Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fatal ultralight accidents underscore lack of rules

By KEITH MORELLI | The Tampa Tribune

Published: September 18, 2012

TAMPA --  Even for those without a fear of flying, the sight of an ultralight buzzing over the treetops can induce shivers.

How can you hop onto a lawnmower with wings and cruise at 200 feet with nothing between you and the ground but aerodynamics and a prayer that nothing goes wrong?

Because sometimes things do go wrong. That reality was emphasized this weekend when two ultralight pilots were killed within hours of each other in Pasco and Hernando counties.

William George Athey, 53, of Odessa, died Sunday morning near Gowers Corner in Pasco County. He was trying to land the aircraft at Pilot Country Airport, north of Land O' Lakes, when the aircraft ran into power lines.

Later that same morning, 50-year-old Christopher Ambrose Washington, of Spring Hill, died when his ultralight aircraft crashed in Hernando County. Witnesses said Washington had just taken off when the ultralight stalled at 200 feet, spiraled to the ground and burst into flames.

During the past 30 years, federal authorities have investigated 264 ultralight aircraft crashes. A total of 134 people died in those crashes, records show, or slightly more than four a year.

Ultralights have few regulations. Virtually anyone can hop into the seat and take off, as there are no rules requiring flight instruction.

Most people who take to the skies in ultralights do complete some sort of training, though maybe not enough to teach all the skills involved in flying. Many of those skills come on their own, sport enthusiasts and instructors agree.

There are some difficulties that only ultralight pilots face. The slightest shift in wind or unexpected obstacle or mechanical issue can produce a life-threatening disaster.

Ultralight pilots don't need FAA certifications or licenses and do not need to pass physical examinations required of general aviation pilots. Owners do not have to register their ultralight aircraft or keep and show detailed maintenance records.

Ultralights are relatively safe, but the training requirements should be more stringent, said James Wiebe, owner of Belite Aircraft in Kansas, which sells ultralights and other sport aircraft.

Most of the time, crashes are the fault of a pilot who lacks hands-on instruction time, he said.

"Certification requirements, as defined by the FAA, are at the bottom of the bar," Wiebe said. "To be blunt, there is no certification requirement."

More and more people are taking up the sport, Wiebe said, giving his business double-digit growth in sales and deliveries.

Customers fit a pretty specific profile, he said.

"A person buying an ultralight, in general, tends to be male," he said. "I don't think I've ever made a sale to a female. They tend to be older, retired, but not always; they tend to be people with a passionate interest in aviation."

Warren Rahz fits that description. He used to fly ultralights and instruct ultralight student pilots until he opted for a regular pilot's license a few years ago.

Rahz said flying an ultralight, which can cost upward of $16,000 new, is like riding a motorcycle on a country road.

"It's exciting," he said. "You feel the air in your face."

Even though ultralight pilots require no formal training, "you would be very stupid not to," the Charlotte County pilot said.

"It is a very demanding sport," Rahz said, "because you have to be on the ball at all times. You don't have weight or centrifugal energy to propel the plane if something goes wrong."

That means if the engine quits, the aircraft falls to the ground.

To avoid federal oversight, ultralights have to weigh less than 254 pounds and carry no more than 5 gallons of fuel. There is one seat. An ultralight can go as slow as 28 mph, "the slowest the plane can fly without falling out of the sky," Rahz said.

The aircraft itself is "very reliable," Rahz said. "Some people don't realize it; they call them paper airplanes or flying lawn chairs, but they are not. If an ultralight is built like it's supposed to be, it's done with regular aircraft hardware, all airplane grade stuff."

There are no flight restrictions, except the aircraft can't fly in busy airspace such as around an airport.

Rahz recalled flying over the pastures and woods of Southwest Florida.

"I was just 5 feet off the ground, hopping over fences and trees," he said. "It was very thrilling — a little unsafe, but very thrilling."

Source:  http://www2.tbo.com

Airport manager Don Silvernell said he's been up in an ultralight plane once in his life and enjoyed the experience.

But he decided once was enough and never ventured up in one again.

Silvernell said the facts that led to the death of Christopher Ambrose Washington, 50, of Spring Hill, whose ultra-light crashed Sunday at the Hernando County Airport, may not be determined. He could have died in the fire when it crashed or by the impact, he said.

