Plane crash destroys airport’s navigational system

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Pieces of the Sandpoint Airport’s navigation system lay scattered in the grassy area adjacent to the runway after an Aerostar 602P crashed off the Sandpoint Airport runway Monday morning. (Photo by CAMERON RASMUSSON)

SANDPOINT — A pilot accused of flying drunk crashed his airplane Monday at the Sandpoint Airport, destroying its navigation equipment.

No one was hurt after an airplane crashed off the Sandpoint Airport runway and into a chain link perimeter fence at 7:30 a.m. However, pilot Donald Muirhead, 55, was arrested on charges of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon said.

Officials are awaiting word from a Federal Aviation Administration investigation regarding the official cause of the accident. According to Coon, Muirhead and two other adult males, who were not named, took off from Provo, Utah, at 6:30 a.m. with Sandpoint as their final destination.

SilverWing Flight Services manager Jason Hauck, who was contracted to oversee the accident clean-up, said damage to both the aircraft and airport property is extensive. Before coming to a stop at the far end of the airfield, the Aerostar 602P crashed through the airport’s primary navigational equipment. According to Hauck, the instrument system is used by almost all pilots to negotiate a landing in darkness or bad weather.

While Hauck only has preliminary estimates of the system’s worth, he speculates that it is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the Sandpoint Airport navigation system utilized equipment no longer being manufactured. The process of engineering, designing and installing a new system, plus coordinating authorizations from multiple government entities, could take months, Hauck said.

Hauck believes the cost of the new system will be recouped through liability insurance payments. More costly, however, could be the loss of local revenue due the airport’s now-limited capabilities, he added. Without a proper navigation system, the airport lacks a means to safely guide aircraft into a landing in poor visibility — an increasingly common situation as winter approaches. If arriving flights are unable to land in Sandpoint, it could eat into the subsequent food, entertainment and lodging revenues. In 2009, airport-related revenue to the region was valued at $33 million.   

“This will definitely hurt the local economy,” Hauck said.

With damages to the navigation system irreparable, Hauck focused on clearing the damaged aircraft from the field. Approximating its value at about $350,000, he said the goal was to remove the plane as carefully as possible to avoid damaging it further. There’s no telling whether the craft will be worth repairing at this point, he added.

“This is a very complex, high-performance airplane,” he said. “It’s pressurized, and that alone really complicates repairs.”    

Airport damages are less worrying for local aerospace industries, according to officials with the companies.  Steve Babin of Tamarack Aerospace Group said the system damages will alter the way company associates plan their landings, more of an inconvenience than anything else. Similarly, Julie Stone of Quest Aircraft said the damages may impact the company’s flight schedule in the future, but they don’t anticipate any major harm.   

“At this point, we foresee no major disruption to our activities,” she said. “We are, of course, very glad no one was hurt.

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