The weather at the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, was sunny and clear when a small, twin-engine aircraft carrying some cargo touched down, went off the runway and plunged down a steep, wooded hillside killing its two pilots. It just as easily could have been one of the commercial airliners that serve the crumbling, hilltop airport that veteran pilots describe as one of the most dangerous in the world.
Narrow taxiways and the sole, narrow runway that constitute the antiquated hilltop airfield were made for the prop planes flying at the end of World War II, when Yeager field was built.
Passengers aboard today’s jets are horrified as they peer from the windows of their flights taxiing, taking off and landing at Yeager. What they see is that there’s not much room between their planes and steep hillsides that drop off precipitously just a bit beyond the wingtips of their aircraft. As with the cargo plane that veered off the runway and plummeted down the proximate mountainside, commercial airline pilots have precious little room to recover or halt their planes in case of an emergency.
What is more, attempts to modernize the airport — to make it safer — have met with disastrous results. The runway was extended, but, then, a massive mudslide at one end of the airstrip took out a huge chunk of the overrun system and several buildings with it.
Last year, the precision navigation system was declared out-of-service for a time. And a short-term, out-of-service notice went out to pilots telling them that the lighting system would not be operating.
In the wake of the troubled history with the airport, the potential for a major airline disaster is obvious. An engineering marvel at the time it was built as it materialized on top of leveled mountains and overfilled valleys, it is, today, a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Despite the perceptible need for a modern jet airport capable of handling, safely, 21st-century airplanes, local, state and federal officials have resisted moves to meet the need. Bereft of solutions to fix Yeager field, officials seem to be on idle, with their fingers crossed, hoping that no more planes and people end up at the bottom of a hill.
Such false hope is unconscionable. And so is the argument against a new airport that passengers — including the very officials who will be blamed for a future disaster — will be inconvenienced by having to drive an extra 30 minutes to get to a modern, safe air facility.
A native West Virginian, Ed Rabel is an Emmy Award-winning television journalist and author who lives in Lincoln County.