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Thu, Sep 09, 2004

Fort Pierce Airport Takes a Beating

St. Lucie County International (KFPR) Loses Hangars, Planes, to Hurricane Frances

By ANN Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

When will it end for Florida? Maybe with [Hurricane] Ivan, which is likely to pass to the west of the Florida Peninsula proper, at this writing -- not that that is good news for the other Gulf-coast states, as Ivan is expected to pick up energy from the warm Gulf after visiting western Cuba and turning generally north. And not, really, that there are any guarantees in the computer models the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration relies on to plot the advance of tropical storms; they speak the crafty scientific language of probabilities, not the comforting certainties we like to hear. In the meantime, the process of recovery from Charley was interrupted so that dealing with Frances could begin.

Hurricane Frances, which is at this writing (2000Z) northeast of Atlanta and downgraded to "tropical depression" status from its peak, where it edged into Hurricane Category Five briefly, hit some of the airfields already battered by Charley, plus a bunch of fields that dodged the bullet last time. In this category is St. Lucie County International (KFPR) in Fort Pierce (FL), which is reported by Lindsay Jones of the Palm Beach Post to have suffered the loss of a number of hangars, buildings and aircraft on site. County officials didn't have a single solid figure for the dollar value of the damage yet, but their initial estimates soar into the tens of millions of dollars.

As the first powerful hurricane to make landfall this season, Charley caught a lot of complacent operators unprotected. Frances was a weaker hurricane with winds a little over half the speed of Charley's 145+ knots, but aviation operators in its path were much readier to evacuate their aircraft. Weaker than Charley or not, Frances was still strong enough to rip roofs off of commercial buildings and collapse hangars. Most of the 185 aircraft based at the field rode the storm out in safety, elsewhere; but those that remained found that hangars didn't always offer sufficient shelter.

The hangar of Mirabella Yachts' Aviation Division collapsed, crushing eight aircraft inside, county official Dennis Grimm told Jones. Mirabella has been active in, among other things, Grumman Albatross conversion and maintenance and two of the destroyed aircraft are believed to be the large Grumman amphibs, possibly including Mirabella's own N42MY, which was the last Albatross built.

One major tenant, Pan Am International Flight Academy, like many smaller tenants, flew all their flyable aircraft to safety inland, in Pan Am's case at Little Rock, AR. But the aircraft and other equipment in Pan Am's maintenance hangar were damaged or destroyed when the roof of the hangar was ripped off. This school is currently offering Ft Pierce flight students the choice of standing by until repairs are made -- they have already secured a substitute maintenance hangar -- or transferring to Pan Am's Deer Valley (AZ) campus.

A building used by US Customs at the battered airport was also left roofless and exposed to the elements.

The hangar of LanShe Aerospace, the company which owns the type certificates and production rights to the Lake Amphibian and Micco aircraft, was also damaged, with unknown damage to the aircraft and tooling inside.

One lesson of this hurricane season: conventional hangar construction is false security against hurricane-force winds.

Airport Director Paul Phillips was shocked at the extent of the damage. "I expect that this type of disaster is going to catastrophic to many of our tenants," he told the Palm Beach Post -- despite the insurance the airport requires tenants to carry. He estimated the damage at $40 million, while warning that he hadn't seen the extent of the damage inside the ruined buildings. County Administrator Doug Anderson told the Naples Daily News that airport damage could exceed $75 million.

Elsewhere in Florida, damage was not as severe. Orlando International was closed for almost three days. (The only time it's ever been closed longer was when all aviation was grounded after 9/11); Tampa bounced right back; Melbourne was ready to operate but the FAA did not grant permission to resume commercial flights right away. But at Ft. Pierce, only emergency services, public use, and media aircraft were operating, and the St. Lucie County airport -- like most of the county -- remained without power. In Daytona Beach, Embry-Riddle managers, still smarting from the expensive lesson of Charley, flew their aircraft inland to safety -- and decided to leave them there until the course of the next storm is known with more certainty. The students will not be returning until the 13th -- by which time all power outages and other disruptions should be taken care of.

FMI: www.stlucieco.gov/airport, www.stlucieco.gov/airport/airport-info/index.htm

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