For years, tall trees at both approaches to Runway 10/28 at East Hampton Airport have presented a hazard, particularly after sunset, as pilots have to clear the trees before dropping down to the runway for landings—and members of the aviation community say they’ve had enough and want the trees cut down immediately.
In a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, Attorney Leonard Kirsch, representing pilots and aviation businesses that frequent the airport, asked for the FAA’s help in getting East Hampton Town to remove the obstructions.
“The loss of this approach will present terrible problems for current airport operators,” Mr. Kirsch wrote in his letter. “The town’s failure to address the tree issue is really a back-door approach to creating a nighttime curfew.”
According to Jemille Charlton, the airport’s manager, there are a “multitude” of trees, mostly pines, around the approach ends 10 and 28 of Runway 10/28, and there are trees littered around the airport’s property.
“You want to be able to see the obstructions that are in your way,” he said. “If you’re flying in from the west and you want to land on 10, you may have to go around, because you can’t see the field because of weather conditions.”
Kathryn Slye, a local pilot who flies a Cessna, says approaching the airport is difficult enough for veteran pilots, but for a newbie, it can be quite an experience.
“You need to come in high and drop it down fast,” she said. “It causes you to do an unusual angle to force the aircraft to drop in. For little planes like mine, it’s not too much of a problem. But the bigger you go … you need more runway to land on. There is no margin for error.”
When approaching the runway, pilots must come in on a “glide slope” at about 3 degrees and use precision approach path indicator lights at the end of the runway to tell whether the aircraft is low enough for a smooth landing. There are four lights in total, and when a plane is coming in at the correct angle, there are two white lights and two red lights.
Ms. Slye said because of the tall trees in the way of the approaches to Runway 10-28, the lights don’t exactly work for them.
Mr. Charlton said that while the town is currently considering a curfew at the airport from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.—a vote by the Town Board on a package of new regulations, including curfews, could come as soon as this week—planes cannot use the approaches to Runway 10/28 after sundown anyway, because of the obstructions.
The Friends of the East Hampton Airport, which represents several aviation businesses that use the airport, filed a complaint with the FAA in January asking the administration to direct the town to resolve “critical safety and security gaps” at the airport, which included the removal of trees. This complaint was filed in conjunction with a lawsuit filed against the FAA challenging its ability to waive grant assurances that had been blocking the East Hampton Town Board from restricting access at the airport by certain aircraft.
According to Mr. Kirsch, the complaint will not go through the process and be resolved in time for the busy summer season. “We realize that a prompt resolution of the immediate situation is in the town’s hands,” he said.
Mr. Kirsch said that the town had applied for a waiver from the FAA to clear the trees, but that waiver expired. Town officials were not able to confirm this. However, Town Councilwoman and airport liaison Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said that engineering firm Michael Baker International is finalizing a report on how to deal with the trees and other safety issues at the airport.
Mr. Charlton said that some trees on airport property have already been cut, but there are still many more.
The engineer’s report also is expected to cover the design and cost of installing deer fencing around the entire property, the installation of a weather station, the creation of dedicated approach and departure procedures for helicopters, and the development of a comprehensive and prioritized five-year airport capital improvement program. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the firm will present its report at a future work session.
According to the town, the process of cutting the trees down is complicated—the town must gain FAA and environmental approval, as well as approval from landowners whose trees are part of the problem.
Until then, some pilots will continue to be wary of the approach.
“The fear in the pilot community is that it would be unbelievably sad if one of us was seriously injured because of something that could have been prevented,” Ms. Slye said. “This all resonates in the back of our heads. We pray nothing ever happens—it could, and for such a poor reason as neglect.”