Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An icon takes flight: Durango man owns World War II-era plane

On a cool, gray morning at Durango-La Plata County Airport, a fleck of silver approaches from the north.

The silvery glint is accompanied by a loud thrum that becomes a gurgled roar as the P-51 Mustang nears. The powerful World War II-era fighter plane makes a low pass slicing along the runway, then pulls up hard and to port, climbing against the mountain backdrop.

Two young boys whoop in appreciation. A business-jet pilot, trying to appear unimpressed, slides his camera phone back into his pocket.

Only 123 P-51 Mustangs remain in the United States out of more than 15,000 that were manufactured, according to the Federal Aviation Administration registry. One of them resides at Durango’s airport.

Because of its iconic role in World War II and eye-pleasing shape, the P-51 Mustang inspires rapturous praise among aviation aficionados.

John Early, the Durango resident who owns the airplane, compared the Mustang to a Stradivarius violin.

“It’s probably one of the most beautiful things man has created and formed,” Early said.

Early, who is CEO and chairman of Saddle Butte Pipeline LLC in Durango, purchased the plane a year ago from an Indiana man named Nathan Davis.

Early has made some modifications, adding modern avionics and an improved radio communication system. “It’s kind of blasphemy for the purists,” he said.

He was quick to add he views owning the plane as a trust.

“It’s always been a childhood dream to shepherd a Mustang for a few years, at least, and pass it on to someone else,” he said.

Early has flown the plane in the mountains north of Durango, and around the Moab, Utah, area.

Early’s father was a pilot who had a World War II training airplane, and a friend owned a P-51. Early’s grandfather flew bombers in the war.

“I grew up around the hangars,” he said.

The P-51 was built beginning in 1940 to fight the Luftwaffe over Europe. As the U.S. entered the war, Mustangs guarded bomber fleets on their way to pound Nazi positions. The P-51 would often fly high above the bombers, waiting to swoop in if they were met by enemy fighter planes.

Today, the Mustang is mostly a prized possession of museums and wealthy hobbyists. A well-maintained Mustang can cost around $2 million, and actor Tom Cruise is reportedly among the aircraft’s celebrity owners.

Early’s Mustang, a later P-51D model, was manufactured by North American Aviation in 1944 in Inglewood, Calif. It went to the Canadian Air Force for training, and the aircraft never saw combat.

Many Mustangs passed into private hands after the war ended, often for a pittance compared to today’s value. Some were bought by inexperienced pilots who crashed the planes.

Early is learning to fly the Mustang with the help of Mike Schlarb, a longtime local flight instructor.

“I’ve been a flight instructor for 20 years, but this was kind of a special case,” said Schlarb.

The Mustang is a challenging airplane to fly, he said. “It commands a lot of respect. It’s no toy.”

Early is building up hours in a training aircraft before his insurance company will allow him to fly the Mustang solo.

The Mustang also requires intensive maintenance, as one might expect of a 70-year-old aircraft. In addition to being Early’s flight instructor, Schlarb keeps his planes running.

The P-51 is the opposite of stealth. It’s loud and fast, equipped with a powerful V-12 engine. Early has heard some grumbling from adjacent landowners who were annoyed by the Mustang, complaints he’s tried to address.

“It’s just nothing but engine,” said Schlarb. “It’s a screamer. It puts a grin on your face every time your fly it.”

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Cost of Brunswick tax dispute goes beyond Kestrel

BRUNSWICK — A tax dispute between the town and the operator of the former naval air station could cost both sides money.

It could also cause a decline in the town's general fund balance, which could have future budget implications if Brunswick faces unanticipated expenses.

The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority later this month is expected to ask a Cumberland County Superior Court judge to declare that a hangar leased by Kestrel Aircraft is tax-exempt because it is being used for aeronautical purposes on a municipal airport.

MRRA's board authorized the lawsuit last month.

The redevelopment authority is contesting the town's stance that Kestrel is taxable. The town's Board of Assessment Review rejected an appeal from MRRA last year.

