The red tape is cut, it's up, up - and away

Freedom of flight returns to 2 airports

February 24, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Lee Sommer waited 5 1/2 months for his chance. He had been fingerprinted and had passed a criminal background check. He had sat through a security briefing by federal agencies ranging from the FAA to the FBI.

Finally, as blue skies chased away wispy clouds yesterday morning, he climbed into his four-seat Piper Cherokee airplane for a joyride. The propeller spun, then sputtered to a stop.

He'd have to wait even longer, as it turned out, stymied by a balky engine left cold too long.

Other recreational pilots were luckier, taking to the skies from College Park Airport or landing there under seminormal conditions for the first time since Sept. 11. The publicly owned field had been closed to takeoffs and landings because it is in a restricted zone extending 15 miles from the Washington Monument.

The buzz of little planes aloft could also be heard at another Prince George's County airport, Potomac Airfield in Friendly.

That left Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton as the only general aviation field near the nation's capital with its wings clipped. Hyde has not completed its security plan, an Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said.

"In the grand scheme of things, a couple more days isn't a big deal," said Hyde manager Stan Fetter. "On the other hand, it's very frustrating to see [people at] the other two airports running around having a good time."

At College Park, pilots - engineers and businessmen by profession - swapped notes on new security steps (largely "painless," they said) and flying conditions (perfect except for a "light chop").

A giddiness filled the unassuming green operations building and spilled outside. At one point, Sommer looked up to see a Piper Lance gliding in for approach. It was if Gilligan had spotted a rescue boat nearing his island.

"It's Jack!" shouted Sommer, a Cheverly resident who owns a computer firm. "He finally got back!"

Jack Stickley flew in from the southern Anne Arundel County town of Deale, where he had kept his six-seat plane the past few months. It was just a 10-minute flight, but new security measures added 10 minutes on each end.

Stickley had few complaints about those measures, which require pilots to phone in flight plans to the FAA before flying to or from College Park, and to make a similar call after landing.

Still, for Stickley and others used to the get-up-and-go lifestyle of private pilots, there seemed to be an undercurrent of frustration. "This is the last freedom in the country," he declared, calling small planes "the most sophisticated machines available to the common working man."

"We've got to do a lot of crawling to get back the freedom we had," added Stickley, who lives in Lothian and owns a Capitol Heights asphalt paving business. "We've just got to work with the system, and brains will prevail - I hope."

The dominant sentiment for the time being seemed to be relief. As airport manager Lee L. Schiek put it, "Our goal always has been to get airplanes back in the air consistent with national security interests."

Before Sept. 11, pilots could just climb in and fly away. They can't anymore, but at least they can fly. Now airport staff must make sure they know the pilots, who are required to get federal clearance.

Phoning in a flight plan had once been an option. In one of the few glitches yesterday, one pilot could not use his newly issued secret code to file a plan. The FAA helped him clear up the problem.

Once in the air, planes must quickly exit the restricted airspace. In the past, pilots could fly over most parts of Washington with air traffic control's approval.

Yesterday's reopenings marked a further easing of restrictions. In December, airports in Bowie, Laurel and Indian Head resumed operations.

Despite the activity at College Park Airport, where Orville and Wilbur Wright taught Army pilots to fly, it was hardly business as usual. Just 22 of the 90 planes housed at the airport before Sept. 11 were there yesterday. Most pilots flew their planes away during a four-day window in October, and Schiek figures 25 percent are gone for good.

Those who have returned said the airport is conveniently located. Leon Jackler, a government lawyer who lives in Silver Spring, said he also likes the historical connection and the people.

A few pilots never left, even if that meant grounding their planes for almost half a year. Sommer was one of the diehards. So was Jack Robson, an engineer from College Park who feared that if everyone cleared out, the powers that be might never reopen it.

"We felt if all planes were gone, the pressure on our political friends would be nil," he said. Robson didn't waste any time. He was the first to take off, headed to Frederick and back.

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