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City, IAC reach compromise on aerobatic box

Club will request practice space be moved to southeast corner of airport

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 5:00 a.m. CDT

The city of Morris and the International Aerobatic Club Chapter 1 may have come to a compromise over the location of an aerobatic box near the airport.

This past summer, the council objected to Federal Aviation Administration's approval of an aerobatic practice box near Morris Municipal Airport for the aerobatic club. The box, which is 3,600 feet by 3,600 feet and extends from ground level to an altitude of 5,000 feet just northwest of the airport, is used by pilots to practice aerobatic maneuvers.

The box is in the flight pattern of the approach to the airport's runway and in the approach of Midway and O'Hare airports, according to city officials, and therefore causes safety concerns with aerobatic pilots and other pilots also using the airspace.

Airport Committee Chairman Julian Houston has said previously the city is not against the box, just the location. The council had asked the FAA to move the box about a mile and a half.

When the FAA would not agree to moving the box, the city started the administrative review process with the FAA and then went through an appeal process to argue that the IAC included inaccurate information on its application for the box when it stated it had city approval, said City Attorney Scott to the Airport Committee during Thursday's meeting.

"I think we made some progress. We had some spicy moments, but we worked through them," he said of the city's recent meeting with the IAC and FAA.

The IAC has agreed to file an application with the FAA for a new box at the southeast corner of the airport, he said. If the application is approved, the IAC will terminate its current box located in the northwest corner.

Belt said he requested a copy of the application once it was submitted, but he has yet to receive one. Right before the meeting Thursday, he received an email that the application was placed on file, but still no copy.

The new location is still near the flight pattern and a safety concern, but it is less dangerous, said Airport Manager Jeff Vogen.

"It's not perfect, but a better scenario then what we had before,"  he said.

The new location will allow for spotters on the ground to have better vision of the box aerobatic pilots are flying in, said Vogen.

As part of the compromise, the IAC has agreed to call the airport when it opens the box. If no one answers at the airport, they want to be able to leave a message, said Vogen. FAA regulations require a 30-minute notification to pilots and air-traffic controllers before opening the box, but notifying the airport is not required.

In addition, the club has agreed to have two spotters on the ground when circumstances warrant it with five planes using the box, said Belt. And two spotters are guaranteed when there are six or more planes. The planes would not be in the box at the same time.

The city would like two spotters no matter what, one to watch the box and one to watch the surrounding area. They also want no one in the spotter areas but the spotters to avoid distractions.

The Airport Committee went into executive session to discuss pending litigation associated with the rest of the terms for the compromise. When the committee reconvened into public session, it voted to authorize the city attorney to move forward with the terms to settle with the IAC as discussed in executive session.

Belt could not comment on the litigation.

In March, the city filed a complaint against pilot Nicholas Scholtes, of Joliet, for performing aerobatics without following procedure.

The complaint stated Scholtes was operating an aircraft in aerobatic flight on Dec. 26, 2011, in violation of the Morris City Code and Rules and Regulations of the Morris Municipal Airport. The flight was in violation because the aerobatic box that permits this was not opened.

No representatives from the IAC chapter were present at Thursday's meeting.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN?

Local pilot Sid Nelson was present at the meeting and told committee members about an incident with aerobatic club members that exemplified the safety concerns.

In October, the IAC invited city council members to the airport for a demonstration of their skills and later that day a midair collision almost occurred with IAC members, and a member of the FAA present, said Belt.

Nelson said he witnessed an aerobatic pilot in the box as another plane approached the box. The planes barely missed each other. He said the spotters on the ground were not paying attention to the surrounding airspace, which is their job to do while the box is open.

"It's their responsibility to warn him there was aircraft coming out of the east and (have him) clear the box," Nelson said.

Nelson said he questioned the members of the IAC and FAA present and they said they lost radio communication with the pilot. Nelson said they should have a back-up plan in case that happens, such as colored flags. It was even more upsetting, he said, because a representative of the FAA was there.

A complaint was made, but Belt said an investigation was never done. According to the IAC's guidelines, when the incident occurred everything should have come to a halt, said Vogen, and an investigation should have occurred on what happened.

"Do we want these guys around us at all?" asked committee member Randy Larson.

Mayor Richard Kopczick explained the city doesn't really have a choice because, according to FAA guidelines, the city doesn't get a say on the box. The FAA makes the approval over the airspace.

The committee discussed asking the IAC, as part of the compromise, to have a back-up plan in place for communication with the aerobatic pilots in case of an emergency, such as this recent incident.

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