Mercer County Airport

BLUEFIELD — Vandals who have shot at and damaged an important navigation system at the Mercer County Airport face federal charges resulting in up to 20 years in prison, the airport’s manager said Monday.

A VHF omnidirectional radio range (VOR) navigation system that pilots use when approaching the Mercer County Airport has been shot at more than once by vandals, according to Airport Manager Clint Ransom. The latest incident was reported Sunday.

“The building there that houses all the computer equipment and the generator and batteries, they’ve shot that building on multiple occasions; and a couple of the bullet holes have passed all the way through the steel door to the other side of the building,” Ransom said. “They came out of the concrete at the back, the blocks on the back.”

This problem has continued for several months.

“We had some trouble back in May and since then, they’ve shot at it several times,” Ransom recalled. “Back in May the initial damage was $64,000 worth, and it is federal property. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) owns the equipment and the airport owns the property. And where it is a navigation aid, it’s a federal offense and it is punishable with up to 20 years in prison.”

“They actually hit part of the generator, so I don’t think it was actually disabled,” he said.

The FAA has reported the gunshots and damage to its internal affairs department, and the case falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI, Ransom said. The Mercer County Sheriff’s Department conducted an initial investigation and deputies are doing daily patrols for the airport. Other instances have vandalism have occurred.

“One interesting thing is we reposted the property about a month ago and we had 13 No Trespassing signs shot or stolen within 24 hours,” Ransom stated.

Besides inflicting material damage, vandals shooting at the navigation equipment can endanger lives.

“I think they probably don’t have an understanding of what the building is and what that tower does,” Ransom said. “A sign on it says ‘Tampering with This Equipment Could Result in Loss of Life.’”

The VOR tower is now functioning, Ransom said. The FAA is gradually phasing out such systems and replacing them with GPS (global positioning systems).

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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