Tragic crash prompts new airport safety rules

By George Chappell | Dec 08, 2012
Photo by: Bane Okholm Downeast Air President John Newcomb indicates the elevator on the tail of a 1977 Cessna 172, at the Knox County Regional Airport Dec. 7.

Owls Head — Almost three weeks to the day of the plane crash that killed three men from the University of Maine, Knox County Regional Airport officials approved safety regulations designed to prevent future tragedies.

Members of the Airport Advisory Committee’s subcommittee on safety, operations and maintenance met Dec. 6 to consider changes in flight-line driving procedures and training. Most of the changes relate to driving cars or trucks on runways and taxiways, but the committee is also considering cameras and radio recorders to monitor what takes place at the airport.

Airport Manager Jeff Northgraves said the new rules would tighten security and improve safety.

The Nov. 16 crash killed three people in a four-passenger Cessna 172N when the plane struck a pickup truck that was crossing the runway during takeoff, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report. Airport officials said the driver of the truck was following proper procedures, but they want to adopt new policies to guard against the likelihood of a similar crash in the future.

Northgraves said he had no way of knowing whether the crash would have happened had the proposed rules been in effect in November.

The policies relate to driving cars and trucks within the fence. Northgraves specified three designated areas at the airport: non-movement areas, such as parking areas and driving lanes next to the fence and buildings; aircraft operating areas, such as aircraft parking ramps; and aircraft movement areas, such as runways and safety areas, including the four taxiways.

Northgraves said the airport already requires pilots and airport workers to go through annual training in the procedures. The new training will be more specific for workers in different areas. For example, all cars and trucks on the runway will be required, day or night, to have a flashing beacon on the roof, which the truck in the crash did not have.

Individuals and vehicles allowed for working within the aircraft movement areas are to be pre-approved for entering a safety area or crossing a runway. Others not pre-approved will be specifically trained and approved on a case-by-case basis.

The airport manager will approve the training materials to be used by Downeast Air, Penobscot Island Air, Cape Air, and the Owls Head Transportation Museum for their employees. The businesses listed will certify to the airport manager yearly each individual trained and authorized in each area, along with the specific vehicles authorized, within the aircraft movement area.

The airport manager will train and re-certify all other individuals. Certification will specify the areas to which each person may have access.

Other initiatives include building a 12-to-15 foot wide, 1,000-foot long gravel road parallel to part of the 5,000-foot long Runway 31, allowing cars and trucks to cross the runway at the approach end rather than at taxiways A and C. Other initiatives include recorders for all radio traffic and cameras to monitor runways.

Northgraves told the subcommittee that he suspects the Federal Aviation Administration will recommend similar changes and it would be good to have them in place.

He will report the subcommittee’s findings to the full Airport Advisory Committee and to the Knox County Commission.

Safety panel member John Newcomb, president of Downeast Air, an airplane “service station” leasing the former 120-foot by 90-foot MBNA hangar at the airport, was at the crash site on airport property after the Cessna 172N plunged to the earth nose down on Nov. 16. He was not the first to visit the scene, however. Newcomb said by the time he had arrived on scene the driver of the truck and two other employees from Island Air were walking away from the plane because of too much fire.

"By the time I arrived on the scene, the other three had given up trying to pull the bodies out and had to back off due to the fire," Newcomb said.

On Dec. 7, he showed reporters from Courier Publications a plane parked in his hangar that is similar in model to the plane that crashed. Wiggling the elevator flap on the tail to show its sensitivity to wind drafts, he said he did not see the actual flap that was dislodged when the plane hit the truck on the runway.

According to the Cessna manual in the cockpit, the plane weighs 1,380 pounds when empty, and has a maximum capacity of 2,300 pounds with occupants and fuel. Cessna is a brand that is owned by Textron Corp., and has been around since the 1950s. The plane in the Downeast Air hangar was built in 1977. The one that crashed was a 1979 vintage.

“It’s also called a Skyhawk,” he said.

“The pilot had 4,000 feet of runway left and 1,000 feet of grass from the point of collision,” Newcomb said.

Pilots are taught to stop whenever they feel any impact on a runway, he added.

The investigation of what caused the crash continues.

Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 117 or by email at

John Newcomb, president of Downeast Air, regards a 1977 Cessna 172 at the Knox County Regional Airport Dec. 7. (Photo by: Bane Okholm)
A 1977 Cessna 172 sits in a hangar at the Knox County Regional Airport Dec. 7. (Photo by: Bane Okholm)
A profile view of the elevator of a 1977 Cessna 172, which was parked at the Knox County Regional Airport Dec. 7. (Photo by: Bane Okholm)
A close perspective of the elevator and elevator trim tab of a 1977 Cessna 172 parked at the Knox County Regional Airport Dec. 7. (Photo by: Bane Okholm)
A 1977 Cessna 172 sits in a hangar at Knox County Regional Airport Dec. 7. (Photo by: Bane Okholm)
A view of the tail section of a 1977 Cessna 172 parked at Knox County Regional Airport Dec. 7. (Photo by: Bane Okholm)
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