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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    From shell sweepers to helicopters, open house pulls back curtain on Groton airport operations

    Jordan Melia, 3, of Mystic, sits in the cockpit of a Vans RV-7, a two-seat, single-engine, low-wing airplane, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023, while his mother, Katie, and Ivan Luke, of Hope Valley, R.I.,, the owner of the plane, look on during the Open House at Groton-New London Airport in Groton. Luke and his wife, Susan, built the kit plane in their garage and it took them 10 years to complete. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People gather around a Black Hawk utility military helicopter Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023, and were able to sit in the cockpit and in the back during the open house at Groton-New London Airport in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Kirsten Schneider, second from left, of Groton, and her friend, Ashley Divita, right, of Montville, walk with their children, Lucy Divita, 3, left, Jacob Divita, 2, and Liberty Schneider, 2, blocked from view, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023, as they pass an Air Forced One vehicle that blows debris, snow and standing water from the tarmac and runways, during the open house at Groton-New London Airport in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Todd and Gretchen Romilly, of Mystic, and their children, Max, 13, and Norah, 11, look at a Piper Cherokee Arrow 200 on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023, during the open house at Groton-New London Airport in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Groton — Maintaining an airfield near a coastal reserve means quickly becoming familiar with the diets of various seabirds.

    At the Groton-New London Airport, crews make multiple daily tarmac sweeps with an industrial mobile blower — dubbed “Air Forced One” — to clear oyster, quahog and scallop shells from the two runways.

    “The seagulls pick them up from the Bluff Point area and drop them down from the sky to crack open the shells and get at the meat,” said Brian Simon, a worker at the Tower Road airport. “If they don’t get swept off, they can pop plane tires or get sucked into jet exhausts.”

    Wildlife mitigation was just one subject guests at Saturday’s airport open house could quiz workers and plane enthusiasts about as they meandered past home-built aircraft, took a turn behind a flight simulator or crawled inside a military helicopter.

    The event was hosted by the Connecticut Airport Authority, or CAA, the quasi-public agency responsible for operations at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport and the state’s five general airports.

    “This is a chance for people to meet our behind-the-scenes partners at this airport and learn of its importance as an economic generator to the city and the region,” CAA spokesperson Alisa Sisic said.

    The Groton location, established in 1929 as the state’s first airport, boasts a pair of asphalt runways along with hangar facilities, air traffic control tower, automatic weather observation stations and several tenants.

    Sisic said the airport serves mainly single-engine crafts and corporate planes and is home to several aviation-oriented terminal businesses, including those offering flying lessons and car rentals.

    The airport’s annual economic contribution to the state is pegged at $100 million, including $4.6 million in state and local taxes, according to 2018-19 CAA data.

    The event attracted several private pilots from the Experimental Aircraft Association who gave browsers a peek inside their creations.

    East Lyme resident Mike Drake, the 35-year-old owner of a RV-10, four-passenger craft, said it can cost about $200,000 and take years to put together the sort of home-delivery plane “kits” offered by do-it-yourself companies.

    “It’s a little masochistic, but we’re that crazy little subset of people who like putting these planes together like Legos – they come in a box in a million different pieces — and taking them up in the air,” said Drake, a mechanical engineer who’s flown a mix of commercial, military and small planes over the years.

    A big event draw was the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter brought in by members of the Connecticut National Guard’s 1109th Theater Aviation Support Maintenance Group that operates from the airport.

    Maj. Matt Marcella said his unit’s domestic mission is to overhaul and repair all U.S. Army aircraft in the region. In times of conflict, that mission doesn’t change, but the theater of operation does.

    “We were most recently in the Middle East with other deployments to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Marcella said. “But this is our home base, and the people here at the Groton airport are phenomenal.”

    Airport Manager David Lucas said keeping the facility running smoothly means employing unusual equipment to deter the occasional unwelcome varmint.

    He said 10 decoy “coyotes” are shifted around grassy areas to scare off curious small animals while four “scarers” hooked to propane tanks emit blasts of noise several times a day to keep birds out of flight paths.

    “We also have pyrotechnics and sirens,” Lucas said. “Wildlife isn’t a huge problem, but we have to make sure everything is as safe as possible for aircraft.”

    j.penney@theday.com

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