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Clearwater defends airpark's safety record after crash

CLEARWATER — One day after a plane took off from Clearwater Airpark and crashed into a home nearby, city officials defended the airport's safety record and said there are no plans to close it down.

Gordon Wills, the airpark's operations manager, said there are 50,000 takeoffs and landings at the facility each year and "this is the second (crash) we've had in five years."

For perspective, St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted Airport recorded just as many crashes in the same time period and Tampa's Peter O. Knight Airport had three crashes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that is investigating Sunday's crash.

"We're better than average," Wills said Monday.

Clearwater Airpark was surrounded by orange groves when it first opened in 1939, but now it's bordered on all sides by residential neighborhoods in the middle of Clearwater.

Unlike other small general aviation airports in the area, the airpark is not located on the water. Instead, planes must fly over densely populated areas as they take off and land at the airpark.

The city of Clearwater runs the airport. City Manager Bill Horne said Clearwater officials will review the NTSB's report on Sunday's crash when it becomes available.

If federal investigators find anything that the airpark could do to make its operations safer, the city will follow up, he said.

"It's a question of what comes out of the report," Horne said, adding that crashes at the airpark are typically caused by pilot error or equipment failure.

City officials are hearing rumors that the plane that crashed Sunday did not have its cargo properly balanced in preparation for its flight.

The City Council last considered this issue in 2005 after a plane crash at the airpark killed two people. At the time, it had been the third fatal crash involving the airport in 18 months.

Even then, council members expressed their support for the airpark. The only change they made was to require pilots there to submit a copy of their plane's annual inspections.

City officials said the airpark is vital to the area. The U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater has an agreement with Clearwater to store its fuel trucks at the airport in cases of emergency, Wills said.

The airpark is 71 feet above sea level, the highest elevation of any airport in the county. Albert Whitted is 7 feet above sea level and the runways at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport are 11 feet above sea level.

Airpark neighbors who spoke to the St. Petersburg Times on Monday said safety has never been an issue for them.

Richard Hugley, whose backyard fence was singed by a fireball Sunday, said he felt the crash was an isolated incident, and he feared crashing planes less than an errant car crashing into his home.

"The airport don't bother me a bit," Hugley said. "That's life."

Bernard Christy, who has lived less than 1/2 mile from the airpark for 35 years, echoed Hugley's sentiment.

"We opt to live here," he said.

Kate Hugley, Richard Hugley's wife, had a different opinion.

"It's darn scary," she said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Clearwater defends airpark's safety record after crash 05/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 17, 2010 9:54pm]

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