FAA investigates pilot's antics at Bay Bridge

Aviator flew between spans at rush hour

January 08, 2000|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

It was a hot-dog stunt, but the aviation community is not impressed.

The seaplane pilot who squeezed through the spans of the Bay Bridge last week and flew at eye level with afternoon rush-hour commuters put his own life in danger and may have endangered motorists as well, according to pilots and aviation officials.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating the incident and the pilot, whose name the agency would not divulge while the investigation is under way, to determine whether he violated laws prohibiting planes from coming within 500 feet of people or objects.

Other aviators weighed in on what some called a reckless act.

"I do believe it to be very unorthodox and unsafe," said John Kirby, a pilot for 34 years and manager of the Bay Bridge Airport, where the seaplane was believed to have taken off before the incident.

"It seems like just a wanton disregard," Kirby said. "Suppose there's a cable hanging off the bridge and it's a fine thread that you can't see until the last minute. Suppose somebody threw a bottle off the bridge. That can come through the windshield and cause some serious damage."

A check of the plane's registration numbers, reported by witnesses, showed it was an amateur-built 1999 Searey owned by Aeronautical Systems Associates of Wilmington, Del. Efforts to locate a telephone number or representative of the company were unsuccessful.

About 4: 15 p.m. on Dec. 30, the plane flew between the east- and west-bound bridge spans -- an area about 450 feet wide and 186 feet above the water, according to authorities -- at eye level and in the same direction as westbound traffic before ducking beneath the spans, federal officials said.

Motorists who had seen the plane reported to Maryland Transportation Authority police that they thought it had crashed, and the Coast Guard and Maryland Natural Resources Police launched boats for a rescue. The search was called off about a half-hour later, however, when two watermen reported having seen the plane head north, Kirby said.

Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority police which patrols the bridge, said no one could remember a similar incident at the bridge. Kirby also said he had never heard of such a stunt there.

Buzzing under bridges was a practice not uncommon decades ago. It was especially popular with daredevil World War II pilots, said Drew Steketee, senior spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which claims more than half of the nation's registered pilots as members. The San Francisco Bay Bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco, not far from the Alameda Naval Air Station, and the landmark St. Louis Arch were popular targets for stunts that generally involved only flying under the structure -- not along with traffic, he added.

To a pilot who has grown used to the sensation of soaring above the world, Steketee said, there's a psychological appeal to flying through the air while still being dwarfed by a large structure, such as a bridge, building or mountains.

"It defines space in a certain way," he said. "The ability to fly beneath something is a strange psychological oddity. It flies in the face of the normal world of flying."

But aviators say when the flight violates regulations, it is not to be tolerated.

"That's old, old aviation stuff," said Bert Rice, who has flown helicopters for 39 years. "In today's environment, with the emphasis on safety, I think it's nonsense. It's ridiculous."

"Obviously, pilots don't endorse this kind of behavior," Steketee said. "It's one of the real dumb ways to get killed in an airplane."

"There's an old saying: There are old pilots and there are bull pilots, but there aren't any old bull pilots," said Bruce Mundie, director of the Maryland Aviation Administration Office of Regional Aviation Assistance.

Although it is illegal in Maryland to operate an airplane recklessly, state authorities are deferring for now to the federal agency.

If the FAA determines the pilot violated federal regulations, he could be fined up to $1,100 and have his license suspended or revoked, said Kathy Yodice, a former attorney for the agency who is now in private practice specializing in aviation. A black mark on a piloting record can make it difficult to get insurance or an aviation job, she said, posing a serious problem for a pilot who uses his skill for a living.

And other pilots look down on those who are less than careful.

"We don't tolerate screw-ups in our ranks," Steketee said.

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