As Horsham Township, its residents, and regional neighbors slog through the land reuse development process prescribed by the Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) decision for the NAS/JRB Willow Grove site, one of the factors defining the limits of discussion and the public relations war is the assumption that the airbase runway would be used to facilitate a small municipal airport or – as the Bucks County Aviation Authority describes it – the Pitcairn Aviation Business Center. Such a facility is purported to support operations for light private aircraft and corporate jets.
This is the image many – on both sides of the runway issue – think of when discussions and emotions turn towards the question of whether an airport should or should not be the future of the NAS/JRB site.
But what if that airport image looks much, much different in the future? What if the existence of an 8000-ft runway attracts a larger commercial aircraft operation? What if a regional need for such a large underused runway is identified through no fault of the current airport/no airport antagonists? What would Horsham Township look like if the worst possible scenario came to life?
Would it happen? No one wants to think so. But COULD it happen?!? Certainly, and I’ll show you just one possible scenario.
Flash forward a few years … the pro-airport forces won the airport debate in 2011-12; regional interests triumphed over the concerns and protests of Horsham residents; and the airport has been operating in an uneasy truce with Horsham residents, who have learned to tune out the drone of circling Pipers and the high-energy whine of the corporate jet-set.
In the meantime, growth in commercial air travel continues to crowd the skies surrounding Philadelphia International Airport, as it has the entire U.S. East Coast and New England. The daily battle the air traffic control system wages with overcrowded commercial routes and busy arrival and departure schedules is managed successfully by the slimmest of margins.
Then one rainy afternoon two large commercial jets come way too close to each other in the crowded PHL approach over southern New Jersey. Urgent calls by Air Traffic Controllers and the wailing of TCAS II (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System) in the respective cockpits alert the converging flight crews in barely enough time; and only through quick, violent evasive action are the respective pilots able to avoid a potential catastrophe.
Unfortunately, several passengers and a flight attendant are injured, and cable news networks spend the week playing continuous interviews of the passengers of both flights, and provide viewers with updates on the conditions of the injured and the course of the investigation.
A year later, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues its report on the near-miss. The report is scathing in its description of overcrowding in the flight paths of PHL. It notes of particular interest that Philly International represents the only commercial airport serving one of the largest major cities in the nation. The FAA specifically compares Philadelphia’s single-airport status to New York (6 airports), Boston (3), and Baltimore (3) in the crowded Mid-Atlantic/lower New England regions.
Since the accident, the public has been aware that the teenage daughter of a prominent member Congress, serving on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure was a passenger on one of the flights. And although she was uninjured, her Congressional parent has become fixated on the causes that could have resulted in the child’s death.
Initially thankful that she was spared, the Congressional Representative commissions an investigative hearing and begins to loudly and repeatedly call for a solution to the overcrowded skies near Philadelphia, threatening the reduction in transportation funding if no solution is found. And regional authorities cast their eyes furtively towards the underused 8000-ft runway at the Pitcairn Aviation Business Center.
Once again, Horsham residents line up – this time in staggering numbers – to fight what is sure to become a blight on their community. They are sure they have the law and regional authorities on their side, since they were assured that the Pitcairn airport would never be classified for large, heavy jet operations. But to their horror they find out that the Pennsylvania State Aviation Board had reclassified the Pitcairn airport to its highest possible level based solely on runway length, thereby permitting the largest and heaviest aircraft to be flown into and out of the airport. There was no requirement to inform anyone in the Horsham community.
(This very scenario was a factor in recent attempts by the Bucks County Airport Authority to lengthen the runway at Doylestown Airport. The designation of the Doylestown runway was increased from “Basic” to “Advanced”, which essentially tripled the size of aircraft able to use their runway, without notification to the public! Doylestown residents only found out by digging out the information themselves. No one at BCAA claimed knowledge of the change!)
An 8000 ft runway can accommodate MOST large aircraft. The exceptions being wide body international flights that normally require 10,000 ft runways as a minimum when fully loaded.
Flash forward five more years, the eastern end of Horsham Township bares little resemblance to the pleasant, suburban community it was in 2011. Almost the entire eastern side of Rt 611 from Meetinghouse Road to County Line has been acquired by eminent domain and is now the site of a huge three-story commercial passenger terminal, two rental car agencies, and off/on-ramps that by necessity must run behind the terminal building (similar to the arrangement at PHL) to and from the now six-lane Rt 611. These facilities – connected to the airport proper by tunnels dug below Rt 611 – had to be located off the airport property due to space restrictions.
In addition, the south side of Horsham Road is home to a new Marriott Hotel, a Hampton Inn, six restaurants and a shopping mall. Rt 463 is also six lanes wide now, yet still constantly full of auto traffic now joined by an endless stream of trucks heading into the airport’s freight and services entrance near Norristown Road. Both Rts 611 and 463 are snarled as much by gaper delays as they are by volume as motorists gape open-mouthed at the huge commercial jets swooping noisily over 611 to the Horsham International Airport runway!
Horsham Township would NEVER be the same, and all because we believed the assurances that an 8000-ft runway would never threaten the character and atmosphere of our neighborhoods.
This my personal nightmare scenario, not a sleepy muni-type airport like that proposed as the Pitcairn Aviation Business Center. What keeps me up at night is what might happen should the heretofore unthinkable become a reality!
Please make sure you attend the June 10 community charrette event at the Horsham Township Community Center!!