“Sorry. It was dumb,” wrote a local pilot in a text message the day after he had flown his airplane at altitudes as low as 100 feet and sometimes faster than 150 mph over Sag Harbor’s waterfront and the East Hampton community of Springs on Tuesday evening, April 13.
The pilot, David J. Wisner, 47, of East Hampton will face a criminal charge or charges as a result of the flight, Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire said on Friday afternoon, April 16.
A week later, Sag Harbor Police were still gathering witness statements and video evidence “prior to determining the appropriate charge,” Chief McGuire said on Tuesday, April 20.
The chief previously had indicated in a phone interview that he was considering reckless endangerment as a possibility. If charged in the first degree, it is a felony that carries a possible prison term upon conviction.
The FAA is also investigating the episode, according to Stephen R. Ferrara, operations unit frontline manager at the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Farmingdale.
If the FAA pursues an enforcement proceeding, its only power would be to suspend or revoke the pilot’s license. Even so, it is rare for local police and prosecutors to intercede in the case of an airman who flies recklessly or otherwise violates local and state law.
The day after the flight, East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael D. Sarlo said that his department had taken “a report” of the incident “and forwarded it to FAA who was already aware of it and monitoring the aircraft. No further police involvement at this time.”
Heads turned and 911 circuits lit up in Springs and Sag Harbor — and some people came outside of buildings to see what was happening — when the plane roared overhead, a four-seat, single-engine Cessna 182 owned and flown by Mr. Wisner, the owner of Springs Auto Collision on Springs Fireplace Road.
It was “total insanity! I could practically touch the wheels!” a witness who watched the plane from her second-floor patio on Division Street in Sag Harbor wrote on a Facebook thread that was prompted by the incident.
The 45-minute flight, which originated at East Hampton Airport at 5:27 p.m., proceeded north almost directly to Sag Harbor, where Mr. Wisner made a low-altitude figure eight over the village’s downtown area and a final pass.
The flight then arced northeast over water to Springs, circled low just offshore, and proceeded west mostly over the water to Jessups Neck in Noyac. It then turned east heading to Three Mile Harbor and back to Springs, where Mr. Wisner made the most concentrated number of turns and low passes of the flight.
Mr. Wisner holds a private pilot certificate that was issued in December 2020, according to the FAA’s airmen registry. Contacted the following day via text message, after Sag Harbor Police had already reached him by phone, Mr. Wisner said that the low-flying episode “was just a bad decision” he had made trying to take pictures of a property. “Sorry, it was dumb,” he wrote.
Because his altimeter setting was incorrect, he wrote, he had thought he was flying at a higher altitude — an error he said he discovered upon returning to the airport to land.
On a Facebook thread that features a dramatic video clip posted by Aubrey Elizabeth, a salesperson with Griffing & Collins Real Estate on Shelter Island, one observer said the plane just missed clipping the flagpole at the north end of Main Street in Sag Harbor. People from Springs also posted video of the plane roaring just above the treetops.
Ms. Elizabeth was shopping with her daughter and, after watching three low passes, told her “we need to get out of here” because she feared the plane might crash at the hands of what she considered “a clearly irrational” pilot.
Chief McGuire himself witnessed the episode, as did one of his officers.
Driving home after work, he had just turned east onto Route 114 from police headquarters when he heard the loud roar overhead and looked up through his windshield. The plane wasn’t there. To his shock, he recalled, he caught sight of it flashing by in his rear-view mirror, very low over the intersection of Route 114 with Bay Street.
“I thought he was in distress and aiming for the water,” he said, until the plane came around again for another pass. “In all my years,” including in his youth lifeguarding at beaches in Montauk and East Hampton, he said, “I’ve never seen anybody doing anything like that, flying that low over a populated area.”
For a time, he feared the pilot might be contemplating doing harm to himself or others.
Police officer Kelly Anderson was making a traffic stop when the plane roared over and, after it had “whizzed around for a few minutes,” she, too, wondered if the pilot might be suicidal. “What’s his plan?” she remembered wondering.
Believing “this wasn’t really something that could be ignored,” she recalled, she live tracked the airplane on the website Flightradar24.com, which she said indicated the plane’s altitude had been as low as 80 feet, and determined Mr. Wisner was the owner.
After getting his cell number through the police dispatch office, Officer Anderson called him. Mr. Wisner answered but had to call her back, she recalled, because he was landing the plane. On the subsequent call, he told her he had been “just having some fun” and that “everybody needs to calm down,” she said.
Mr. Wisner’s attorney, Colin Patrick Astarita, commented by text message on Monday, April 20: “I have been in contact with the district attorney’s office and the Sag Harbor Police Department who are working together to determine the appropriate violation of the law. Upon filing of the charge(s), we will appear voluntarily before the [Sag Harbor Justice] Court for arraignment. Although I can’t give an explanation for his actions, Mr. Wisner has continued to express regret for the incident, offering his sincere apologies to all who were affected by the events of last Tuesday evening.”
In an earlier statement that he issued on April 16, Mr. Astarita wrote that Mr. Wisner “takes full responsibility for his actions.”
Kent Feuerring, president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, who was asked for comment the day after the flight, acknowledged that Mr. Wisner was a member of the association, as are many pilots who fly from East Hampton Airport.
Mr. Feuerring issued the following statement: “The EHAA is dedicated to strictly adhering to and enforcing all aviation safety regulations and protocols. We unequivocally denounce the actions of a single pilot over Sag Harbor yesterday and support a full investigation by the FAA. We will not tolerate any careless or irresponsible flying over our community by any of our members or other pilots using our airport, and reaffirm our commitment to the new Pilot Pledge program and Fly Neighborly practices.”
He said the organization’s board of directors would be meeting to discuss the matter.
Reckless endangerment in the first degree applies “under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life,” when a person “recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person,” according to a New York State website. The penalty upon conviction could be from two and one-third up to seven years in prison.
Federal regulations require all fixed-wing aircraft to maintain a minimum altitude of at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle in a radius of 2,000 feet in any congested areas. The tracker website Flightaware.com showed a range of altitudes for the flight from as high as 1,500 feet to as low as 100 feet and possibly lower. Witnesses described the plane almost at treetop level and video on Facebook seems to confirm their accounts.
“You’re always going to have a bad apple in every barrel,” commented Arthur Malman, chairman of the East Hampton Town Airport Management Advisory Committee, referring to Mr. Wisner as a “rogue pilot” who had upset the airport community and had done “something very stupid” that “reflects poorly on good citizens.”