Airport Manager Jim Brundige has banned local pilot David J. Wisner from operating any aircraft at the town-owned East Hampton Airport for 90 days, effective April 28, because of the “careless and reckless operation” of his Cessna 182 on April 13, when he buzzed Sag Harbor and Springs at extremely low altitudes, according to an announcement from the town supervisor’s office.
Mr. Brundige said that the airport’s flight tracking system showed Mr. Wisner’s plane, on one of its low passes over Sag Harbor, as low as 25 feet over the water, climbing to just 50 feet above sea level as it flew by the flagpole at the foot of Main Street, which is 90 feet high. Mr. Wisner also buzzed parts of Springs on the same 45-minute flight.
In another step intended to assure “the safety of residents of East Hampton and other communities under the flight paths” around the airport, as Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc put it in an April 30 announcement, the town has told its seasonal control tower operator not to grant “Special VFR” (Visual Flight Rules) clearances, which allow pilots under certain conditions to land in bad weather without having to follow highly controlled “Instrument Flight Rules” (IFR) and published instrument approach procedures.
Special VFR operations are authorized in the federal regulations that control the national airspace system. They allow fixed-wing aircraft to land if visibility is at least 1 mile and the aircraft can stay clear of clouds. For helicopters, there is no visibility restriction.
The FAA issued a statement from its headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 4 in response: “The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into the situation regarding the Town of East Hampton’s recent announcement that it will discontinue issuing Special Visual Flight Rule clearances at the East Hampton Airport.”
Seaplanes and helicopters arriving at East Hampton Airport have made regular use of the Special VFR option — which is much simpler and less time-consuming than obtaining an IFR clearance — when fog from the ocean rolls in on the south side of the airport or other conditions reduce ceiling and visibility below VFR minima of 3 miles visibility and a ceiling of 1,000 feet above ground level.
“The East Hampton Town Board and the airport manager have been opposed to the practice,” Mr. Van Scoyoc commented, “as it [Special VFR] increasingly became standard operating procedure when the weather is overcast on the East End, resulting in flights at very low altitudes.”
“The safety of the residents of East Hampton Town and other communities under the flight paths cannot be compromised by East Hampton Airport users,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “While the town continues to seek ways to mitigate the airport’s noise impacts, within difficult Federal Aviation Administration constraints, there is no question that we must act decisively to address any and all safety issues.”
The Special VFR ban is an element in the town’s newest noise abatement procedures for helicopters, which it has tweaked this year to send more traffic around Orient Point and less over areas in Hampton Bays and Shinnecock Hills that were hit by last year’s changes.
Mr. Wisner, 47, who obtained his private pilot’s license last December, is facing a charge of second-degree reckless endangerment in Sag Harbor Justice Court filed by Sag Harbor Village Police as a result of the flight. His arraignment was set for Friday, May 7, at Sag Harbor Justice Court. Also, the FAA is conducting an investigation of his flight that could result in the suspension or revocation of his pilot’s license and civil fines.
Chapter 75 of the Town Code, which regulates the airport, allows for the airport manager to ban anyone from using the airport for up to 90 days and even permanently if their actions or behavior pose “a threat to … [the] safe and orderly operation” of the facility. In 2019, the town banned a helicopter operator for 90 days for taking off and landing directly from the ramp instead of hover-taxiing to the runways.
On the issue of Special VFR clearances, Mr. Brundige said in a brief phone interview last week that the town was not sure what the FAA’s reaction would be to the ban, “but we feel confident it’s the right thing to do” as a safety step.
East Hampton’s control tower, which is operated by a private contractor that is approved and regulated by the FAA with FAA-licensed controllers, will begin its seasonal operation before Memorial Day weekend and will close in mid-September. During that time — and during the 12-hour daylight period the tower will be open each day — the airspace around the airport is known as “Class D,” which requires all pilots to contact the tower before entering.
The town’s unilateral action banning special VFR clearances should sharply limit the number of aircraft — especially helicopters and seaplanes — that enter the airspace during poor weather conditions.
Special VFR can also come into play when the tower is closed, but it is less likely to be requested because the weather minima for VFR operations are reduced anyway.
When the tower is not operating, the airspace becomes “Class G” below 700 feet agl (above ground level). During daylight hours, pilots of fixed-wing aircraft such as seaplanes may operate without instrument clearances in Class G airspace if they can see 1 mile and avoid clouds — the same standards that apply for special VFR operations. Helicopter pilots may operate with less than 1 mile visibility as long as they can maintain visual contact with the ground.
To eliminate that Class G loophole, the town has filed a request with the FAA to rechart the airspace around the airport so that the Class G airspace will cease to exist when the tower is closed.
Instead, “Class E” airspace — which overlies Class G when the tower is closed and above Class D airspace when it is open — will extend all the way down to the surface. VFR operations are not allowed in Class D or E airspace without at least 3 miles visibility and a ceiling of at least 1,000 feet agl in the vicinity of the airport. Only flights on instrument flight plans may enter the airspace in those conditions, although theoretically a pilot could request a Special VFR clearance from New York Approach control, also known as TRACON, when the tower is closed. Mr. Brundige said the town doubted TRACON would grant Special VFR clearances when there is no functioning tower at the airport.