Silvernell said he didn't know Washington well. He used to rent a hangar at the airport to store an ultra-light plane. But he opted to end that lease, buy a new ultra-light and store it at his home, Silvernell said.

Washington would drive the disassembled plane in a trailer to the airport. He would assemble the wings to the fuselage and take to the skies and take it back home when finished, he said.

He had the necessary insurance and tried to abide by the rules, Silvernell said.

Despite the bad rap ultra-lights have, there's nothing wrong with them, he said.

"They're only as dangerous as the guy putting it together and the guy flying it," Silvernell said.
According to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, reports came in about 11:38 a.m. that a small plane had crashed near the airport. Deputies and fire/rescue personnel found an ultra-light burning in a field at the southeast portion of the airport.

Witnesses said that the ultra-light took off from the north end of the airport and was heading east, but started struggling once it reached about 200 feet, the sheriff's office said.

Silvernell said witnesses who observed Washington said it didn't appear he had any problems during takeoff.

The aircraft then appeared to have stalled, spiraling to the ground and bursting into flames, according to the sheriff's office.

Washington's body has been turned over to the medical examiner's office.

Silvernell said there are only about two or three pilots who fly ultra lights out of the local airport. There used to be more, he said, but the increase air traffic has forced many to seek another place to fly their aircraft.

As usual in crashes, airport officials notified the Federal Aviation Administration, which then calls the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB said because ultra lights are not certified, registered airplanes, the sheriffs' office takes over the investigation.

That investigation is continuing, according to a Hernando County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.

County Commissioner Dave Russell, a licensed certified pilot, said he's flown in several different aircraft but never an ultra light. Russell said he noticed the winds Sunday were on the "squirrely" side.

Washington's death, he said, was a tragedy.

"I feel bad for the family," he said. "Here's a guy who got up in the morning, hooked up his airplane, said, "see you later, I'm going out for a quick flight,' and he didn't come home. That's truly sad."
  • In a separate incident Sunday occurring less than an hour earlier, in north Pasco County, another pilot flying an ultra-light hit power lines near U.S. 41 and State Road 52.
William George Athey, 53, of Odessa, died after crashing his aircraft and getting tangled in power lines while trying to land at Pilot Country Airport, north of Land O' Lakes, near Gowers Corner, Pasco County Sheriff's office spokesman Doug Tobin said.
TBO.com contributed to this report.

Obituary: William George "Bill" ATHEY  

ATHEY, William George "Bill" 53, of Odessa died unexpectedly Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. He is survived by sons, Ryan & Wilson Athey; parents, Billy F. and Georgia Lee Athey, all from Odessa; and sister, Sybil (Rick) Bowen; his nieces, Leanne and Marisa Bowen of St. Louis, MO; and special friend, Vicky Truong of Tampa. He was a Senior Software Engineer at CAE in Tampa engineering flight simulators for the past 6 years. In addition, he was very involved in Educational and Community Outreach Programs at CAE. Previously he was employed 20 yrs as a software engineer in Clearwater for Honeywell where he developed software for Space Guidance and Navigation. He received numerous awards for Software Development, Outstanding Community Service and was inducted as a Honeywell Inventor. He was a graduate of Eckerd College with a BS in Information Systems/Computer Science. Bill was a lifelong learner of science/nature and loved to share his knowledge with schools and community groups. With his guidance, some participated in the Starshine Project where students polished mirrors for a satellite launched from the Space Shuttle in 1999/2001. He held an Extra Class Amateur Radio license and was a certified First Responder. He was an Eagle Scout and served as Scoutmaster of Troop 68 for 12 years; recently receiving BSA District Merit Award. He twice completed the Wasatch Front 100-mile Endurance Run in Utah. He loved to hike, backpack, Geo Cache, scuba dive, pursue flying, investigate genealogy and fly his newly created Quad Copter. He played various stringed instruments and raised white homing pigeons which have been used in Epiphany celebrations in Tarpon Springs. He loved long-distance bicycle riding and competed once in Olympic trials. Bill spent his life in service to others and above all honoring his Lord, Jesus Christ. Visitation will be Saturday, 5-7 pm at Blount & Curry Funeral Home, 6802 Silvermill Drive, Tampa. Services will be held Sunday, 2 pm at Hillsdale Baptist Church, 6201 Erhlich Road, Tampa. Graveside services to follow at Keystone UMC, 16310 Race Track Road, Odessa. Please sign online guestbook www.blountcurrywest.com

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