I was walking down Main Street this morning when this article clipped from a newspaper wafted down from the sky. It was from the future. July 9, 2016 to be exact. And to go by what it said, the people living around East Hampton Airport were still battling the problems that having been going on there all these years.
JOE BREAKS ANKLE. CHAOS ENSUES the headline said. Here’s the story.
Last Friday, dentist Joe “Mr. Airport” Bellitini slipped and fell in his bathroom breaking his ankle and had to be taken to Southampton Hospital by ambulance on Friday afternoon. Due to a sort of comedy of errors, not so funny, actually, this created a real crisis out at the airport where dozens of helicopters had been hovering patiently in line waiting to get approval from him to land only to find that the phone connection went dead and there were no instructions to be followed. Although several helicopters remained up there waiting for the rest of the day, about 50 of them, by the end of the day, had given up trying to talk to him, turned around and flew back out to Brookhaven Airport to land there. Most of the billionaires who did that wound up calling car services to take them the rest of the way to East Hampton.
“Might as well have driven out,” said Fred Merkle, the C.E.O. of the Ford Motor Company. “Had to have my conference call from the car service with all the lack of privacy and everything.”
The comedy of errors was this. Bellitini, who when not being a dentist is the President of Quiet Skies, the organization that decides who gets to land at the airport now that the town has taken over running it from the Federal Aviation Administration, takes his job very seriously. He had taken his cellphone to the bathroom to stay on top of developments, but when he fell, he hit his head on the towel rack and knocked himself out. Also, the cellphone squirted out of his hand and broke after hitting the wall.
“That’s all I remember,” he told the reporter from his hospital room, where his wife Agnes was hovering over him. It was she who called the ambulance on her cellphone. “I was talking to the Chairman of AT&T trying to get a sense of how urgent it was for him compared to some of the others to be allowed to land. We only had a few more slots open for that hour. Then I woke up on the floor with the paramedics. And of course, I immediately asked for my phone and called my backup, real estate agent Tom Markum, or thought I did. Then I went back to sleep and woke up again here.”
This is only the second time in four years Bellitini has been asleep at the switch. The other time, he had just finished a difficult root canal and, tired, fell asleep in the middle of a conversation with Al Barnsby, the Chairman of Freddie Mac. Joe always gives priority to Barnsby. One minute he was there, the next he was gone. Freddie Mac’s chopper pilot had to land at Brookhaven, as did nearly 45 others who eventually ran low on gas that day.
Problems at the airport have been going on almost since it was built in the 1930s. At first, there were not enough pilots or flying enthusiasts to maintain it, and the Chamber of Commerce at the time had to step in and begin advertising for more people to come land at the new airport. The problem was that the airport was deep in the woods and pilots had trouble even seeing where it was. There was also the problem of staffing and maintenance. The roads to the airport were very poor then and since nobody lived within five miles of it, getting people to work there was a problem.
Business did pick up though, and through the 1990s, roads to it got built, a few people built homes around the airport where the land in the woods was cheap and the problems now had to do with how much noise the airplanes and helicopters were making coming in and going out.
The Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.) took over the airport for a while, but then there was this big battle in town between competing groups, one who wanted the F.A.A. to expand the airport and the other who wanted the F.A.A. to leave so the Town could run it. The issue was about the noise of the airport disturbing the neighbors.
It was quite something, you may recall. The issue came to a head in the election of 2011 for town supervisor. An informal and powerless “Multi-Town Airport Noise Abatement Advisory Board” got abandoned after getting nowhere with the F.A.A. The “East Hampton Airport Alliance” favored expansion. A new group called “Quiet Skies” came in. And the battle continued until “Quiet Skies” merged with “Dark Skies,” a group in favor of keeping outdoor lights down low. That tipped the balance.
The F.A.A. went packing, and in came the locals with such volunteers such as Joe and Tom and numerous volunteer firemen to take charge of the place. They said they knew how to run an airport. And so they did.
A scandal last year almost upset the applecart. Bellitini was accused of accepting nearly half a million dollars in bribes from a rich summer person who wanted to always be allowed to land first. But after the Town Board rushed through a law allowing wealthy people to land helicopters on their front lawns, the traffic jams at the airport eased, there was no further need for bribes and the problem melted away. Bellitini’s only other transgression occurred when last March he fell asleep in a chaise lounge on his deck and for half an hour gave no replies to the desperate people up above needing approvals to land.
Eventually, all was forgiven. But now there was this.
This past Monday, the East and Southampton Chamber of Commerce announced that business had dropped off considerably after the bathroom accident. It was a clear cause and effect.
Meanwhile, the F.A.A., which continues to operate Brookhaven Airport, also reported a drop off in aircraft fuel sales there, a phenomenon also attributed to the accident.
The people living in the houses shoulder to shoulder around the airport perimeter said that on that weekend it was like the old days of quietness, like it was before anybody or anything, even them, were living out there in that woods.
And former Republican Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said he thought the events on Friday surely gave his re-election prospects a big boost. He’d been voted out of office after being overwhelmed by the joint Quiet/Dark Skies Coalition and their deep pockets in the last election. Now he will be back for more.
“This is no way to run a railroad,” Wilkinson said.
As for Bellitini, he continues to recover in the hospital’s V.I.P. suite both from his ankle and his hit in the head, and friends can visit him there anytime. Bring walnut brownies. It’s his favorite.