Martin airport's neighbors uneasy since crash More resent the noise, want air show ended

November 09, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

When a single-engine airplane sputtered and stalled twice in the autumn sky over Martin State Airport recently, Tom and Rosemarie Lehner cringed below in their back yard.

Nearby, members of the Bongiorno family feel their Bowleys Quarters home tremble when military jets and cargo planes take off from Martin. Across the street, John Hammen's horses and dogs get the jitters during takeoffs.

Skittishness in eastern Baltimore County has intensified in the two months since an Air Force F-117A Stealth fighter jet crashed into Bowleys Quarters during an air show. Many residents have a fear of flying.

"We're all waiting for the other shoe to drop," said Rosemary Bongiorno, whose house is a quarter-mile from the airport's runway.

The Sept. 14 crash shattered decades of peaceful coexistence between area residents and officials at Maryland's largest general aviation airport, sparking demands for the air show to be canceled and rekindling complaints about loud air traffic. Thursday, residents of Bowleys Quarters and Wilson Point will meet with the air show sponsor and Maryland Air National Guard commanders to seek a peace accord.

To some, airplane noise is just part of the landscape. But for others, the Stealth crash -- the second plane crash in the nine-year history of the Chesapeake Air Show -- lingers like a bad dream.

"I'll never forget grabbing my young son who was on our pier, tucking him under my arm, and running," Tom Lehner, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, said of the Chester Road crash. "Just the other night, I had a nightmare involving a Stealth."

Carmen Bongiorno, 9, has developed a nervous tic since he witnessed the crash 200 feet from his property. His mother says he fears another crash when planes fly over his home.

"If there were no concerns after the crash, I'd be worried," said Brig. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, commander of the Maryland Air National Guard.

For more than a half-century, Martin State Airport has been the location of aviation milestones and local economic growth.

During World War II, more than 52,000 people worked at the Glenn L. Martin plant, where bombers and flying boats were manufactured. After the war, transports and jets came off the assembly line.

The plant was scaled down after the war, and Lockheed Martin Corp. sold its historic parts factory to General Electric Co. Monday.

Today, the state rents space to more than 250 private and corporate aircraft -- contributing to the $43 million in revenue the airport generates. The Air National Guard, a tenant since 1960, pays $25,000 in annual rent.

Guard officials tout the economic impact of their operation. The base has an annual payroll of $33 million, is involved in many community programs, conducts hurricane relief and participates in worldwide missions, they said.

Since moving to Martin, the Air Guard has embarked on a building program with new hangars and administrative offices. Eight C-130 cargo planes and 17 A-10 jets are based there.

To some residents, though, the only concern is that the airplanes shatter their quality of life.

"The airport is such a lousy neighbor," said John Hammen, who lives in Martin's flight path. "The big planes spook my horses and dogs. And the Air Force security people block Eastern Boulevard every day at 5 p.m to let cars off the base. It's a pain."

Complaints heeded

Officials have received approval for a traffic signal at the base entrance, Tuxill said. And after receiving complaints about questionable maneuvers by A-10 pilots, Tuxill ordered sharp vertical climbs over the base discontinued.

"We are continuing to try to be good neighbors," Tuxill said. "But like any issue, there is perception and there is reality. Some folks say we have increased our flights when, in fact, we have about a dozen fewer aircraft.

"I know how devastating this crash and aftermath have been, so we plan to stay engaged with the community."

This week, the Air Force's rehabilitation of the Chester Road crash site will be complete. Workers will dig out and replace soil contaminated by jet fuel and oil, covering the site with new dirt.

"That will be symbolic," Lehner said. "But we are hoping that the Chamber of Commerce strongly considers canceling the air show or altering it to make it safer for residents."

Unlike a 1990 air show accident in which a stunt pilot was killed, no one was seriously injured in this year's crash.

But Lehner said the Stealth flight, like other high-speed flyovers, prompted officials to temporarily close part of Eastern Boulevard, empty some small creeks of boats and delay train traffic. The geographical boundaries contain the pilot in one section of airspace and help limit damage in the event of a crash.

Edward Ziegenfuss, executive director of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the air show, said the group's directors are unlikely to cancel it. The event is critical to the chamber's budget, he said.

Compromise wanted

Ziegenfuss declined to reveal how much money is generated by the show, which draws more than 15,000 spectators. But he said the money allows the chamber to create scholarship funds at Essex Community College, and to support youth groups and the Glenn L. Martin Museum.

"We understand there is mixed emotion among residents about the air show continuing," Ziegenfuss said.

One longtime resident, Fred Conrad, hopes for a compromise between his community and the chamber.

"I think we should try to make peace with them," said Conrad, whose family has operated a 15-acre picnic area on Frog Mortar Creek since 1931. "Some feel that if the chamber got rid of the high-speed jet aircraft, the air show could continue and it would be safer for all involved."

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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