Saturday, May 01, 2021

Chandler, Arizona: Pilot on mission to make airport safer

Marvin Wessel keeps a detached airplane tail sitting on the asphalt outside his hangar in the Chandler Municipal Airport.

It’s the only piece of wreckage he was able to salvage from a fire that destroyed Wessel’s plane last May on the airport’s runway.

While Wessel was testing his plane, a brake fire broke out and the pilot quickly radioed for help. Firefighters were dispatched to the airport and struggled to swiftly gain entry to the flaming aircraft.

Wessel watched as firetrucks stood outside the airport’s gates, waiting for one of them to open. Sixteen minutes would pass before firefighters could start dosing water on his burning plane.

“It was very, very, frustrating to say the least,” Wessel recalled.

The incident almost didn’t come as a surprise: Wessel said he has been trying to raise the alarm about fire safety at the airport for years.

Wessel witnessed a fire at a hangar in 2017 and observed how firefighters seemed to not know how to navigate the airport’s layout.

According to data Wessel has collected, Chandler is one of the few top general aviation airports in the country that has no fire station located in less than one mile of its perimeter.

In early 2019, Wessel said he brought up his concern before the Chandler Airport Commission and was invited to meet with city officials over his worries. They assured him fire safety was under control at the airport.

One year later, Wessel’s plane was demolished in a fire.

Now, he is on a mission to get the city to respond to his concerns.

“These guys better wake up and smell the coffee,” Wessel said. “If people die because they can’t respond, no money can do anything to replace that.”

Wessel filed a lawsuit against the city in January for the damage done last year to his plane. The litigation isn’t so much about recouping damages, he said, as it is about sending a loud message to the city.

“I don’t care if I get a penny out of that,” Wessel remarked. “But they’re going to fix the safety issues they’ve got at that airport.”

Because the civil case is ongoing, representatives from the city declined to comment on Wessel’s allegations.

But the city has countersued Wessel for damage that was allegedly sustained during the 2020 fire.

The two parties currently appear to be in a standoff and Wessel has already begun seeking outside help by filing complaints with federal authorities against the city.

As a pilot who has housed planes at the Chandler airport for more than a decade, Wessel’s had several opportunities to observe and document how the city treats the many tenants who occupy the airport’s hangars.

In a letter written last year to various members of Congress, Wessel accused city employees of seizing and disabling airplanes housed at the airport by attaching a locking device to them.

An action like that could be considered a federal offense, Wessel noted, and should not be done without the proper authorization.

The city claims a rogue employee had been disabling aircraft owned by hangar tenants who were allegedly behind on their rent. The prop-locking reportedly stopped after the city was advised by law enforcement to discontinue the practice.    

“Airport employees have not prop-locked or otherwise disabled any private aircraft since at least February 2019,” city officials wrote in response to Wessel’s complaint, “and the sole employee responsible for that practice is no longer employed by the city.”

In its response, the city further rejected Wessel’s notion that the airport’s security gates were nonfunctional and barred firefighters from reaching his burning aircraft during last year’s fire.

“The Chandler Municipal Airport is well maintained and fully covered by a highly-rated emergency response and public safety system,” city officials wrote.

But Wessel does not appear to be the only person with concerns about safety issues at the airport.

During a public meeting last year with airport officials, one of the property’s other users expressed fears over a lack of fire coverage despite there being several fire stations located within a couple miles of the airport.

“These (fire stations) are not dedicated to the airport,” the attendee told officials during the meeting. “However, the airport is one of the biggest fire hazards in the city of Chandler and it’s not covered.”

A representative of the city was quick to dispute the attendee’s assessment.

“I think our Fire Department would disagree with that statement,” Chris Andres, an airport administrator, said during the meeting.   

For the last year, the city has been updating its airport masterplan and compiling a list of expensive capital improvements it hopes to implement in the near future.

The most recent draft of the masterplan recommends 53 projects valued at about $100 million –40 percent of which would be eligible for federal or state grants.

If the city chooses to ultimately approve the new masterplan, Wessel warned he intends to try to get the Federal Aviation Administration to negate it.

But it’s unclear how much grant funding will be available in the near future or what type of economic climate the aviation industry will be in due to the cataclysmic disruptions that have been caused by the pandemic.

“While general aviation and business aviation operations have been returning to pre COVID levels,” the city’s masterplan states, “there is still much uncertainty as to how this health crisis will affect airports in the coming months or the lasting impacts it may have on the industry as a whole.”

Some of the plan’s recommendations include rehabilitating runways, relocating the airport fuel tank, taxiway extensions and reconstructing the heliport area.

Wessel thinks the masterplan updates are “ridiculous” and could mostly end up being a waste of money.

He specifically objects to one of the plan’s most expensive projects: an $8-million reconstruction of the airport terminal building. 

That amount of money could be better spent on making the airport safer, Wessel noted, and preventing another fire incident.

“It’s just your typical bureaucracy at work,” he said, “screwing things up as much as possible.”

If the city chooses to ultimately approve the new masterplan, Wessel warned he intends to try to get the Federal Aviation Administration to negate it.

Perhaps the biggest grievance Wessel has with the city is an overall lack of communication. He feels the airport’s users are not properly consulted on important matters involving the airport and their advice is often ignored.

“I’m at my wits end with this stuff,” he said, “I can’t get anywhere with these guys.”

It’s important the airport remain a viable enterprise for the years to come, Wessel said, because the pilots have invested a lot of their time and money into that property and they don’t want to see it be wasted.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.