Limits on flights over Cuba game investigated

Aircraft with banners kept from O's stadium

May 07, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Air-traffic controllers at BWI Airport barred several planes carrying anti-Castro banners from flying over Oriole Park during Monday's game with Cuba -- even though the Federal Aviation Administration permitted the flights.

Spokesmen for the FAA and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a general aviation group based in Frederick, say they are investigating the situation. Pilots in the Baltimore area say the decision smacked of midair censorship, and they complained about potential harm from the precedent.

"This is supposed to be the United States of America," said Brian Corcoran, pilot and owner of Condor Aviation, which had been hired by a Cuban-American group to fly banners saying "Baseball Yes, Castro No" and "Freedom for Cuba" over the field. "Basically, our laws were changed for this game without notice."

The Baltimore Orioles, Major League Baseball, the Cuban delegation and local police say they had sought a total ban on flights in the days before the game because of concerns that exile groups might drop leaflets or disrupt or endanger the game. But the FAA issued only a temporary flight restriction, requiring nonmedia and nonpolice aircraft to remain above 1,500 feet.

Cliff Armstrong, who identified himself as an FAA liaison to the game who was at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Monday night, said yesterday that officials with baseball, the police, and the FBI continued to raise unspecified security concerns about the airspace. He said the FAA followed the temporary flight restriction, but also -- after consultation with other agencies -- limited flights around the stadium above 1,500 feet because of security worries and rainy weather.

"We did not let anyone fly over the stadium," with the exception of police and media planes with preapproved flight plans, said Armstrong.

But banner pilots claim they were the only ones banned, though they complied with the 1,500-foot restriction.

A pilot for Phoenix Air Ads was briefly cleared to fly at 1,600 feet and circled the stadium six times before being asked by a controller what was on his banner. When the pilot replied he didn't know, someone in a television helicopter read the banner, "Cuba Si, Castro No" over the air. Immediately, the controller ordered the pilot out of the airspace.

"In four years of doing this work, we have never had an air-traffic controller ask us what our message says," says Cathy Gathmann of Phoenix Air Ads. "It is very disturbing. I don't blame the controllers. Someone was pulling the strings."

Gathmann said she is ordering tapes of the air traffic conversations and seeking legal advice. Phoenix pilots were reduced to flying over major roadways more than three nautical miles from the stadium.

"We respect flight restrictions when we're told about them," Gathmann added. "When the president is at the ballpark, we can't fly there at all, and we understand that. But this time, we got no warning."

Corcoran pressed controllers repeatedly on the issue. He said he was denied entry into the airspace above 1,500 feet at least three times. Finally, a controller told him "I have been ordered" to ban him. Angry, Corcoran followed up with a call to Armstrong in Washington.

Warren Morningstar, director of media relations for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said his group's investigation was examining two issues: whether banner planes were discriminated against, and whether local authorities improperly pre-empted federal control of airspace.

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