that it would remain open until construction on Carolina North was ready to begin.

Bruce Runberg, associate vice chancellor for facilities services, said that economic downturn in 2008 affected potential Carolina North funding.

“We are not in a position to move forward yet, so the airport remains open,” he said.

In 2013, the N.C. House took another stab at the airport, calling for an Aug. 1 closure.

But August came and went, and still, planes fly in and out of Horace Williams.

A pending lawsuit

On July 12, 2010, a plane from Delaware crashed after touching down at Horace Williams, leaving one of two passengers with serious injuries and killing the pilot, Thomas Pitts, when the cockpit hit nearby trees.

Raleigh-based Crouse Law soon took on a lawsuit against the UNC and the manager of the airport at the time, Paul Burke. The plaintiff was Pitts’ widow, Deborah Markwood.

Jim Crouse said that the case is still in early discovery phases. However, he argues that there should not have been trees inside the fence surrounding the airport.

“That fence was on the wrong side of the trees,” he said. “There is law that says you can’t have premises with dangerous situations on them.”

Crouse added that he has heard the trees inside the fence have been cut down since the crash.

He said that although the National Transportation Security Board has completed its investigation and issued a probable cause report citing operational error, those reports are not admissible in court.

“(The report) doesn’t say, ‘What was the cause of death?’” Crouse said. “It says, ‘What was the cause of the crash?’”

He said that monetary damages sought from UNC have not yet been finalized.

Safe or hazardous?

By law, all airports open to the public must be inspected at least once every three years.

Horace Williams’ last inspection was in 2013.

Bobby Walston, director of the aviation division of the N. C. Department of Transportation, said that because Horace Williams doesn’t receive state or federal funding, Federal Aviation Administration standards are more of a guideline than a requirement.

Jimmy Capps, a contractor who inspects airports statewide and who inspected Horace Williams in 2013, said that the NCDOT can make comments about potential hazards. A list of these comments is available online so that pilots can make informed decisions about where they fly.

Capps made a list of observations about Horace Williams – including that there was vegetation in the runway, which can affect the runway over time, and that the markings were faded and cracked.

However, he said that Horace Williams is not a safety concern.

“My overall opinion of the airport is that it’s in fair condition,” he said. “It’s not the best I’ve seen; it’s not the worst I’ve seen.” He added that he flew his personal plane into the airport to complete the inspection.

The cost incurred

If Horace Williams were to make updates to try to meet FAA requirements, UNC would be responsible for all the cost.

It costs the University about $160,000 a year to keep the airport running, according to UNC’s office of communications and public affairs.

From Jan. 1, 2014, to Nov. 30, 2014, 827 aircraft flew in and out of the airport.

This means that monthly, UNC spends more than $13,000 so that an average of 75 planes can use the airport.

No end in sight

With Carolina North still seeking funding avenues and with no current plans to break ground on the project, it seems that a conversation that began more than a decade ago will continue well into the future.


NTSB Identification: ERA10FA356
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Monday, July 12, 2010 in Chapel Hill, NC
Probable Cause Approval Date: 04/07/2011
Aircraft: CIRRUS SR20, registration: N527MJ
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Serious, 1 Minor.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

Witnesses observed the airplane overfly the runway and enter a left traffic pattern. The airplane appeared to be faster than they were accustomed to seeing small airplanes operating. The airplane touched down hard on the runway surface and bounced several times before departing off the left side into the grass. The engine was described by the witnesses as operating at full power and the airplane appeared to by flying about 60 to 70 mph. The nose of the airplane was observed in a 45-degree nose up attitude and then leveled out back onto the ground. The airplane traveled 840 feet until the left wing collided with a tree and the airplane spun to the left and collided with the airport perimeter fence. The left and right flaps were in the retracted position. The Pilot's Operating Handbook for the airplane stated that the flaps are required to be extended 50 percent for a balked landing/go-around. No anomalies were noted during the examination of the airframe, flight controls, engine assembly, and accessories.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The pilot's improper recovery from a bounced landing and subsequent improper go-around procedure, which resulted in a loss of directional control, runway excursion, and collision with a tree. 

NTSB Identification: DCA15MA029
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Monday, December 08, 2014 in Gaithersburg, MD
Aircraft: EMBRAER EMB-500, registration: N100EQ
Injuries: 6 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On December 8, 2014, about 1041 Eastern Standard Time (EST), an Embraer EMB-500 Phenom 100, N100EQ, impacted terrain and houses about 0.75 miles short of runway 14 while on approach to Montgomery County Airpark (GAI), Gaithersburg, Maryland. The airline transport rated pilot and two passengers were fatally injured as well as three persons on the ground. The airplane was destroyed during the impact and ensuing fire. Marginal visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time and the flight was operating on an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan. The airplane was registered to and operated by Sage Aviation LLC., of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a personal flight. The flight originated from Horace Williams Airport (IGX), Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with GAI as its intended destination.

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