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Airport neighbors have few options

If Congress won’t ban experimental aircraft flights out of North Las Vegas Airport, people who fear those planes will fall from the sky into their homes might only have one option left: Living with it.

That’s the upshot of what the Federal Aviation Administration said when asked about the issue a few weeks after the third fatal crash since late August involving a local experimental plane or pilot flying one in the skies of Southern Nevada and southern Utah.

“The way Congress has written the laws, local communities do not have the authority to determine what type of planes can and cannot fly in and out of their airports,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said last week.

But in the aftermath of six fatal airplane crashes since June, half involving experimental aircraft, Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker is hoping the Clark County Commission on Tuesday will adopt a resolution to that effect.

The proposed resolution directs staffers to ask Nevada’s congressional delegation to seek changes in federal law to allow his department to manage the county’s airport system in a way that keeps experimental aircraft and other higher-risk flights away from populated urban areas.

“I think that’s a reasonable thing for an airport operator like the county to ask the federal government to do,” Walker said Monday.

“If we had one airport and denied access, that’s a different question.”

Maiden flights of experimental aircraft are prohibited at North Las Vegas Airport. Even after they’ve been flight tested and certified that they can be flown safely, experimental aircraft may not be operated over densely populated areas or in congested airways, except for takeoffs and landings.

Twice in a six-day span in August, small planes, including one amateur-built aircraft, crashed into homes within about a mile of the North Las Vegas Airport after departing.

In all, four pilots and two residents were killed between Aug. 22 and Oct. 18 in four crashes, three of which involved experimental aircraft.

Two other small planes, both factory-built, that left North Las Vegas Airport crashed before reaching their destinations on June 28 and Sept. 18, killing a combined six people.

Gregor, the FAA spokesman, noted that his agency has sole authority over civilian air space. The FAA also has a financial stake in airports that rely on FAA-sponsored improvement grants for runway construction, paving and lighting. Money for the grants are requested by the administration and approved by Congress.

North Las Vegas Airport, owned and operated by the Clark County Aviation Department, “isn’t just important to private pilots who fly in and out. It’s important to McCarran International Airport,” he said.

McCarran is the sixth busiest airport in the United States with some 619,000 takeoffs and landings last year, according to the FAA.

That figure includes more than 60,000 tower operations that involved general aviation aircraft logged by the county’s aviation department.

Gregor said shifting more of the burden for small, private planes from North Las Vegas Airport to McCarran would cause delays and add congestion, causing air traffic controllers in the tower and in the terminal radar approach control center to make adjustments for slower aircraft in flight paths of faster jetliners.

But Walker believes his plan will lessen the safety risk around North Las Vegas Airport and not push more burden from general aviation to McCarran.

Instead, he foresees using Jean Sport Aviation Center, 25 miles south of McCarran, for takeoffs and landings of experimental, or amateur-built, aircraft and other higher-risk flights such as first solo flights by pilots in training. The Jean airport, with two runways in a sparsely populated area, currently accommodates gliders and sky divers in addition to general aviation aircraft.

“If experimental aircraft (pilots) want to come to Las Vegas, we have a perfect airport for those operations,” Walker said, referring to the Jean airport.

Officials with the Experimental Aircraft Association doubt that Congress will favor Walker’s plan, however.

“I don’t think it’s going to be allowed, period,” said Earl Lawrence, vice president of industry and regulatory affairs for the association based in Oshkosh, Wis.

Passing such a measure would result in the FAA surrendering its authority for safety over interstate and international commerce, Lawrence said.

“You would be allowing an airport manager to determine on his own what could come and go. What he is asking is that Congress, the president, the administration give up the authority. That’s a pretty good stretch.”

Lawrence said the FAA’s system should be left intact so that the agency’s thousands of employees charged with ensuring the safety of pilots, aircraft and people on the ground can continue to perform their jobs nationwide without interference from a local authority.

“In particular at North Las Vegas, there have been fatal air crashes that aren’t related to the proposed resolution that would need to be addressed,” Lawrence said. “What if there was some other safety issue that needed to be addressed? Who better to make that decision than the agency tasked with the job?”

He said passing a resolution as Walker envisions would have a cascading effect, with airport managers in other urban areas seeking similar measures to usurp FAA authority on what type of planes can fly where and when.

The skies over the north end of Las Vegas Valley are used as well by military aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base, the nation’s hub for training fighter pilots in air combat exercises at the Nellis range.

This month, Col. Dave Belote, commander of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis, urged the Bureau of Land Management to preserve a tract of public land there where half of the base’s annual 40,000 sorties fly over to reach the range. Siding with groups who want to protect the site of rare plants and fossils dating from the ice ages, Belote noted that allowing Upper Las Vegas Wash to be used for residential and commercial development also would create a safety hazard in the military’s air space.

North Las Vegas Airport has evolved from a private airstrip, Sky Haven Airport, and later Thunderbird Field. Howard Hughes’ business interests also owned the facility.

The history of planes from the airport crashing near houses can be traced back to at least 1967 when a couple of pilots practicing touch-and-go landings at what was then Hughes’ North Las Vegas Air Terminal collided in mid-air and crashed only a few hundred yards west of a large housing development.

The FAA classified North Las Vegas Air Terminal as a general aviation reliever airport for McCarran in 1974. Clark County purchased the terminal property and airport facilities for more than $16 million in 1987, when the population of North Las Vegas was roughly 45,700 and daily flight operations numbered more than 300.

Twenty years later, the city’s population has increased more than four times what it was, to 212,000, and daily flight operations have doubled.

Staff members for Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., said the senators haven’t been contacted yet by local officials to restrict experimental aircraft flights out of North Las Vegas Airport or change its status as a reliever airport.

If Walker thinks legislation to that effect is needed “he will let us know and we will try to address it on the FAA reauthorization bill next year,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said in an e-mail.

Ensign’s spokesman, Tory Mazzola, noted that the senators secured a $100,000 FAA grant in September for Clark County to conduct a safety study of North Las Vegas Airport after the recent tragedies. Results of the study next summer will determine compliance with international air safety standards and expand on issues that need addressing.

About 50 residents and general aviation pilots met in September to identify ways of avoiding future crashes.

Other than increasing awareness about the proximity of housing tracts to the airport that had been approved routinely for years by North Las Vegas officials, the group concluded not much could be done to enhance safety on the ground.

Some who attended the neighborhood meeting in September suggested posting signs to warn motorists that the streets they drive on might be used for emergency landings. Others suggested that a loud horn could be sounded to let residents know that a plane is in danger of falling from the sky.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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