Lancaster Airport growth debate is bringing FAA officials to town


Aug. 5--In the six months since 50 people were killed in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, the fear of planes falling from the sky has loomed in the background as neighbors and government flight regulators debate plans to expand Lancaster Airport.

Residents of expanding subdivisions beneath the flight path of the small but increasingly busy airport will talk with representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration at 6:30 p. m. today in the airport's main hangar, 4343 Walden Avenue.

Neighbors have been complaining about low-flying and show-off pilots within easy view of their deck chairs. As the airport, founded in the 1960s, prepares to extend its runway to allow for more gradual takeoffs and bigger corporate jets, some residents are worried about increasing air traffic.

"We don't want to have an airplane fly into us," said Jan Parent, who for the last seven years has lived with her husband, Charlie, beneath the flight path in a pretty brick house with a garden off Nichter Road. "They're flying lower than they ever did."

In 1972, when she was living in Cheektowaga, she said, a plane from the Buffalo airport crashed into houses and killed six people on her street.

A vocal group of airport neighbors has emerged with a list of demands for change: Let Buffalo Niagara International Airport's air traffic control take charge of the small-plane flights at the airport, remove Bob Miller Flight Training from Lancaster Airport and do not extend the runway without further safety review.

"All three are bad ideas, and I wish the group would wait until they receive good information," said Tom Gelef, president of Lancaster Airport. As a federally classified "reliever" airport, he said, Lancaster serves smaller, slower planes so they don't clog up the Buffalo airport for bigger planes.

Extending the runway from 3,200 feet to more than a mile would allow for more small planes, including corporate jets, to come and go, he said.

And, Gelef said, this would give more takeoff space for more gradual, safer ascents. Planes may fly less directly over neighborhoods in the flight path, he said.

Flight and airport rules that regulate what the neighbors complain about are complex. The FAA will send representatives from several divisions to address them tonight: an air traffic manager from the Buffalo airport, a flight standards official and an administrator for the Eastern Region.

"We're there to support the airport and answer questions," said Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman in Queens. "It's all a unified system."

The airport opposition was organized in June by David and Carmen Hangauer, who moved from Clarence to a new house on Nichter in November. They formed the Safe Aviation Coalition of Lancaster, which they say has about 50 members. "Every day the group grows," Carmen Hangauer said. "All kinds of rules are being violated."

Watching the airport traffic from the back porch has been alarming. She saw a plane dip between her house and a neighbor's, she said. The Hangauers said they routinely see low-flying planes that seem dangerously close.

"Most of the pilots out there are hobbyists," David Hangauer said. "They like to do what's fun."

The flight route was designed to keep Lancaster planes from crowding the airspace of the Buffalo airport.

Lancaster is a small private airport owned by five partners in a two-family stock corporation -- Geles' father was one of two founders. They make money selling fuel and from renting space to about 60 planes.

Two years ago, pilot Bob Miller began renting space and opened a flight school. He now has three planes, five pilot-teachers and 50 students.

"There were no houses when I started two years ago," he said.

To make his point that Lancaster is a good, relatively rural spot for an airport, he flew his small, four-seat Cessna plane and pointed out the airport surroundings. The houses on Nichter line a small lake. Big industrial buildings and large swaths of undeveloped green-space were nearby. This, he said, is a better airport neighborhood than a more densely populated place.

"I don't know where else an airport can go," Miller said.

Next, he flew a few minutes away to Akron, where that town's small airport seems to end as the main street begins. Miller pointed to a high school building along another edge. "See how close that is?" he said.

He said he knows that some pilots do fly too low in Lancaster. But a public airport is like a public road, he said, and pilots are like drivers: Some are responsible; some are not.

Miller said he is careful to teach proper flying protocol to his students -- ages 16 to 80 -- who pay $5,000 for instruction needed to earn a basic license.

"This is a business that I've put my heart and soul and sacred fortune into," Miller said. "We need to get along."