On January 13, 2016

Industrial wind turbines and airports, safety first

By Brian Dubie

It was my honor to serve as Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor for eight years. While I was in office, I was invited to tour the site of a proposed industrial wind turbine complex in Ira, Vt. My tour guide was a commercial pilot. He explained his concerns about the project’s impact on Southern Vermont Regional Airport in nearby Rutland.

Being a commercial airline pilot myself, I understood and shared my colleague’s concerns. We were not alone—the airport manager expressed grave concerns about the project and the “operational safety and the economic impact it has on the airport.” As a result of what I learned I joined with them to oppose the project.

Impacts on aviation were not the only problem with the Ira project. It was too close to neighboring homes, and it was opposed by most of the towns that it would have affected. The project was never built.

As a pilot with 39 years of accident-free flying in commercial, military and light aircraft, I feel well-qualified to state that placing 500-foot tall obstacles on top of a ridgeline within 10 miles of an airport is a bad idea. The wind turbines proposed for Ira would have created an obstacle course for the airport in Rutland. In response to the threat posed by industrial wind turbines to our airports Representative David Potter (a Democrat from Clarendon) sponsored an Airport Hazard Area bill in 2010.

This legislation proposed to:

  • Define Airport Hazard Area as 10 miles from an airport.
  • Prohibit the construction of anything that: a) is found by the FAA to be an obstruction or hazard, b) is more than 100 feet tall and within the 40:1 slope plane from the end of the runway,  c) interferes with radar, navigation equipment, etc., d) restricts established procedures for takeoff, landing, visual flight rules operations VFR and military training routes.
  • Sadly this legislation has not been acted upon by the General Assembly. Under the best weather conditions, negotiating an industrial wind turbine obstacle course reduces a pilot’s margin of safety. In bad weather, when pilots are flying under marginal visual flight rules or instrument conditions, an obstacle course could be downright deadly.
  • One crash highlights the added risks to pilots posed by obstacles on ridgelines. In 1995 Flight 1572 hit trees on a ridgeline while making a night instrument approach to Bradley International Airport. One of the reasons cited by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designed the approach to the runway without taking the trees on the ridgeline fully into consideration. The aircraft hit trees on the ridgeline near the airport and crashed short of the runway. Placing 500-foot industrial wind turbines on ridgelines near airports reduces the margin of error that separates an aircraft from obstacles.

Here is another possible scenario: Consider a twin engine aircraft, say a Cessna King Air that is heavily loaded with passengers, cargo and fuel taking off on a hot summer day under instrument conditions, meaning the aircraft will be slow to climb and more difficult to control. Shortly after takeoff the left engine fails, the aircraft will pull to the left and will require a large right rudder input to keep the aircraft on the extended center line of the runway. The loss of the left engine and the need to add right rudder will add drag and slow the rate of climb. Because of the low cloud ceilings the pilot will be flying on instruments and attempting to fly straight ahead on the extended center line of the runway. In the case of the proposed industrial wind project in Swanton, if the pilot drifts off course just a little to the east he or she could find themselves flying in the middle of seven industrial wind turbines with massive turbines blades spinning at close to 200 m.p.h., which could result in a crash.

Could this happen? Yes. Last year in South Dakota four people were killed when their plane failed to negotiate a wind turbine obstacle course.

The wind turbines proposed for Rocky Ridge in Swanton would create an obstacle course for the Franklin County Airport. Franklin County Airport is an important asset to our region and our state. The Army National Guard and General Aviation pilots use Franklin County Airport for training.  I am proud that my son and my nephew have chosen to fly for the National Guard—they and their fellow National Guard pilots train at Franklin County Airport. The proposed Swanton industrial wind project would present additional risk to the safe operations at the airport. This added risk is why my aviation colleagues and I have chosen to speak out against it.

The Vermont Legislature has set a goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050. A prominent proponent of industrial wind has stated that this would require us to put industrial wind turbines on 200 miles of our ridgelines. For reference, the entire Long Trail is 272 miles.

I ask the legislature to take up Rep Potter’s bill that defines and protects Airport Hazard Areas and will ensure safe operations at our airports and the public they serve.

Brian Dubie is a former Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor and is currently the chair of the Vermont Aerospace and Aviation Association.

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