"As you know, MRRA and the town disagree on whether an exemption from property tax is available for the portion of Hangar 6 leased to Kestrel Aviation," Steve Levesque, MRRA's executive director, said in a March 27 letter to the town. "Our respective legal counsel has advised us that this comes down to an interpretation of the state's exemption law and that reasonable people can disagree on the interpretation."

MRRA has agreed to pay Kestrel's taxes until the company's tax-exempt status is decided. If Kestrel's nearly 84,000-square-foot property at Brunswick Executive Airport is found taxable, the aviation company would pick up the tab and reimburse MRRA for past payments.

However, if the court issues a judgement in MRRA's favor, the town would have to pay back approximately $240,000 in property taxes the redevelopment authority has paid on behalf of Kestrel for the last two fiscal years.

Interim Town Manager John Eldridge, also the town's finance director, said nearly half of that amount, about $120,000, would have to come out of the town's tax increment financing account for Brunswick Executive Airport.

Losing that money from the account's current $170,000 balance, he said, could have an impact on MRRA, which is seeking funding requests from that account of about $110,000 for 2013 and $175,000 for 2014.

"MRRA has submitted a request and it's going to be difficult for us to determine how much is available to fund their request if we're looking to refund a significant portion of that fund for Kestrel," Eldridge said.

The airport TIF account was approved last year as part of a landmark tax deal between the town and MRRA, which sets aside new tax revenue created at the airport and Brunswick Landing for infrastructure improvements. MRRA is eligible to apply for up to 50 percent of those revenues for its own projects.

When asked about the potential TIF money MRRA could lose for future projects, Levesque said: "As we said in the letter (to the town), we have an obligation to existing tenant and future tenants as to what the actual tax policy is. We're seeking a referee because we're at an impasse."

As for Kestrel's 2012 property tax payment, also about $120,000, Eldridge said that would come out of the town's current $9 million unassigned fund balance, which is expected to be closer to $8 million, because $1 million is being planned as an appropriation for next year's municipal budget.

Eldridge said depending on how this year's municipal budget balances out, the fund balance could dip lower than $8 million, "which is approximately $1 million below" the target amount recommended in the town's fund balance policy.

Besides the possibility of losing Kestrel's approximately $120,000 from the fund balance, the town will also have to grapple with how to plug an estimated $285,000 deficit created by the growing and unanticipated costs of the new Town Hall building, which opened at 85 Union St. on Wednesday.

"The fund balance requirement would require us to replenish it over the next three years," Eldridge said, "and it is a factor in the town's bond rating."

A spokeswoman for Kestrel declined to comment.


Great Lakes Airlines' inconsistencies are urging South Dakota travelers to their cars, larger airports

PIERRE, South Dakota — Air travelers to and from South Dakota's small towns are growing weary of inconsistent flights, and many say they are giving up on regional airports all together.

Cancellation rates at the Pierre airport have soared, affecting local residents trying to get to weddings and even doctors flying in to see patients in rural areas, officials say. Ticket sales have since fallen.

Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect last August require co-pilots to log 1,500 flight hours before they can work for commercial airlines. They previously required 250 hours.

Great Lakes Airlines was hit hard by the changes. The airline serves Pierre, Watertown and Huron in South Dakota with flights to Minneapolis and Denver.

Cancellation rates for departures from and arrivals to Pierre were lower than 3.5 percent in July and leapt immediately in August 2013 when the rules changed. The cancelations continued to climb to well over 20 percent this winter.

Mike Isaacs, the airport manager for Pierre Regional Airport, said it was doing well last year but business has dropped because of cancellations. He said he along with airport staff and city officials have received a lot of complaints. Doctors have missed surgeries, some people have missed weddings, he said.

"There's some pretty serious impact because of this. Folks, after they get stung once or twice, they're going to drive," Isaacs said. "And I don't blame them for that."

