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Hillsboro residents target airport safety

Air show crash gives facility's foes ammunition as event, city, residents assess future
by: MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI, An investigator from the Federal Aviation Administration checks the scene of the crash that destroyed one home and damaged three others. The pilot, Bob Guilford, died, but no one on the ground was injured.

The fatal Oregon International Airshow crash happened just days before the first meeting of a new citizens group dedicated to fighting the planned expansion of the Hillsboro Airport, where the show was held.

According to organizer Miki Barnes, the crash heightened the concerns of area residents who already worry about the large number of airport-related flights over Hillsboro neighborhoods, including flights by students training at aviation schools based there.

'I don't want to sound like I'm taking advantage of a tragedy, but the crash shows what we're trying to prevent,' said Barnes, a Hillsboro resident, adding that the group is so new it does not yet have a formal name.

Airport officials defend the airport as safe, however, saying that very few accidents have happened there. The Port of Portland has owned and operated the airport since 1965. Although eight people died in four airport-related crashes linked to the airport in the past eight years - including Sunday's crash - no one on the ground has ever been injured.

'The Hillsboro Airport has a very good safety record,' said Bob Applegate, an official with the Port of Portland, which also owns Portland International Airport.

The Hillsboro Airport is a general aviation airport, which means it is geared toward corporate and private aircraft, and also houses a number of flight schools. The 950-acre facility is home to around 50 businesses. It currently accommodates more than 220,000 takeoffs and landings a year, a number expected to increase by around 100,000 by 2025.

Port officials planned to discuss the accident and take public testimony on it during a Thursday evening meeting of the Hillsboro Airport Issues Roundtable, an advisory committee that has worked on the expansion plan. Barnes expected members of the new group to testify about their safety concerns at the meeting, which occurred after this issue of the Portland Tribune went to press.

Committee members are expected to include airport neighbors and representatives of several groups that believe it is growing too fast, including members of Middle-aged Housewives for Livability and Open Government, a grass-roots group worried that airport operations will spill over to the Washington County Fairgrounds, which is just across Cornell Road from the airport.

According to co-founder Linda Mokler, the group's name is a humorous reference to a bake sale that members held to raise money to pay for public records concerning the airport's expansion plans.

The port adopted the Hillsboro Airport Master Plan in September 2005. It calls for adding a third runway and other facilities at the airport to meet growing demand. The plan estimates the cost of the expansion at more than $134 million over the next 20 years.

According to the plan, 'With a sound and realistic Master Plan, Hillsboro Airport can maintain its role as an important link to the national air transportation system for the community, and the Port of Portland will be able to maintain the existing public and private investments in the community.'

But airport neighbor Henry Oberhelman said Sunday's accident should prompt the port to postpone its expansion plans as Hillsboro residents living near the airport come to grips with the safety issues.

'I've complained about the noise for a long time, but after the accident, I've realized safety is a serious issue, too,' said Oberhelman, who lives north of the airport on Northwest Evergreen Parkway.

High-tech firms benefit

Thursday's meeting was scheduled to include the first public report on the accident by the Federal Aviation Administration. Before that report, the cause of the accident had yet to be determined.

The privately owned 1951 Hawker Hunter plane crashed into the quiet Sunset Downs residential neighborhood near the airport early Sunday evening, killing experienced pilot Bob Guilford, leveling one home and damaging three others.

The plane, which was on display and not flying in the show, was leaving the airport around 4:30 p.m. when it banked over a stand of trees and crashed into a house near the intersection of Northeast 60th Avenue and Harvest Street.

The neighborhood where the crash occurred is one of several residential areas within a few miles of the airport that have experienced explosive growth in recent years - which is expected to continue as the Portland metropolitan region absorbs about 1 million more residents by 2025.

If Hillsboro grows as fast as the rest of Washington County, it could jump from around 82,000 to more than 142,000 over the next 20 years. Much of the growth is expected to occur in and around the Orenco Station area, which is near where the crash occurred.

Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes said the city cannot halt new home construction in the area, however.

'We would not be able to meet the growth projections if we restricted construction in that area,' he said.

Hughes also said the airport needs to expand to accommodate the city's growth, including the needs of high-tech companies, like Intel Corp., that use it frequently.

'The airport is a godsend to Intel,' Hughes said.

Homeowner counts blessings

Air show organizers also were expected to talk about the future of the event at Thursday's meeting. Spokesman Steve Callaway said the board of Oregon International Air Show Inc. - the nonprofit group behind the event - said they were waiting until the Federal Transportation Safety Board investigation is finished before deciding whether the show will continue.

For Donna Reynolds, the owner of the destroyed home, the incident is both a tragedy and a relief. On one hand, she said, her house and possessions were destroyed. On the other, she could have been inside when it happened.

When Reynolds and a group of friends returned from a garden show, they saw a plume of smoke hanging above the neighborhood. Although she first assumed it was part of the show, Reynolds knew something had gone awry when 'it didn't dissipate like all the others,' she said.

When she learned it was her home the plane had crashed into, the realization of what could have happened felt surreal, Reynolds said. And somehow, her dog, Lacey, had escaped.

'I was extremely relieved my dog got out alive,' she said. 'I'm still not sure how that happened.'

Some neighborhood residents already are calling for an end to the annual air show, which is one of the most popular events in Hillsboro, drawing around 65,000 spectators a year.

'I think they need to re-evaluate the air show. I don't know if the risks are worth it,' said Jack Jenkins, who posted a sign reading 'No More Air Shows' in front of his home. 'Most neighbors say it wasn't a matter of if it was going to happen, but when.'

Although the air show was an especially noisy event, neighborhood resident Paul Woodson said he never thought of it as more dangerous than any other day.

'I never worried about it much. We have planes flying over all year long,' he said. 'It might not be like that next year. I might think about it a little bit more.'

Ryan Geddes and Mateusz Perkowski contributed to this story.

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