In wake of plane crash, future of Hillsboro air show remains uncertain
Residents, city agencies gather to discuss the airport's growth and safety
More than two months after a plane crash at the Oregon International Air Show killed pilot Robert Guilford and destroyed several homes in the Sunset Downs neighborhood near Hillsboro Airport, the debate over the popular event's future continues, and questions about the airport's residential encroachment linger.
The cause of the crash remains unclear, said Steve Nagy, general aviation manager for the Port of Portland, at a Thursday meeting of the Hillsboro Airport Issues Roundtable. The Federal Aviation Administration typically concludes such investigations after six months to a year after an incident, so the cause of the accident could be made public around the time of the 2007 air show - if the event returns to Hillsboro at all. Its fate rests in the hands of the Port of Portland and the City of Hillsboro.
Nagy said the port and the city plan to have a decision on the event's future by November.
If the two agencies agree to resume the event, Oregon International Air Show organizers must still get permission to use the airspace from the FAA and then decide if they have enough time to book performers. Public opinion will be an important factor in the final verdict, Nagy said.
'What is the general consensus you have heard from people in the community?' he asked the roundtable members.
Judy Willey, president of the Oregon International Air Show, said that roughly 90 percent of the feedback she has received has been positive. Even so, the organization will propose modifications to the show, such as placing stringent mechanical restrictions on antique 'war birds' like the 1951 Hawker Hunter jet that crashed on July 16, destroying a home and damaging others.
'We are not taking the stance that we put on a perfect air show,' Willey said. 'There's always room for improvement in anything you do, and we're looking to make sure nothing like this happens ever again.'
Members of the Hillsboro Airport Issues Roundtable - which was created in March of this year to help communicate airport issues to the public - generally agreed with Willey that the accident soured some individuals' perception of the event, but most said they wanted the 18-year-old tradition to continue in Hillsboro.
'Even folks who don't attend the show are not strongly against it,' said panel member Tom Little. 'People are looking at it as a tragic accident which should not alone be a reason to stop the air show.'
Although the air show has felt the most immediate impact of this summer's crash, the incident has raised larger questions about the safety of having a busy airport located in the middle of an increasingly urban area. Since being founded by Dr. Elmer Smith in 1928, the Hillsboro Airport's neighborhood has changed dramatically - the tracts of farmland that once surrounded the facility's runways are now largely residential subdivisions and industrial parks.
'Over time, the airport has grown up, and the community has grown up around it,' said Chris Corich, land use planning manager for the Port of Portland. 'Frankly, it's not atypical of what has happened in other communities.'
As examples, Corich pointed to airports in California that have runways as close as 550 feet away from housing. By comparison, the nearest any runway in Hillsboro comes to suburban homes is more than 1,700 feet, and most new development around the airport is planned to be industrial rather than residential, he said.
'There will be infill that occurs,' said Wink Brooks, Hillsboro's planning director. 'But most of the development has already been done.'
Hillsboro Airport already complies with federal standards and has adequate runway protection zones and safety areas to protect businesses and residents, but Corich and Brooks said stricter guidelines that would limit land uses around runways and popular flight paths are seriously being considered.
However, they conceded the air show crash didn't occur in one of the more potentially accident-prone sections surrounding the airport, but in an area that is actually considered the safest in terms of traffic patterns. Furthermore, recent changes in Oregon's property laws may subvert the land use regulations imposed to create more safety zones.
'There is some ballot Measure 37 action in that area,' Brooks said.
Concerns expressed by audience members who spoke out at the airport roundtable meeting generally had more to do with the day-to-day nuisance of living near the airport than the remote possibility that a plane will plummet into their homes. During the public comment portion of the meeting, Miki Barnes said she was frightened by inexperienced pilots taking lessons at the airport and said noise from low-flying aircraft was a source of constant exasperation.
'I think it's morally and ethically questionable what is going on here,' she told the panel.
Linda Mokler also said she was uneasy about the continuous rumble of planes overhead. Over the years, increased air traffic has forced her to put up with an annoyance she never signed up for when buying her home, Mokler said.
'We didn't move closer to the airport, it moved closer to us,' she said. 'If we sell our home, we'll have to disclose a noise issue that wasn't their when we bought our home.'
By and large, however, Nagy said that noise complaints are more a product of population growth than airport activity. In the mid 1980s, take-offs and landings averaged about 180,000 a year. By 1989, they had grown to 200,000, and now stand at about 230,000 annually. In the future, he said they are only expected to increase about one to two percent yearly.
While the Hillsboro airport will try to take steps to mitigate noise and more serious hazards, officials at the meeting said the demands for buildable land and airborne transportation in Washington County - as in other growing urban areas - create problems with no perfect solutions.
'It's not like you go to airports in other parts of the country and there's nothing around them,' said Brooks. 'It would be great if it was all open, but that's just not the reality in our area.'
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- Mateusz Perkowski