Conway airport gets clearance to relocate FAA mum on influence of June crash

CONWAY - Yellow-and-black tape still marks off the gutted, burned house that J.V. and Janet Brady once called home. About a mile away, J.V. Brady's brother Tommy is busy at work in a cakedecorating business.

It has been seven weeks since a plane crashed into J.V. Brady's house during an aborted landing. Janet Brady, 71, died in the fire, and explosions that engulfed their small home, just across Ingram Street from the Conway Municipal Airport.

So when someone asks Tommy Brady his reaction to the Federal Aviation Administration's decision this week to approve what had been a major hurdle in the city's efforts to move the airport, his answer is perhaps not surprising.

"I don't even want to think about that today," he said Friday.

J.V. Brady, who suffered minor injuries, couldn't be reached for comment Friday. The June 30 accident also killed Hugh Rains, 71, of Wichita Falls, Texas, the pilot of the Cessna Citation 500.

In a brief e-mail to Conway Mayor Tab Townsell, the FAA said Thursday that it had approved the city's land-use plan for the proposed airport site in the lesspopulated Lollie Bottoms area just southwest of town and near the Arkansas River.

The current airport sits in a neighborhood of mostly small homes and a few businesses. The city has long wanted to move it for economic and safety reasons. But the proposal has been stalled at the FAA for at least three years over concerns about the potential for ducks to strike planes in Lollie Bottoms, an agricultural area.

Townsell called the latest development "great news" and "the biggest step [toward] getting the ultimate final approval for the Lollie Bottoms site for our new airport." Townsell believes the recent plane crash - the second into a house near the airport since 1990 - likely caused the FAA to speed up the plans' approval.

"It's a political world," he said. "I would have to believe that kind of upped the ante and elevated the stakes, and these guys knew they had to make a decision and move the airport." FAA spokesman Roland Herwig, speaking by telephone from his Oklahoma City office, declined to comment on the mayor's statement Thursday.

Even with the latest development, the city probably can't complete a new airport until 2013 due to other steps, including acquiring federal funds, Townsell said.

That's not soon enough for Linda Keathley, who owns Keathley Trucking with her husband, Eldon, just yards from the demolished Brady home.

"I think they should move it tomorrow," she said of the airport. "Every time I hear an airplane, I will look out" to be sure it doesn't crash. "I don't know why it's taken them so long. They've had years." Down the street and around the corner, Margaret Velte was sitting at her dining table Friday as she recalled the 1990 crash that destroyed her mother's home. Velte's mother, who has since died, wasn't hurt and later rebuilt her house in the same spot. Now, Velte and her husband live there.

Velte isn't so sure a new airport will materialize anytime soon.

"We've been through this so many times we don't have any reaction," she said. "They've been trying to get this airport built 20, 30 years. My comment is wait and see.

"I guess for our own protection, it would be best to move it," she added.

Townsell said the city's next step is to update its environmental-impact statement to reflect the land-use plan and a wildlife study the city had conducted.

Townsell said the FAA had not noted any concerns about an adverse impact on wildlife. Rather, the agency's problem with wildlife always has been a safety one, he said.

At one time, the mayor said, there had been some concern about a bald eagle's nest in the area, but the city realigned plans for a 5,500-foot runway - a move that "took the flight path away from the eagle's nest." One Faulkner County resident who's not happy with the airport plans is David Culberson, who lives in Mayflower and owns about 400 acres of land in Lollie Bottoms. During duck-hunting season each year, the retired farmer floods some of his land and leases duck blinds to hunting clubs.

City Engineer Ronnie Hall said Friday that the city hopes to buy out those hunting leases for a price not yet determined.

"I haven't heard anything about that," Culberson said. But he added, "Everything is negotiable." Still, Culberson said he did not think the area's natural environment should be changed.

Hall said the "artificial flooding" of the rice and soybean fields is the problem, not the crops.

Further, Hall said the proposed site would be safer than the current one. He said the closest homes to the Lollie Bottoms location are about a mile away. The current airport is just a few yards from homes and businesses.

Under the FAA-approved landuse plan, existing development would be grandfathered in, Hall said.

This article was published 08/19/2007