The annual gut-wrenching performance by the Navy's Blue Angels supersonic stunt flying team over the Severn River was nearly grounded yesterday when a famous Washington lawyer refused to relocate a lawn party.
The show, a 45-year Commissioning Week tradition at the Naval Academy, went off late and only after days of furious bargaining among top academy officials, the Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration administrator and the lawyer, who insisted he would hold a backyard Blue Angels party.
Each side waited for the other to blink, while throngs of spectators looked skyward, oblivious to the drama on the ground. In the end, the lawyer blinked.
Brendan Sullivan, noted for his colorful representation of Iran Contra figure Oliver North, had balked at moving a party from his Homewood Road house, which sits across from the academy and right inside restricted air space known as an "aerobatic box."
The FAA refused to grant a permit for the show until he did move the party.
Academy Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson crossed the river to plead with Sullivan, offering to transport Sullivan and friends on a Navy ship and then to a VIP area at the academy, sources said.
Less than a half-hour before the 2 p.m. show, Sullivan agreed to shift the festivities to his porch, according to one source.
Larson called FAA Administrator Jane Garvey to ask her approval.
She refused, telling the admiral it was not enough, said sources familiar with the dispute.
Not until Sullivan and his party moved down the street did the F/A-18 jets screech over the water.
As 2 p.m. came and went, an academy public address announcer told crowds the show would be delayed 20 to 25 minutes.
But they were never told why.
The six Blue Angels pilots, meanwhile, sat on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, waiting to learn whether they'd perform.
The Naval Academy prepared a statement to be read over the loudspeaker, telling spectators the show had been canceled.
Confident of winning
Sullivan, on the other hand, was apparently confident that FAA would back down. He is not, after all, a man to be ignored.
During a famous exchange in 1987 with a senator on the Iran Contra Committee, he snapped: "I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the lawyer. That's my job."
"We've been here 20 years," said Sullivan, who 90 minutes before show time was sitting calmly beneath an umbrella at a table with some friends.
He said that if his back yard was safe for 20 years, he didn't understand why it should suddenly be off limits this year.
Sullivan declined to make further comment, saying it was his policy not to talk to reporters.
Ready for a fight
Family members lounged around the pool while other friends arrived carrying trays of sandwiches, one of them asking: "Are we ready for a fight?"
The Naval Academy declined to comment on negotiations that in recent days had sent some of its top officers scurrying between Annapolis and Washington -- and out to Sullivan's house.
Spokesman Cmdr. Mike Brady said safety is a concern at air shows and the "academy is pleased that together with the FAA and local residents we were able to satisfy all the requirements."
James Peters, a spokesman for the FAA's Eastern Region, based in New York, said the academy was granted a waiver in March for the air show.
The usual 3,300-foot-wide aerobatic box for jet-powered aircraft was reduced to 2,700 feet to accommodate the Severn area.
"The regulations are written so people can go the air show and enjoy themselves in a safe environment," said Peters.
"We're very strict."
'Common sense prevailed'
One FAA official familiar with the dispute, who requested anonymity, said: "I'm glad Mr. Sullivan saw the light. It would have inconvenienced a lot of people. Common sense prevailed in this case."
The official could not recall any similar disputes over restricted air space involving the Blue Angels.
Meanwhile, in the VIP viewing section on Dewey Field at the academy, Navy officials buzzed with word of the show that almost wasn't, some of them pointing across the river to show others where the potential show-stopper lived.
John Michalski, who lives in the buffer zone and had to watch the show from a neighbor's back yard, said he learned about a month ago that his own yard would be off limits.
"I got a personal call from Admiral Larson," said Michalski, a 1960 academy graduate.
"And he expressed concern that it was beyond his control and the FAA would shut it down."
He said Larson offered to send a YP -- a mini Navy ship -- across the Severn to pick up him and his guests and transport them to VIP seating at the academy.
But Michalski declined.
"The academy's always been good to us," he said, "so I think a little give and take is required."
Larson made the same compensation offer to Sullivan -- and many more -- but to no avail.
Party beyond the buffer
One of Sullivan's neighbors, retired Navy Capt. Richard Lazenby, held his annual Blue Angels party for 250 guests yesterday -- a stone's throw beyond the buffer zone.
He said he understood Sullivan's frustration and called it "ridiculous" that the FAA would threaten to shut down such a high-profile event under pressure from a lone holdout.
"I can't believe this is going on," he said minutes before show time, while guests mingled beneath a huge blue-and-gold party canopy.
Danger part of the thrill
nTC And a neighbor who lives just outside the restricted zone said the zone was "silly" and the proxity of the planes to spectators, even if it's dangerous, is part of the thrill.
"I can sit in my pool and see whether the pilots shaved or not, they fly so low," she said.
"So what difference does 2,700 feet make when you've got high-performance aircraft flying so fast and so low."
Pub Date: 5/21/98