Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Crash confirms residents’ worst fears: Years ago, possibility of air disasters was considered remote

It was only a matter of time, some residents say.

The small jet that crashed into a Gaithersburg neighborhood last week — killing the three people on board as well as a mother and two young children who hid in a second-floor bathroom after debris set their house ablaze — was on approach to land at the Montgomery County Airpark.

But first, it flew over several residential developments that weren’t there when the airport opened in 1959.

“Too much development has been allowed near the airport and something like this was inevitably going to happen,” said Rosemary Arkoian, one of six residents from the area surrounding the airport who sit on the county’s Airpark Liaison Committee, which also includes representatives from the County Council, the county planning department, local business, pilots and the airport itself.

The committee was established in 1990 to provide a forum to discuss issues and concerns about the airport.

Arkoian, who lives north and west of the airport, said she moved to the area in 1978, before many neighborhoods had been built.

The Hunters Woods development, where the crash occurred, was built in about 1982, according to the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Several areas of eastern Montgomery Village, including the Holly Pointe, Meadowgate and Ashford neighborhoods, were built between 1982 and 1997. Other neighborhoods, such as Partridge Place and Whetstone, were built in 1976 and 1970, respectively. None of the neighborhoods in the area existed when the airport was built in 1959.

The last master plan for the Gaithersburg area was written in 1985, said Glenn Kreger, the planning department’s current division chief for the area that includes Gaithersburg and the airport.

At the time, concerns regarding the airport were primarily due to noise, said Kreger, who was not one of the plan’s authors. Crashes were considered, but they weren’t believed to be likely, he said.

The plan itself, which can be read on the planning department’s website, calls for nonresidential uses in the areas most heavily impacted by noise from the airport, and explains that “while the likelihood of planes crashing into homes is extremely remote, development in the vicinity of the Airpark should, if possible, provide contiguous open space for possible emergency landings.”

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has said he wants a review of the airport and its operations, telling Montgomery Community Media on Thursday that although the recent crash was an unusual incident, he wanted to see if there were lessons that could be learned from the incident.

Howard Layer, who chairs the liaison committee, said the recent crash raised the same concern he’s had since moving to the area in 1966: there was residential zoning in place too close to the airport. That shouldn’t have been allowed, Layer said.

Safety concerns have been accompanied by complaints about airplane noise, particularly from small aircraft whose pilots practice “touch and go” landings, where a plane touches down and then quickly takes off again.

The flight pattern requires these pilots to take a right turn over East Montgomery Village at a relatively low altitude, meaning residents in those areas get the brunt of the engine noise, said Jeff Zyontz, who is the County Council’s representative on the liaison committee.

Layer said he believes the people have a legitimate complaint, and that in summer low-flying craft are common.

But such flight patterns don’t seem to have had any bearing on last week’s crash, said Keith Miller, executive director of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which runs the airport.

The position of the plane — a two-engine jet that seats six — was consistent with a final runway approach before landing; the plane would have been in that position, relative to the runway, regardless of the airport’s flight patterns, Miller said.

Miller said the authority was working with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, and that the investigation needed to be given time to proceed.

“I think our thoughts and prayers are out to all the families involved,” Miller said, adding that the outpouring of support was “amazing.”

The plane, an Embraer Phenom 100, was flying in from North Carolina. Michael Rosenberg, 66, David Hartman, 52, and Chijioke Ogbuka, 31, all from Raleigh, N.C., were on board the plane, and all three died of multiple traumatic injuries, according to county police.

The three people in the home — Marie Gemmell, 36, and her sons, Cole, 3, and Devin, 1½ months — died of smoke inhalation after one of the plane’s wings catapulted into their house and set it on fire.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, released Tuesday, said that the jet was operating on instrument flight rules due to “marginal visual meteorological conditions,” meaning the weather was making it difficult to clearly see outside of the plane.


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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