FAA: Fairmont airport must communicate with Clarksburg airport to avoid in-flight collisions

May 1—KINGMONT — Samuel Heitzman fell in love with flying through the little planes he learned on.

He flies out of Frankman Field, also known as Fairmont Municipal Airport, right off of Interstate 79 at the Kingmont exit. The airport is home to the small aircraft Heitzman flies as a hobby.

By day, however, Heitzman is also a professional pilot. North Central West Virginia Airport in Clarksburg is one of the stops his company makes as part of the routes they serve. That means Heitzman sees both sides of a problem that Frankman Field is just starting to address.

"Traffic coming off of Fairmont is not talking to air traffic control and impeding flow into Clarksburg," he said. "This could potentially cause crashes or incidents resulting in, you know, loss of life."

On April 25, officials with the Federal Aviation Administration held an informal session at the Fairmont Brickside Bar and Grille, which sits opposite of Frankman Field. Together, FAA Traffic Control Manager David Wilson and several pilots from around the area met to discuss possible solutions that could forestall an accident.

North Central West Virginia Airport is roughly 10 miles from Frankman. On final approach to Clarksburg from the north, pilots descend down to one of the waypoints leading to North Central West Virginia Airport. However, this waypoint is located almost on top of Frankman Field. Instructions for the waypoint has pilots descending to 2,900 feet. Frankman Field is roughly 1,000 feet in elevation, leaving 1,900 feet of space between the landing strip and the waypoint.

What further complicates this is that Frankman Field is uncontrolled airspace, meaning there's no supervision by Air Traffic Control. Pilots following visual flight rules do not have to talk to a control tower unless they are flying in direct controlled airspace. Recreational pilots are the ones who typically fly out of Frankman.

So, a lack of communication exists between pilots taking off from Frankman and ATC in Clarksburg. Pilots taking off from Frankman aren't required to talk to ATC in Clarksburg to ensure there's no traffic around them. Heitzman said it's difficult to see another plane even if it's as close as five miles away.

"So when we do fly into these smaller fields like Clarksburg, we're not particularly paying attention to them as far as looking outside, right," Heitzman said. "We're focusing on inside, on our avionics, our instruments, to ensure a safe landing at our destination. We do have the ability on our avionics to see traffic, but, we have no indication of what their plans are or what they want to do."

So in other words, if a medium size wide body plane is on approach to Clarksburg, a pilot taking off from Frankman most likely doesn't know it's happening.

The FAA reached out to Timothy Baynes, president of the Marion County Municipal Airport. The FAA told Baynes no violations are being made, but with the traffic increasing at Clarksburg as the airport continues to rise in prominence, the issue has become a safety concern.

At the meeting, the most prominent solution to the problem offered was notifying pilots taking off from Frankman Field as to communicate with ATC in Clarksburg. This way, pilots can be kept aware of inbound traffic and avoid a safety issue. For now, no procedural change has been prescribed by the FAA.

"There may be a procedural change down the road," Baynes said. "That's up to the FAA. The airport's not going to make that procedural change because if something happens, once we change the procedure, liability falls on us. So, we'll let the government do what the government does. But there are some things we can do to help."

Baynes said he's working to get the word out to pilots to make sure they're talking to the tower in Clarksburg before taking off. However, the long term problem is there is no regulation dictating communication between Frankman pilots and Clarksburg.

What's trickier is that some of the small planes flying out of Frankman are not equipped with radios. Baynes suggested pilots take a handheld radio or be more vigilant of the airspace around them.

Baynes said resolving this issue matters because lives are on the line. Small planes might only carry 4 or 5 people but if it collides with a larger Airbus, hundreds of lives could be threatened. There are entire neighborhoods between each airport.

"It's our job to mitigate those risks as pilots and professional pilots," Baynes said.

Clarksburg Airport Director Rick Rock said that although they are not a party of the discussions, they are positive the FAA, ATC and users of Frankman will do what's necessary to ensure safe operations.

"Effective flight planning and communication are integral to safe operations," he said. "We support their efforts."

Christopher Mullooly, a spokesperson for the FAA, said through an email statement that air traffic controllers at North Central West Virginia Airport are aware of traffic at nearby Frankman Field Airport.

"They are taking the necessary actions to safely separate aircraft at CKB from Frankman Field departures," Mullooly wrote. "We are holding forums and encourage pilots to continue contacting CKB tower for radar services or alter climb paths when departing Frankman Field."

Reach Esteban at efernandez@timeswv.com