One year ago, a light business jet crashed on its approach to the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg. The crash took the lives of the three people on board the airplane and three members of a family on the ground in a home. This tragedy rocked the community, and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families on this dreadful anniversary.
A year later, though, some opportunistic residents are calling for changes at the airport. Puzzlingly, none of the proposed changes would have prevented the crash. In fact, this small, vocal group of residents has twisted the crash aftermath into a call for restrictions on the airport — which they chose to live near.
Considering that, for decades, the Montgomery County Airpark was among the busiest airports in Maryland, that’s a pretty admirable statistic. Attendees at a November meeting of concerned residents, however, were led to believe by neighbors that the skies over the airport are an airborne Wild West featuring cowboy pilots intentionally buzzing homes and sending innocent residents running for cover. My pilot colleagues and I take offense at this sensationalized portrayal. Pilots strive to be safe — not only for self-preservation but also to ensure the airport remains open. That is a win for everyone involved.
Even though all of these residents chose to live near an established and active airport, some continue to lob grenades at the airport. They want to abolish touch-and-go operations, a popular, time-saving flight training maneuver in which an airplane lands and takes off again without stopping. They also want to close the airport overnight . These are just two among a list of restrictions that opponents of the airport have labeled “safety changes.”
The airport’s users are rightly baffled at what restrictions on training and night operations have to do with the crash of a jet that arrived on a business trip in daylight. Since the accident, the conversation has slowly morphed from safety to noise.
The residents implore Montgomery County officials to do something, but lawmakers are smartly waiting for the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on last year’s crash to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to a nonexistent problem. Despite their predecessors’ nonsensical decisions to allow development to surround an active airport, county officials are wisely taking a wait-and-see approach.
Since the mid-1970s, when development began to surround the airport, users have implemented several changes to ease community relations. The airport’s traffic pattern was altered to keep airplanes over the less-developed north side of the airfield. The pattern altitude was also raised from 600 feet to 800 feet in the 1980s. In 1992, a noise-abatement plan was implemented for aircraft departing to the northwest over Montgomery Village. In 2005, the pattern altitude was raised again, this time to 1,000 feet.
Since 1974, Montgomery County has required all homebuyers to acknowledge the existence of nearby airports and heliports in a disclosure form, which must be signed during the sale closing. Unfortunately, selective amnesia has struck the residents near the airport when it comes to this document many of them likely signed.
On this anniversary of the crash, Montgomery County Airpark users implore county officials and residents to keep in mind the facts and the big picture while recognizing the event for what it was: a tragic accident.
The writer, a commercial pilot, is a second-generation user of the Montgomery County Airpark.
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