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Lidle crash prompts air space regulation concerns

By Elizabeth Daley, Bay City News Service

October 14, 2006

The low-flying planes of San Francisco Fleet Week coupled with Yankee pitcher Corey Lidle's recent crash in New York City raise questions about whether air space regulations are as cloudy as the sky itself.

But aviation officials say there is little to fear.

"Flying is very safe even in congested air space," said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.

According to Gregor, pilots flying in urban areas must fly at least 1,000 feet above all obstacles within a 2,000 foot radius of the plane.

However, helicopters have less stringent regulations and "may be operated at lower to minimum height, provided flight is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the ground," Gregor read from official FAA rules.

Flight student Marty Kurt, a member of Oakland Flyers LLC, said most airspace in the Bay Area is open to flights using "Visual Flight Rules", the very same rules that Lidle was using when he crashed. VFR rules allow pilots to fly, navigating with their eyes, as long as they can see at least 3 miles ahead of them, according to Kurt.

Kurt said VFR flights do not require pilots to register a detailed flight plan with the FAA, and are commonly embarked upon by private and student pilots who often lack the certification needed to conduct flights using Instrument Flight Rules or IFR.

According to Kurt, on IFR flights, "you are essentially flying on an electronic highway. Air traffic control will tell you where you have to be: up, down, left, right. You have an in-flight plan that will designate your route so air traffic control will know where you are from the moment you take off, and if you are following the instruments correctly, you will know you are on the right path," Kurt said.

Gregor said regardless of flight rules, all pilots are identified, tracked and communicated with using a device located inside the plane called a transponder, so while VFR flights may not be as strictly planned, they are still monitored.

"Air traffic controllers know where planes are at all times, especially in urban areas," said Gregor.

According to Gregor, airspace around airports, stadiums and nuclear power plants is controlled by more stringent FAA regulations. He said the Flight Standards District Office is responsible for enforcing FAA regulations. However, according to Gregor, the harshest punishment for a pilot is usually a license suspension.

"Criminal charges are not usually pursued," he said, but added, "If you are caught flying drunk you can be criminally prosecuted. Pilots have gone to prison for that."

Kurt said there are temporary flight restrictions "whenever the President is in town or something," but the greatest restriction to VFR flights is the fog.

"Some days it will be foggy until late morning and you can fly in the afternoon and that's it," Kurt lamented.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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