June 21, 2018
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Knox County airport panel OKs new safety measures in wake of fatal accident

R.W. Estela | BDN
R.W. Estela | BDN
An aerial view of the plane crash that occurred Friday, Nov. 17 in Owls Head, taken Saturday, Nov. 18.
By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

OWLS HEAD, Maine — In the aftermath of a fatal runway collision between a plane and truck in November, the safety panel for Knox County Regional Airport gave its support Thursday to new safety measures, including reducing vehicle traffic on the runways.

Airport manager Jeffrey Northgraves said he would immediately implement increased training for anyone authorized to drive vehicles within the fenced-in area at the airport. Other safety measures that require additional funding, however, will still have to be run by both the full Airport Advisory Committee and the Knox County commissioners.

Northgraves shared his recommendation Thursday with the Airport Advisory Committee’s Safety Operations and Maintenance Subcommittee in the wake of the Nov. 16 collision between a Cessna 172 and a pickup truck that resulted in the plane crashing and killing the three young men aboard.

The manager told the committee members that he suspects the Federal Aviation Administration will hand down similar recommendations and that it will be good to have them already in place.

He also announced that the FAA contacted him this week and it will have someone from its safety staff conduct a training session on incursions and safety on airport property. A date for that session has not yet been set.

Northgraves said anyone who is authorized to be inside the perimeter fence will continue to receive annual training. What will change is the level of the training based on where personnel will be authorized to travel at the airport. He said previous training has included safety requirements for crossing the runway but that training has been given to all users of the airport even if they have no need to cross.

Safety panel member John Newcomb of Downeast Air noted that owners of plane hangars had no need to cross the runway. Northgraves agreed.

“That’s why I want to gear the training to specific groups. By giving everyone the same training, it implies they can cross the runway,” he said.

The manager also is proposing construction of a 12-to-15-foot wide gravel road on the edge of the main runway to further reduce the need for vehicles to cross that 5,000-foot runway.

That gravel road cannot be built until spring at the earliest, he said. He already has asked the airport’s engineers to determine whether the road would be eligible for federal airport improvement grants.

His plan also calls for requiring vehicles on the airport to have lighted beacons, which are to be used day and night.

The manager also announced Thursday that he wants to record all traffic on the local radio frequency used by planes and vehicles that use the airport. He also called for installing cameras to monitor runways.

He said there is no estimate yet on the cost of the proposed upgrades.

The Knox County airport is considered a general aviation airport. There is no control tower and planes do not have to be logged in for arrivals or takeoffs.

Northgraves said Thursday he does not know if any of the changes he has proposed would have prevented the Nov. 16 crash.

“These are to prevent any incidents in the future,” he said.

Kevin Waters of Penobscot Island Air, who is on the safety panel, said in the 15 to 20 years he has worked out of the airport he is not aware of even a close call between a plane and vehicle.

The Nov. 16 crash claimed the lives of two University of Maine students and a UMaine alumnus. Killed were Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity president David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass; education officer Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Muliterno, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil; and pilot William “BJ” Hannigan, 24, of South Portland, a member of the Maine Air National Guard.

The driver of the truck — Stephen Turner, 62, of Camden — has not returned several telephone calls or a written message for comment left for him at Penobscot Island Air, where he works as a pilot and instructor.

Turner told police the incident happened so quickly he did not know if his truck and the plane had collided on the runway.

Local attorney Philip Cohen of Waldoboro acknowledged this week that he had been hired by a family of one of the victims, at this point only to gather information on the accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board is not expected to issue a final report on the crash for six months to a year.

According to a preliminary report filed a few days after the accident, however, Turner told the NTSB investigator that he announced over the common traffic advisory frequency for aircraft that he planned to cross the runway. He said he heard no response and didn’t see anything on the 5,000-foot-long Runway 31, so he proceeded to cross.

“He subsequently saw something grayish in color, continued to cross the runway, and then got out to inspect what he saw, at which time he observed an airplane attempting to climb,” NTSB stated in its preliminary report. “He continued watching the airplane drift to the left of the runway and make a left turn as if attempting to return to the airport. Subsequently, the airplane was then observed in slow flight, and then it began to spin.”

The plane then went nose-down into the woods about 2,200 feet from where the truck and plane collided on the runway, according to the federal agency’s preliminary report.

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