The recent proposal to have a sports park coined “Invincible park” on the grounds of the famous “airfield practice grounds” has raised safety concerns from many well-meaning Liberians at home and abroad. The central theme for most of the counter-arguments is proximity. Most people are saying the park will be “too close for comfort” and that might be a point to consider; however, let us look at the history and operations of the airport and possible recommendations for the inclusion of the park within the airport vicinity.
Commercial service airports (CSAs) around the world are major business hubs in-terminal and externally. In short airport environments are very busy areas with both airport and non-airport related activities. Experts in the aviation industry are very cognizant of what it means to have airports imbedded within active human communities and that is why there are set rules governing airport operations wherever that might be.
From an aviation standpoint James Spriggs Payne airport (KMLW) seems to have a good safety record. I have not read anywhere that the airport was written off for safety violations, neither at any time was it served citation for failure to correct a safety hazards recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
KMLW is also a towered airport which means every inbound and outbound aircraft is under air traffic controller (ATC) guidance. Communications between pilots and ATC is critical to the overall safety of the aircraft, airport and environment. Additionally, the mostly year-round clear skies in Monrovia makes for a visual flight rule (VFR) which means pilots always know and see where they are flying therefore crashing into the park might be of an obsolete chance, not dismissible though.
In the mid 90’s there were record number of accidents at KMLW which were unofficially attributed to aging aircraft and pilot errors. In 1994 and 1995 a Nigerian-based carrier, Aviation Development Company (ADC) experienced two crashes of her DC-9 aircraft. I remember in one of those crashes the aircraft overran the runway on the southern end and right onto the football field. There was also another crash on a rainy day of a Weasua Air Transport Yak-40 aircraft which skidded off the runway towards the only taxiway on the Larkpazee side of the airfield. There were no reported deaths in any of those crashes.
It is not a random act that there has not been any recorded accident in almost thirty years at KMLW; it is due to hard work and science. Kudos to the ATC personnel and pilots!
It appears that the proposed project has some people on the edge for safety reasons; however, if the government moves forward with the project I will recommend the following in the three succeeding paragraphs:
I believe KMLW has a written and rehearsed airport emergency plan (AEP) which contains the aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF). I will encourage that the discussion should focus on linking the ARFF operations to the park design concept. This means the Invincible Park should take into consideration the seamless access and flow of emergency vehicles and equipment in case of an accident. ICAO has an ARFF response time not exceeding three (3) minutes to the accident scene. This means emergency personnel must have all the access they need for their vehicles and equipment to do their job without any hindrance. We have all witnessed the loss of houses to fire in Monrovia due to the lack of alleys for access of emergency vehicles and good Samaritans.
KMLW could also invest in the installation of the engineered material arresting system (EMAS) on the southern end of the runway. The EMAS is made up of materials that are crushable upon impact and makes a plane to come to a full stop upon veering off a runway. This could be the most tangible investment that might help the public to be at ease because it is physical. With EMAS the public will know that whenever a plane ever makes it off the runway, it will not harm people or affect the park.
Another important aspect of safety has to do with the public. Yes, it is rare there will be any crashes at the Invincible Park especially due to reliable aircraft technology, EMAS and good weather; however, if there was ever a crash, the public needs to run away from the aircraft instead of running towards it. The accident scenes of the ADC crashes showed tens of unauthorized people. I understand there are always good Samaritans wanting to help out; however, let the public understand that the heaviest load on an aircraft is a combustible substance called fuel and only trained and authorized personnel can efficiently handle it. Also, the presence of unauthorized people can contaminate the accident scene thereby making the investigatory aspect very challenging. Remember, if airplane “da na yor area, move from der!”
Over the years there have always been ongoing activities at the airfield sports grounds and it is also dear to the hearts of many Liberians especially for someone like me who grew up on the Old Road and Airfield community. The only difference this time is that the activities are going to be a little more organized and structured with the different sporting platforms (basketball, tennis, soccer, etc). I think Liberians should embrace this development project and look forward to exercise their options for the different sporting activities it will offer.
Master of Science in Aeronautics (MSA)
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University