Fear of flying reaches new heights

CLEVELAND - Tom Meyer, The Investigator, uncovered the "danger zone" at Hopkins International Airport thanks to a consultant who got himself in big trouble for trying to make the airport safer.

Every plane passenger's worst nightmare is crashing into something in the air. That is exactly what frightens Clevelander Brian Saltsman, who spoke to Action News exclusively about a potential threat to your safety.

For 17 years, Saltsman developed torpedoes for the Navy before landing a job at Hopkins as an electrical engineering consultant. But the city gave him the boot for blowing the whistle on what he describes as potential towers of trouble.

"Each of those towers is 871 feet. They're only allowed to be 819 feet, making them five stories too tall," Saltsman said.

He is referring to seven transmission towers near the southwest end of the new runway. You'll probably see them the next time you take off or land at Hopkins. Saltsman says two, in particular, should cause you to worry.

"Aircraft aren't expecting obstacles to be in those areas," he said. "They'll be hit by aircraft."

Saltsman was removed as manager for the powerline project when he went to his supervisor about safety concerns. Later, he went to the FAA with those same concerns.

Within days, he was fired.

Saltsman wasn't alone, however. The runway designer shared similar concerns in a letter that he wrote to the city.

Despite all of this, the airport's deputy commissioner, Fred Szabo, says not to worry.

"I'm perfectly confident that runway is safe," Szabo said.

How so? What about Saltsman's allegations?

"The matter is under appeal and it's not appropriate for us to comment at this time," Szabo said.

The new runway opened with a lot of hoopla in December. Less than a month later, Continental Express flight 2051 slid off that runway and fell on its nose, stopping just short of an airport fence.

"I personally think they never should have let us land," passenger Inara Mantenieks said.

Inara and Maris Mantenieks were among the 47 passengers aboard the flight which approached the runway from the southwest, near the transmission towers.

"It's not worth the risk," Inara said. "It just takes one accident, one mistake, then you have a terrible tragedy."

Could the pilot even see the towers in the heavy snow? Those questions are exactly what Saltsman said that he feared when he began asking questions.

Some passengers said they're glad that he did.

"Under adverse weather conditions like we had, there should be plenty margin of error," Maris said.

Prior to the accident, the FAA called the nearby powerline "a hazard to air navigation." Three months later, however, the FAA decided that it would not be a hazard providing special precautions were taken.

Hopkins Airport Director John Moke said that it has been taken care of.

"We've lighted the tops of both those towers at the direction of the FAA", Moke said. "If the weather conditions deteriorate to a category 3, meaning really bad weather, the pilot can't see the lights."

In a couple of years, the new runway will come even closer to the powerlines when it's lengthened by nearly a half-mile. Then what? Will they stay or will the city have to spend millions to bury them?

The city said that it doesn't expect any changes. All of this is news to one of city council's airport watchdogs.

"These are serious allegations and I'm going to be looking to the administration to answer the questions that have been brought forth," councilman Martin Sweeney said.

Saltsman said that he's paying a hefty price for going to the Feds. Now, he wants to share everything that he knows with the new airport director.