Pilot pitching seaplane tour idea

City officials worry about takeoff noise

January 10, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

This may not be the best time to start a business flying a small airplane in the vicinity of Baltimore's tallest buildings.

Or is it?

Hal Klee, for one, thinks so.

Klee, a retired Air Force pilot, hopes to launch a seaplane tour operation this spring in Canton. Flights would take the paying public over Fort McHenry and the spot where Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1814 as he watched bombs bursting in air.

Though he dreamed up the idea years ago while shuttling a Baltimore banker in his private seaplane, Klee said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks should only help raise interest in his tours. He thinks people will want a fresh perspective on a past attack by a foreign enemy on home soil.

"It's basically the story of how we defended ourselves," he said.

And no, he has no intention of flying directly over downtown. The last thing he wants to do is make anyone uneasy, he said.

Klee, 57, has partial clearance for his airborne tourist attraction. The Federal Aviation Administration says the airspace over Baltimore Harbor can be used, and the Maryland Aviation Administration says seaplanes can take off and land in an area of the harbor where large ships turn around.

"We have no objection to his operation there," said Bruce F. Mundie, director of regional aviation for the state. The FAA recently eased some restrictions imposed on Sept. 11, making it possible now to fly a seaplane there.

What Klee still needs is permission from city officials, who have expressed concerns.

He also needs a plane.

Klee has lined up financing to buy a seaplane, he said, and is eyeing a $300,000 six-seat Cessna whose pontoons kissed the waters of the Amazon River and Arctic Ocean when it was owned by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.

If Klee succeeds, he would offer people a new way to see the city. Current modes include by bus, boat, foot, tethered hot-air balloon and, resuming this year, amphibious vehicles.

It would also be a relative rarity on the East Coast. FAA spokesman Jim Peters said he knows of no operation quite like it in major cities from Washington to Maine.

Trips by Klee's Marine Air Adventures would last 15 minutes and cost about $45. Four to six times a day, he would take off to the southeast, gain altitude over the Key Bridge and level off around 1,200 feet -- nearly three times the height of the 423-foot-tall World Trade Center in Baltimore.

Passengers would hear a prerecorded message about the War of 1812, the three-year conflict with England during which the British captured Washington, but not Baltimore.

In a choreographed sequence, he would show where British and U.S. troops clashed at the Battle of North Point, where British ships anchored during the bombardment of Fort McHenry and where Key, sitting in a boat, wrote the famous poem that became the national anthem.

To city officials, it's the takeoff that is a concern -- particularly the noise. Klee also must persuade the city to alter a marina master plan since the plane would dock at the Baltimore Marine Center on Lighthouse Point.

"He has multiple issues," said Beth Strommen, a city environmental planner.

Klee, who lives in Catonsville, said noise would not be a problem. The racket at takeoff is 50 decibels, he estimated, comparable to that of a city bus from 50 feet away. "Chances are," he said, "people living in condos wouldn't even hear it."

As for possible conflicts with boat traffic, he said there is no risk. His plane would reach 60 mph on takeoff, but since the speed limit for boats is 6 mph, watercraft "can't surprise me and move so fast they'd be in my way."(Strommen said studies show that while the Inner Harbor is congested, the channel is not.)

Klee knows what he is talking about. He has experience piloting seaplanes in and out of Baltimore Harbor. For three years beginning in 1997, he flew for Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of First Mariner Bank, on the Canton waterfront.

That job, Klee said, made him feel like "the luckiest guy in the doggone world. All my friends were spending their own money to fly around in circles."

Klee flew in and out of the harbor two and three times a day, he said. He ferried Hale and his family to a cabin in Maine and to Virginia. He also frequently took Hale's friends across the Chesapeake Bay to an Eastern Shore residence.

To make the excursions more interesting, Klee began pointing out Fort McHenry and other landmarks associated with the historic battle 188 years ago. "I just got thrilled with the story of the War of 1812," he said. "I thought, `Gee, the public ought to be able to do this, not just friends of Ed's.'"

In his spare time -- Klee teaches options strategy to investors -- he has pursued his business plans from his office in an old woolens factory in Ellicott City.

Klee stressed that he sees no risk of a Sept. 11-style incident with his plane. First of all, he said, it would be "pretty darn difficult" for anyone to hijack a seaplane.

Moreover, he said, "the impact of a little airplane like this, with the small amount of gas in it, might break a few windows, but I don't think it'd do any real damage."

Klee even has an answer for the flying-phobic: "The neat thing about a seaplane is that if I lost an engine, there are all kinds of places to land without any danger at all."

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