clearwater airpark

A helicopter pilot maneuvers his aircraft toward a landing at Clearwater Airpark. The Florida Department of Transportation review has recommended improvements to the security of the general aviation airpark on North Hercules Avenue.

CLEARWATER — The director of the Clearwater Airpark said the city is already on track to improve perimeter security and fix other security issues outlined in a January Florida Department of Transportation site visit.

“The issues the DOT notes in their assessment include capital improvement projects we’ve identified for future funding,” said Ed Chesney, the city’s Marine and Aviation director. “We’ll be seeking funding from the City Council for security upgrades in June.”

The site visit — performed for the Florida DOT by Kimley-Horn Associates Inc. of Tampa — included a visual inspection of the airpark’s security features, especially fencing, airpark access points and gates, security cameras and closed-circuit television, lighting, and signage, the 18-page report states. Kimley-Horn staff also interviewed airpark personnel about security procedures and threats, identification of vehicles, and special event procedures.

The biggest issue was a lack of security limiting access at a number of gates along the perimeter, Chesney told the Beacon.

The airpark has several pedestrian access gates — most of which are padlocked — around its perimeter. Two electric gates, each of which require remote card keys to enter, allow pilots, flight students, and others to drive through, Chesney said.

The airpark has relied on keys and padlocks for too long, he said.

“We use old-fashioned keys, and the keys haven’t been changed in a long time,” he said. “There are many keys out there that we can’t account for; they’re not lost, but given to somebody else.”

Chesney is putting together a $75,000 funding request, that he will present to the City Council in June, to replace padlocks and keys with electronic key card entry and/or perhaps Bluetooth smart phone apps with a second layer of security.

The existing electronic gates, which close automatically after a vehicle enters, take too long to shut, which leaves plenty of time for the next driver to sneak through behind the first driver.

“We have a problem with piggybacking,” Chesney said. “You’re supposed to pull in and stop and not let another car in on your card, but it happens.”

The answer, Chesney said, is to install a guard shack at the main entrance where existing security guards can check the identification of everyone trying to enter the airfield. Guards would also require visitors and pilots to sign in and sign out of the gate. A bank of screens in the shack also would give security guards a view of the comings and goings at other access points.

“We don’t have a way to know who comes and goes at night,” he said. “Everyone has their pass card, but I think it’s a better option to have our security person at the gate sign people in.”

The Florida DOT, which regulates smaller, general aviation airports like Clearwater Airpark, had Kimley-Horn ask airpark staff about security.

“Staff expressed concern about gaps in the CCTV coverage and the quality of the images provided,” the report states. “There is no full-time monitoring of closed-circuit TV cameras to prevent piggybacking and the only security staff is on site only during overnight hours.”

Though the perimeter is patrolled by a security company overnight, the report said barbed wire on top of the security fence needs repairing and there are places of thick vegetation where unauthorized people and animals might enter the runway.

The report also recommends better lighting in the aircraft parking area so people and aircraft would be more visible on the closed-circuit TV system.

Improving fencing, lighting, and limiting unauthorized access are already part of the airpark’s plans under the DOT’s funding formula.

Home to Tampa Bay Aviation flight school, the airpark (which won general aviation airport of the year by the Florida DOT in 2014) has modest, but expensive dreams. Its short-term, $13.6 million capital improvement plan wish list includes $2.4 million for a new terminal and better perimeter security, $4.684 million for new hangars (picture a long shed under which aircraft can park), the expansion of aircraft parking areas, and other improvements.

General aviation master plans are required by the FDOT to ensure municipal and smaller airports outside of the federal system maintain modern and safe operations. When no federal funding is available, FDOT may provide up to 80 percent of general aviation airport project costs, Chesney said.