Sharing safety responsibility

To the Editor:

A proposal to create a 25-acre oyster farm in Thomas Bay, east of the airport, is under active review by the Department of Marine Resources. The location of the proposed site is just offshore on the west side of Thomas Island. The area follows the length of the island and extends westward close to Israel Point on Mount Desert Island. The proposal is to install 1,240 float pairs to support the aquaculture operation.

The proposed location is under the approach and take-off pattern for the active secondary runway at the Bar Harbor Airport. That runway is qualified and approved by the FAA for the landing of commercial and passenger aircraft up to nine passengers. As such, it is available for use by Cape Air, which offers year-round service to Downeast Maine.

Without a control tower and under VFR (visual flight regulations), pilots need to fly low enough to visually scan the active runways for traffic before lining up on the final approach. In season, there is a great deal of low-altitude aircraft traffic in the area of the Eastern Narrows and Thomas Bay.

That runway is particularly close to the proposed oyster farm.

Planes fly low over the water on approach to the end of the runway. The aircraft approach pattern to the runway lies directly west of Thomas Island. That area is the proposed location of the 25-acre oyster farm.

The situation in Thomas Bay is substantially different from the aquaculture permit for Goose Cove in the Western Narrows. The end of the main runway at Bar Harbor is a little over a mile from the ocean.

If a permit is issued, the oyster farm plans to install 1,240 float pairs to support the aquaculture operation. That is, the farm will place 2,480 floats in Thomas Bay. Unfortunately, the dimensions of the floats are sizeable. A single float can easily support the weight of several large seabirds.

There can be no doubt that the presence of the aquaculture floats will be a significant attractant to cormorants in Thomas Bay. Such birds will be inclined to linger in this area in large numbers. Even if there was only one bird per float pair, that would place 2,480 cormorants in the takeoff and landing pattern and for the visual approach pattern.

Birds are an aviation hazard. There is no doubt that cormorants are capable of causing devastating damage to aircraft engines. As documented in the FAA report, seabirds also have shattered cockpit windows, demolished aircraft nose cones containing radar equipment, impacted wings and damaged flight control surfaces.

A seabird strike on the blade of a turbo-prop or piston-driven plane may do more than disable the engine. If a propeller blade is broken off, the resulting unbalanced prop will induce severe in-flight vibration, probably beyond most pilots’ ability to respond.

Normally, we think of bird strikes on aircraft as an “act of God.” However, human activity can greatly affect the presence of hazards around airports. When human activity significantly increases the bird populations, bird strikes on aircraft become more of an “act of man.”

The seabird hazard in the Eastern Narrows is compounded by other human activity on the water.

If a commercial airline accident were to happen at Bar Harbor, only time would tell if the carrier could survive such a disaster. If Bar Harbor became known in the industry as a dangerous facility, no air carrier would be willing to serve the airport.

All three levels of government have invested nontrivial sums of money to establish and operate the airport. That investment spans decades and has been substantial. That investment is worth protecting.

Arguably the biggest impact on secondary jobs is to the tourism industry. Tourists arrive daily by way of the scheduled airlines. We have seasonal residents who arrive and depart in everything from a lowly Piper Cub to a Gulfstream G650.

Maine has close to 3,500 miles of coastline. There is no compelling reason that aquaculture activities have to be located at the end of an active runway. The convenience of the aquaculture operator in no way overrides the safety of the public.

It is time for all of us, as individuals and as agencies, to recognize that we have a shared responsibility for safe operations at the Bar Harbor Airport.


Glenn W. Milligan

Columbus, Ohio

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