The College Park Airport, the world’s oldest airport still in continuous use, could see less air traffic as more construction projects sprout up along Route 1 and on this university’s campus.
Standing on the historic runway where the Wright brothers once helped train the first military pilots, longtime pilot Kurt Schneckenburger pointed in the direction of the campus.
“You’ve got the [University] View there. Then Clark Hall will come next to it. And [the Hotel at the University of Maryland] will be next to that,” said Schneckenburger, a Beltsville resident. “You’re building a wall.”
Though not directly adjacent to the airport, these three buildings would stretch across the horizon in front of the airport runway. So many buildings, Schneckenburger said, could be difficult to fly around, especially on hotter days when planes have less lift.
If it is too much of a challenge to fly planes from the 105-year-old airport, he said, it could go into disuse.
The View is currently the only completed building of the three, but a groundbreaking for Clark Hall was held Nov. 21 and the Hotel at the University of Maryland is slated for construction beginning this spring.
Clark Hall, the engineering school’s planned six-floor biomedical facility, has come under scrutiny by the Maryland Aviation Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, both of which declared that the research building would be a hazard to air traffic.
The MAA and the FAA have not ruled on the safety of the Hotel at the University of Maryland, which is substantially taller than Clark Hall at 13 stories.
Bill Olen, the interim executive director for planning and construction with Facilities Management at this university, said the design for Clark Hall is still in progress and can change even after groundbreaking has occurred.
The university will wait for a response from Prince George’s County on the matter before a change in design is considered Olen said.
“We are required to respond to the county and state agencies. We are dealing with MAA and with PG County,” he said. “We are in the process of responding both to the county and to the state.”
Depending on how the state and county rule on the issue of air safety, Olen said the university would consider various options, including shortening Clark Hall from its current design — 134 feet above ground level.
“We would really not like to do that, but it’s an option,” he said.
Other options include equipping the building with hazard lights, as was done with Prince Frederick Hall, which previously had been considered a hazard by the MAA and an obstacle by the FAA.
The FAA and the MAA review buildings projects near airports, and one of their considerations is a number of imaginary surfaces around airports that buildings should not penetrate, MAA spokesman Jonathan Dean said. Clark Hall is taller than the maximum height allowed near the airport.
“The building as designed would penetrate the horizontal surface [of the maximum allowed] by 4 feet,” he said. “The design was 4 feet too high.”
Others at this university have noted, however, that this small height difference should not interfere with the construction of Clark Hall.
Edward Maginnis, a lawyer for this university, spoke at a Dec. 4 board meeting of Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission about the issue. He pointed out that Clark Hall is shorter than the View — which stands at 16 stories — and is 200 feet farther away from the runway. The View was officially ruled a hazard by the MAA, but only considered an obstacle by the FAA.
“I haven’t heard anybody say [Clark Hall] is not safe,” Maginnis said at the meeting. “I’ve heard it’s four feet above an imaginary surface.”
Ultimately, the rulings of both the MAA and the FAA serve as advisories and are not necessarily binding, Dean said. The FAA is currently reviewing the Clark Hall project once again.
Schneckenburger said 4 feet is not much but suggested that if Clark Hall is permitted to be taller than what is considered safe for air traffic, it could pave the way for more buildings being constructed without regard for air safety.
On Saturday, Schneckenburger took his four-seater Piper Cherokee around the College Park area. Aided by the lift of the cold air, he flew close to an altitude of 400 feet, but said he could lose as much as 100 feet on hot days. Smaller planes can’t reach the same altitude as larger ones, which could make it difficult to clear nearby buildings in the summer, he said.
In the short term, more buildings and the resulting more difficult flight conditions could mean many pilots will simply stop flying from College Park Airport, he said.
But in the long term, the increased number of buildings could have larger consequences.
“The airport is over 100 years old,” Schneckenburger wrote in an email. “It has seen a lot of change over that time — most of it coming in the last decade or so. If enough buildings that penetrate the protected surfaces around the airport are built — at some point the airport could lose its operating license and be closed. The only thing left will be the museum.”