Making Roanoke's airport safer for motorists




Posted on November 5, 2012 at 9:01 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 5 at 9:24 PM

Northwest Regional Airport

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ROANOKE — By now, you've likely seen the incredible video of a small plane landing that went wrong at Northwest Regional Airport on Saturday.

The footage shows the landing gear of an incoming Cessna hitting the top of a sport utility vehicle as it drove along a road at the north end of the runway.

The images are bringing new attention to an ongoing safety concern — that road is just feet from the runway, with only the word STOP painted on the ground and no other warnings for motorists.

Northwest Regional Airport is privately-owned, and the FAA has no jurisdiction over it. But the federal agency does have some questions, and officials are headed to Denton County for some answers.

Saturday's dramatic collision between the single-engine aircraft and the SUV is the latest accident at Northwest Regional. NTSB records show there have been nine incidents in recent years, including one that ended with a small plane landing on top of another in May, 2008.

"We have over 127,000 operations annually," said airport manager Glen Hyde, "so based on the number of operations, that's not uncommon."

A Google Maps aerial photograph of the runway taken several years ago shows an arrow designating where planes can land moved away from the north end of the runway.

Today, the arrow is at the edge of the landing strip.

The airport's owner said the marker was first moved because of a dangerous fence made of railroad ties located just beyond the end of the runway. When the airport installed a breakaway plastic fence, the landing marker was moved back.

"It wouldn't make any difference," Hyde said. "The pilots would have the option to come in and make short field landings."

The FAA said officials will examine whether the private road at the north end of the runway is adequately marked, and whether the signs are clear enough for motorists to understand they are crossing in front of an active runway.

"The parties have already admitted in the SUV that they frequent the [airport's] restaurant," Hyde said. "They are already familiar with the wait and look for airplanes, and the video speaks for itself: They didn't stop at the STOP painted on the road."

The airport is working with land owners on both sides of the runway to make it safer. That may include cutting down a grove of trees on the south end of the runway to make it easier to see.