Originally created 12/04/01

St. Marys airport, Navy base reach compromise



ST. MARYS, Ga. - Five weeks ago, Navy officials maintained the St. Marys Airport should be closed permanently because of the security risk to Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.

On Saturday, about 40 pilots and public officials attending a meeting at the airport were told the Navy now supports new Federal Aviation Administration temporary airspace restrictions surrounding the base that went into effect at 9 a.m. Monday.

Those new restrictions allowed the airport to reopen for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"A month ago, I don't think we had all the information to evaluate a threat," said Rear Adm. Jan C. Gaudio, the commander of Navy Region Southeast.

The threat of a terrorist attack has not diminished for the base, which is the home port for 10 Trident submarines and one of the nation's largest stockpiles of nuclear missiles, Rear Adm. Gaudio said. But during the past month, Navy officials have begun new security measures on base that, combined with the new FAA flight restrictions, have provided enough safeguards to allow the airport to reopen, Rear Adm. Gaudio said.

Some of the new measures include improved radar systems and a "layered defense" capable of dealing with any airborne threat, Rear Adm. Gaudio said. He declined to elaborate.

"As the guy responsible (for the base), I feel good about this," he said. "I'm happy we were able to get this done. I think it's a fair compromise."

Georgia State Patrol troopers will also provide security at the airport for the next 90 days, while the new procedures on and off the base are evaluated, said state Rep. Charlie Smith, D-St. Marys.

Rear Adm. Gaudio and other Navy officials also talked to pilots attending the meeting about modifications to air traffic patterns and arrival and departure procedures.

Earlier restrictions imposed after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington banned all aircraft flying lower than 5,000 feet within 5 miles of the base. Those restrictions forced the airport, located about 2 miles from the base, to shut down.

The new restrictions, effective this week, ban pilots from flying within 2 miles of the base at altitudes lower than 3,000 feet. Pilots will have to make a turn during takeoffs and landings to avoid violating base airspace, but they said it was a simple maneuver that will not pose a risk.

"I'm really glad they came to a compromise," said Joe Hannan, a pilot who lives less than a mile from the airport. "This is very doable."

Pilots unable to attend the meeting will learn about the new restrictions in a special notice from the FAA.

Violation of base airspace could result in the FAA suspending a pilot's flying license for up to 30 days for a first offense.

Rear Adm. Gaudio said any violations of airspace would probably come from pilots from outside the immediate area.

"It isn't the pilots flying out of here,"' he said. "In a perfect world, I'd like to have a lot more airspace. This is a compromise."

Jimmy Starline, the chairman of the St. Marys Airport Authority, said he supports the new regulations.

"Basically, all they're asking us to do is not fly over the base," Mr. Starline said. "I think we have the least restrictive compromise we can come up with."