Published March 28. 2013 4:00AM
On his early morning inspection in the pre-dawn light, the airport police officer drove slowly through the fog, checking everything within his limited field of vision. Off to the right, his eye caught a white blur. Leaving the paved surface, he eased closer, moving over the grass until he could make out the ghostly white tail of an aircraft in a place where he knew it shouldn't be. Leaving his vehicle, he approached on foot and discovered the aircraft nose down in one of many deep drainage ditches that course through the airfield. The pilot was dead, still clinging to the controls. True story.
It had been a rough night with rain and high winds. Who knows what impacted this pilot's decisions: weather, mechanical problems, medical issues, carelessness, fatigue, fear or a lack of information, but this is what happens when air traffic control towers close.
Recent talk of closing the FAA control tower at Groton-New London Airport is disconcerting if not downright dangerous.
Planes crash on and around Groton-New London Airport. The record shows they crash on the airfield, they crash in nearby Burrows Field, they crash in the Poquonnock River, Fishers Island Sound and along the Connecticut shoreline. There's no question that the airport's a safer place, incidents are more manageable and crashes are more survivable when the tower's open.
One clear, calm day, a single-engine Piper approached Groton. The pilot chatted routinely with the control tower, advising them that he was getting low on fuel. He didn't foresee a problem but he wanted clearance to land as soon as possible.
The tower gave me a call in the fire station just to keep me in the loop. I threw my gear on and rolled the crash truck as a precaution. I watched as the Piper entered the approach pattern. Suddenly, the pilot shouted "Mayday! Mayday! I'm out of fuel, I'm bringing it down!"
Falling fast with no power, he turned the aircraft toward the airfield. He had just enough glide path to cross the river and landed hard, perpendicular to the runway. I watched him bounce hard off the grass, hoping the prop wouldn't catch the ground, flipping the aircraft. He wasn't injured and the plane suffered minor damage.
Air traffic control had diverted all traffic, clearing both air and ground movements at the first mayday. Without local tower interaction, this pilot could easily have made any number of bad decisions and nobody - aircraft landing, taking off or people and vehicles on the ground - would have known until it was over and the damage was done. This manageable incident could easily have become fatal to the pilot or others. An abandoned control tower would have raised the stakes for disaster astronomically.
Due to the nature of airplanes - the fuel they carry and the level of injury an accident can inflict - emergency response speed is critical in an aircraft accident. The staff of airports licensed under Federal Aviation Regulation Part 139 must be able to respond at any time to the midpoint of any runway and disperse firefighting foam within 3 minutes of notification. The federal government takes this requirement very seriously and physically tests airports' ability to comply in an annual drill.
Groton-New London relinquished FAR Part 139 certification some years ago and is no longer held to the 3-minute-response rule. Without this requirement, emergency response is not as efficient. In an environment where time directly relates to survivability, communication is critical and without Part 139 readiness, tower personnel play an even more crucial role.
But certificated or not, airplanes still fly and regardless of size, they all carry human lives - fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and best friends. Safe flying is all about reducing risk and air traffic control plays a big role in this risky business. When two airplanes, even small ones zipping along at 140 mph, fly a few miles apart on a sunny day, the risk skyrockets. In bad weather, the risk level is through the roof.
Groton-New London has a diverse flying clientele, a unique blend of private aircraft, military, corporate, charter flights and new pilots learning to fly. This community reflects the region's residential, industrial, corporate, military and tourist sectors. It cannot be safely overseen by someone in another state, which is what happens when the tower is closed.
A decision to put air traffic control out of business at Groton would be morally wrong. The father and son flying home to southeastern Connecticut in their small plane are no less important than 180 vacationers leaving any major airport in a Boeing 737. Yes, we have lost a father and his two sons in a Fishers Island Sound crash.
Shortchanging public safety has such consequences.
JOHN STEWARD IS A RETIRED AIRPORT FIREFIGHTER WHO NOW WORKS AT ELECTRIC BOAT. HE LIVES IN WATERFORD AND CAN BE CONTACTED AT STEWARD.JS@GMAIL.COM.