By Chris Lane
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Since 1962, the Air Rice field in west Houston has been a dirt crop-duster airstrip surrounded by rice fields. Today, a lone, faded wind sock stands stiff in the brisk winter breeze. Hawks and raptors fly low, scouring the shrinking grasslands for prey. It's a Monday in early December, and across a barren tract of 1,980 acres, tractors, trucks and earth-moving equipment rumble about, dust trails billowing behind on the southerly wind. They're clearing space for what could one day become North America's most dangerous airport.
Tucked between Katy and Brookshire among quietly disappearing rice farms, the site hardly looks menacing now. But it's on its way to becoming a business-aviation mecca, the privately funded pipe dream of Ron Henriksen, a former corporate pilot who made his fortune in telecommunications. He's already received Federal Aviation Administration approval, and since it's a private airport and he's footing the entire bill, Henriksen is moving ahead as planned despite public outcry, to which he seems deaf.
"We know of very few people who oppose the project," Henriksen said in response to questions e-mailed through his lawyer, Drew Coats. "A few people have actively tried to spread false rumors about the project, but we have been speaking to community groups for almost a year about the project, and when people hear what we are actually saying, almost everybody has been supportive."
Nope, just the world's largest private jet, a Beechcraft King Air. "The Suburban of the corporate fleet," Coats said to scattered guffaws. The pilot wasn't laughing.
In almost every protest, the first salvo fired is about bird-strike probability -- the likelihood of a bird colliding with an airplane. In March, FAA wildlife biologist Ed Cleary visited the site at the request of Ben Guttery, the FAA's senior program manager at the Texas Airports Development Office. It was his second visit to the site, the first having been in 1996, when he recommended against an airport in an adjacent pasture.
In an FAA memorandum dated June 29, 2005, Cleary wrote, "In my 1996 report, I stated that, 'If at a later time the situation markedly changes, i.e. major urbanization and resulting significant decreases in the numbers of waterfowl wintering the area, this recommendation [against development of the proposed airport] should be reevaluated.' During the 2005 visit, there did not appear to be any large-scale urban development in the Katy Prairie and resultant decrease in waterfowl."
Though Cleary, who is considered the leading expert in the nation regarding bird strikes, conceded that the numbers of snow geese and of most other large species in the vicinity of the field had decreased between visits, he wrote that the number of birds in the area was "still significant" and that counts indicated that the number had leveled off over the past two or three years.
"Within the Katy Brookshire Prairie area, I believe it is safe to say the wildlife aircraft strike potential is just as serious today as it was in 1996," Cleary wrote.
His memorandum included a list of recommendations, which the FAA repeated in a determination letter to project engineer Frank McIllwain dated July 12, 2005, offering tentative approval, but with three conditions: Air traffic should be restricted to the east side of the airport, an air-traffic pattern of at least 800 feet should be maintained, and a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan should be instituted. The plan would help make the land as inhospitable as possible to birds and other wildlife by eliminating standing water and tall grass, moving the airport's runway system as far south as possible, stopping all rice farming, installing automated gates and/or cattle guards, hiring a wildlife hazard manager and installing a bird-detection radar system.
All of which Henriksen and Coats said they are either doing or looking into. Henriksen hired a Steven W. Carothers & Associates environmental consultant named Brian Fairchild to make the Air Rice site unattractive to birds. The problem, critics say, is that Fairchild is also employed by the City of Houston to bring birds back to a mitigation site just 5,000 feet north of the airport.
"I don't think that's a good description of [SWCA's] role," Coats rebutted. "I don't know that I would describe their role as being hired to bring birds back to the area. It's more custodial."
"SWCA is a good firm, but I don't know how they're going to be able to justify a bird attractor like the mitigation site adjacent to an airport," said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy.
Cleary agrees. "There are better places to build an airport," he said in a November phone interview. He cited a 2002 U.S. Air Force Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard Team evaluation of potential Waller County sites that named the southern part of Waller County, closest to Air Rice, as the worst of all possible locations. He also cited an analysis by BASH's Dr. Ron Merritt utilizing the Air Force's Bird Avoidance Model.