STRATFORD — Two decades after eight people died in an airplane crash at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, local, state and federal officials finally agreed Wednesday to create a safety zone at the end of the runway where the Piper twin hit a blast fence.
The $46 million deal, signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and Stratford Mayor John Harkins, also signaled a thaw in relation between Bridgeport and Stratford over the airport, which is owned by Bridgeport, but sits entirely in Stratford near the Lordship section.
The agreement will create a 300-foot-long “Engineered Materials Arrestor System,” or EMAS, at the end of runway 6-24, reconfigure a southern portion of Stratford’s Main Street and will mean that the runway will be rebuilt as well. New runway lights will be installed, too.
“This airport is an asset to the region and to Stratford, and this is a reasonable agreement,” Mayor Harkins said. “Main street will be fixed, and its flooding will be reduced dramatically, and the footprint of the airport will be reduced. This agreement makes so much sense.”
EMAS is essentially a paved area made of weak-walled concrete blocks. When an aircraft runs over it, it collapses to a specified depth, slowing and stopping the aircraft in a predictable manner and with minimal damage.
Ninety percent of the $46 million project will be paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration, with the state and city of Bridgeport evenly splitting the remaining 10 percent.
“This agreement is partly because of the great working relationship that John and I had passing bipartisan bills when we were both in the Legislature together, and having trust in one another.” Finch said.
Harkins agreed, saying said that it’s time to move beyond the vitriol that has defined relations between Stratford and Bridgeport owing to airport arguments.
“The dynamic of this airport has changed dramatically and times have changed,” Harkins said.
Malloy called the agreement a “win-win-win” for the region.
“This is a common-sense approach to solve a long-standing problem,” Malloy said. “It took patience and understanding, and for relatively few dollars, this will be an airport that will have a larger economic impact for Stratford and Bridgeport.”
Wednesday’s agreement also transfers about 40 acres of airport property to the town of Stratford; most of it either in the Long Beach West parking lot or marshland.
It’s expected the project project will be completed in 2016.
“It’s a great story — jobs, improved safety,” said Mary Walsh, FAA division manager. “Nobody loses.”
Harkins noted the airport no longer features commercial flights, calling it an asset to the region.
“This is an opportunity for the town of Stratford to work with the city of Bridgeport to create a vibrant airport that suits everyone’s needs,” Harkins said.
Runway 6-24 and its ominous blast fence have been cited as a factor more than a half-dozen accidents over the years, the most tragic of which occurred on the foggy night of April 27, 1994. Eight people died in the fiery crash of a chartered twin-engine Piper that night; the lone survivor was the co-pilot, who was badly burned.
Although that crash was blamed on pilot error, the FAA concluded at the time that had the blast fence not been there, the crash would have been survivable.
Experts today say that had the EMAS system been in place, there quite likely would not have been serious injuries that night.
Another pilot died after an encounter with the blast fence on Oct. 23, 1990. Yet another plane, a Pilatus PC-12 commuter turboprop, struck the fence on July 19, 2009, although no one was hurt in that incident.
At the time of the 1994 crash, EMAS didn’t exist. The FAA recommended in the fall of 1999 that runway 6-24 get a 1,000-foot gravel “runway safety area” at each end. This suggestion wasn’t well-received in the Stratford Town Council chambers and there was anger aplenty over the runway extension issue.
The other runway, 11-29, isn’t affected by this latest agreement. Both runways will remain at the same length they are now — 4,677 feet for 6-24 and 4,761 feet for 11-29.
With the new configuration, the blast fence will no longer be necessary, as Main Street won’t be adjacent to the end of 6-24, officials said.
The agreement covers other territory, too, calling for discussions to make Sikorsky a regional, state-operated facility; requiring the removal of tainted soil from the former Raymark plant and giving Stratford the ability to collect taxes from any new structures at the airport.