Prosecutors asked a Sonoma County judge for more time Tuesday to prepare a case against a Penngrove man accused of flying his airplane while drunk.
The pilot, Michael B. Ferrero, has said he wasn't drunk while in the air and blamed his positive blood-alcohol test on celebratory shots of whiskey he gulped down after landing his light sport aircraft.
Ferrero says he continues to fly, but only when sober, and no longer takes a post-flight nip in his hangar at Petaluma Municipal Airport, where he stores his Aeropro A220. Judge Bradford DeMeo on Tuesday postponed a settlement hearing until April 3 while prosecutors further investigate the matter.
The case has sparked discussion within the local aviation community about why private pilots may keep their licenses while facing drunken flying charges, while motorists' licenses are automatically suspended or restricted during the court process that determines innocence or guilt.
For his part, Ferrero said he poses no risk and hopes to reassure his fellow pilots.
“Nobody needs to worry about me ever again,” said Ferrero, 62. “All my life I've followed the law and I hope I'm exonerated from the charges against me now.”
Pilot licenses are issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, which generally treats violations as civil matters rather than offenses subject to criminal prosecutions, officials said.
With few exceptions, FAA officials must follow an administrative process when pilots are accused of flying under the influence of alcohol or drugs, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the agency. Pilots are given the chance to respond to allegations and be heard before a National Transportation Safety Board judge before their licenses are revoked. The process can take months, he said.
He declined to discuss what, if any, actions the agency is pursuing against Ferrero.
“Everyone deserves due process,” Gregor said.
That brings no solace to some local pilots who said federal authorities are sluggish to address potential dangers in the air.
“The FAA really hasn't to our knowledge stepped in and taken hold of this,” said Bob Patterson, manager of the Petaluma Municipal Airport.
Patrick Bell, a private pilot who keeps two planes at the Petaluma airport, called and wrote to the FAA when he learned Ferrero was still flying following his arrest.
“I'm incredulous that the Federal Aviation Administration seems to be either not empowered or unwilling to suspend the pilot's license of a pilot caught red-handed and who failed a Breathalyzer,” said Bell, a business consultant who lives in Novato.
The issue dominated discussions among pilots at Mangon Aircraft repair service at the Petaluma airport following Ferrero's arrest, owner Ron Mangon said. Pilots are in general a strict bunch, he said.
“We hold each other to higher standards,” Mangon said.
Federal authorities rely on that culture to help them regulate private pilots, who face less scrutiny than commercial pilots, Gregor said.
Ferrero faced even less scrutiny because, as a light sport aircraft pilot, he isn't required to have a doctor issue a medical certificate authorizing him to fly.
Still, all pilots are barred from drinking eight hours before take-off and FAA regulations consider 0.04 percent blood-alcohol content to be unlawfully impaired. The legal limit for driving a car is 0.08 percent.
Ferrero's blood-alcohol was 0.09 percent following his Jan. 3 arrest, the CHP said.
No one patrols the air or airports to police pilot behavior as law enforcement patrol the roadways. That's because there are fewer pilots and flying in general has a much safer record than driving, Gregor said.
There were 23.8 million licensed drivers in California as of Jan. 1, 2011, the most current numbers available. In contrast, the FAA listed 96,530 licensed pilots in California as of March 1, 2012.
Sonoma County Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said her office has never charged a person with drunken flying “according to our collective memory.”
The current case stems from a chance encounter on Jan. 3, when a CHP airman patrolling for speeding motorists spotted Ferrero's plane buzzing Highway 37 traffic.
“I've never seen something like that before,” said Gary Wareham, a pilot with the Napa CHP air patrol.
Wareham followed Ferrero's blue and yellow aircraft for about 45 minutes and described watching the plane fly lower than power lines, suddenly pitch up at what appeared to be 90 degree angles and perform illegal rolls.
He tailed Ferrero to the Petaluma airport and smelled alcohol on Ferrero's breath shortly after he landed. Wareham said he later called the FAA.
Ferrero, a retired office equipment maintenance technician, said an FAA official called him a few days later and he will meet with them in the spring. He's retained an attorney who specializes in aviation law.
“I love to fly, it's my passion,” said Ferrero, who started taking flying lessons in the 1980s. “I'm 62 years old, and I've been waiting my whole life to fly. I don't want to lose that privilege.”