Town leaders demand airport update

Posted Oct. 02, 2008, at 10:07 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:18 a.m.

GREENVILLE, Maine — In an unusual move, town officials demanded this week that the National Weather Service either upgrade its automated surface observation system at the Greenville airport or remove it to allow the town to secure funding for a better system from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Town officials and local pilots have worked for more than five years — without success — to get the NWS to upgrade the system so pilots get an accurate weather update. They also have been unsuccessful in getting a congressional earmark for the upgrade.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration and NWS are both government agencies, one will not fund a project if the other has equipment on site, Greenville Town Manager John Simko told selectmen Wednesday. “They don’t play well together,” he said.

“This is a pretty big deal,” Simko said. The town is telling the NWS to commit to an upgrade by Nov. 1. “If they don’t commit by then, then we’re directing them as the owner of the airport to remove their equipment — we’re basically evicting them.”

Pilots see the Automated Surface Observation System as a lifeline. “The lack of this weather information for pilots creates an inherently dangerous situation which must be remedied,” Simko explained.

Simko said it has been determined that a lack of accurate weather information has been behind a significant number of airplane crashes and fatalities in regions such as Greenville. The most famous was the crash of a B-52 into Elephant Mountain near Greenville 45 years ago. About four years ago, Cathy Hoskins, a well-known and experienced commercial pilot, was killed in a crash on Houston Mountain that was clearly weather-related, according to Simko.

“We do not want to wait until we have a more modern, definitive example [of] a weather-caused aviation tragedy occur on our front doorstop,” Simko noted in the letter signed by the board.

Pilot Telford Allen of Telford Aviation in Bangor told selectmen Wednesday that there is no way now for pilots to get accurate information about the weather in the Moosehead Lake region. He said that in 1980 the FAA made an effort to put automatic reporting weather stations in airports in Maine and around the country, but Greenville was apparently ineligible because of the NWS equipment.

Allen said the Millinocket, Rangeley, Wiscasset, Caribou and Houlton airports all have automatic weather reporting systems, but Greenville, which is located in the mountains, does not. “It’s critical and there’s more and more use of the airport with more high-performance aircraft, and we’re missing out on a lot of utilization,” Allen said.

“It’s like anything in life — the more information you have, the better off it goes,” Allen said.

Simko said employees at the NWS station in Caribou have been great to work with, but the decision makers above them have chosen not to fund the project. He said the town could get additional funds added to next year’s project to fund an FAA weather station known as an automated weather observation system, which appears to be a better bet than improvements by the NWS to its system. The total cost of the upgrade is estimated at $110,000, of which $55,000 has been committed by the Life Flight Foundation.

The foundation does not use the local airport much since it has a landing zone at Charles A. Dean Memorial Hospital, but it does rely on the local weather information, Simko said. The foundation secured funds through a Maine transportation bond about five years ago to help make safety upgrades at airports where Life Flight lands, he said.

To help further this and other projects at the airport, including an arrivals building, Simko was authorized to attend the FAA’s Airport Conference on Oct. 28-29 at Bedford, Mass.

For Allen, there is no airport more deserving of a certified weather reporting system than the Greenville airport, especially since so much money has been invested into the airport by the federal, state and local governments.

“Let’s hope it is Greenville’s time to receive an ASOS system in the very near future in the interest of aviation safety and the Greenville area,” he wrote in a letter of support to be filed with the town’s letter.

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