Clearwater Airpark’s quest for a nighttime beacon will take time

In the aftermath of a deadly Feb. 1 plane crash, a city official outlines a series of steps that could take more than a year.
A plane takes off at night from Clearwater Airpark on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024.
A plane takes off at night from Clearwater Airpark on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 28|Updated March 29

CLEARWATER — The city will not be able to accelerate the planned installation of a rotating beacon to improve visibility for night landings at Clearwater Airpark, the airpark’s advisory board was told Thursday.

The update came during an emergency meeting held in response to a Feb. 1 incident in which a pilot trying to land could not find the airpark, even though the runway lights were on, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report. His plane crashed a few minutes later, killing him and two women in a nearby mobile home park.

Michael MacDonald, director of the city’s aviation and marine department, told board members that a temporary beacon could not be installed because it would require the same logistical steps required for a permanent one.

Since last year, he said, the department has been in the process of conducting a survey and geotechnical study of the airpark to accommodate the construction of a new corporate hanger, a terminal, a beacon and other upgrades. He said this work must be completed first to determine the beacon’s height and location.

After the survey, the city will have to apply for a state grant to design and build the beacon, MacDonald said. The process will take more than a year, he said.

The timeline will be unclear until the location for the beacon is confirmed. MacDonald said if the survey determines the beacon should go on the terminal, for example, the beacon won’t be installed until after the terminal is built. But if it can be placed elsewhere on the airfield “that could be done fairly quickly.”

He told the advisory board, “We’re moving at the speed that needs to be moved at right now, and it’s a priority.”

On Feb. 1, pilot Jemin Patel passed the airpark to the west shortly after 7 p.m., looped left and stated on the radio that he was headed instead to Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg because “I can’t see the other airport,” according to radio transmissions and flight path data. A short time later, he crashed into a home at Bayside Mobile Home Park on U.S. 19 North on the east side of Clearwater.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in February that Clearwater Airpark is unusually dark and difficult to find at night in a sea of city lights. Like many general aviation airports, its runway lights are off until approaching pilots activate them by tapping the button they use to talk on the radio frequency.

But Clearwater is unlike most other public general aviation airports in that it doesn’t have a rotating beacon, which serves as a kind of lighthouse for planes at night. Fixed atop a tower, it can help pilots detect a runway from as far as 20 miles out.

Four years ago, a consultant recommended that a beacon should be installed by the end of 2020 with two dozen other upgrades phased over 20 years. On Thursday, MacDonald said that timeline was “a suggestion.”

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The city hired FlyUSA to operate the airpark in March 2023, the first operator change in 20 years. After FlyUSA took over, the city advanced the series of upgrades outlined in the 2020 master plan. FlyUSA CEO Barry Shevlin said installing a beacon was a priority because the airpark is “hard to find at night.”

But he said the process turned out to be more complicated than he expected. To get the survey going for the upgrades, the city had to apply for a grant, which was approved by the Florida Department of Transportation on Nov. 17.

Roger Schulman, chairperson of the airpark advisory board, said he called the emergency meeting even though it was unknown whether a beacon could have prevented the crash. He said he nevertheless wanted to explore whether it was possible to speed the process of getting a beacon or install a portable one in the meantime.

After the meeting, he said he believes city staff considers the project a priority.

“I think they realize it’s something that needs to be addressed,” Schulman said. “I had that meeting to make it known we are concerned about it and want it done fast and as soon as possible. I think they’re doing the best they can.”