Radiologists who travel from Minneapolis to Watertown, South Dakota, on a weekly basis used to fly on Great Lakes, said Jill Fuller, chief executive officer of Prairie Lakes Health Care System in Watertown, which contracts with the doctors.

Because of cancellations and delays, they missed appointments with patients who drove up to 100 miles to see them. Now those doctors take a car service from 3:30 a.m. to reach their Watertown patients.

"That's the reality of delivering care in a rural area," Fuller said. She works with other out-of-state physicians at Prairie Lakes who have had to alter their routes, because of flight inconsistencies.

Watertown Mayor Steve Thorson said Great Lakes is subsidized by the federal government through the Essential Air Service program to serve the city.

"They're getting the subsidy, but they just don't land here," Thorson said. He said the city doesn't need a lot of flights every day. "We would be happy with two (each day) if they could just get them here on time," he said.

The capital city, which is smaller than Watertown, opened a new terminal in 2012 for the Pierre Regional Airport with hopes of running three airlines through it. But Great Lakes remains the only commercial carrier in the city.

In January and February last year, the monthly passenger count averaged around 1,000. This year, it's around 700.

Isaacs said they used to serve about 50 percent of the travelers in a 50-mile radius around the airport, and the remaining travelers always drove to the larger airports in Sioux Falls or Rapid City. He said they've lost another 10 percent of their market.

Jim Ellenbecker, owner of Budget Blinds in Pierre, recently opted to drive to Rapid City for a flight rather than risk a cancellation out of Pierre. The drive is around three hours.

"I don't prefer to drive somewhere to catch a flight," Ellenbecker said, but he added: "The number of flights going out seems to be inconsistent."

Before August 2013, the airline offered eight daily flights out of Pierre. The count dropped to four, until a fifth trip was revived.

Great Lakes recently pulled out of North Dakota airports. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines fly to oil patch airports in that state.

The airline did not return repeated requests for comment. But in a statement, Great Lakes CEO Charles Howell, said, "the company feels it is in the best interest of our customers, communities and employees to suspend service from these stations until we are able to rebuild our staff of pilots in order to provide reliable service."

In another effort to cope with the regulations, Great Lakes is removing 10 seats from some of its 19-seat planes.

Should Great Lakes try to pull out of Pierre, Isaacs said it wouldn't be able to leave before the airport found a replacement. He said the airport is always looking for more airlines to fly out of Pierre.

If the city needed it, it could qualify for Essential Air Service dollars to encourage an airline to stay. Pierre has qualified for the program in the past. But overall, Isaacs said, there's not much that regional airports can do to help the airlines' struggle.

Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill said she has been doing what she can, talking with airline representatives and with U.S. lawmakers. She said commercial air service in rural America has faced challenges for the past few decades.

"There are a lot of people working on it," Gill said. "Please continue to have faith in the Pierre Regional Airport."


Aerial Photography Shows Pilot's Perspective

Photographer Alex MacLean shoots almost all his breathtaking aerial photography from a small Cessna 182 plane, sticking his camera out of the cockpit window.

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Federal Aviation Administration says Yellowstone Regional Airport (KCOD) must add staff

Federal officials are demanding the airport hire an additional operations employee.

Yellowstone Regional Airport Manager Bob Hooper informed the airport board of the unanticipated budget item at their monthly meeting Wednesday. It could boost the budget by $40,000.

After the last annual Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspection two weeks ago, the inspector informed Hooper the airport was not in compliance with federal regulations.

According to Hooper, the inspector said the airport needs one more fulltime aircraft rescue, fire and combined operations employee.

Hooper said the inspector agreed to delay “writing up” the airport if the issue is quickly addressed.

The board voted to forward the additional budget request to the city and county which, along with the FAA, fund the airport.

Hooper said the additional position would cost the airport $40,000 in salary and benefits. He recommended the airport promote and train someone from the YRA maintenance staff and then replace that person.

In other airport matters:

•Enplanement figures for March increased 10 percent from last year, 2,035 passengers from 1,849.

•Hooper reported Thrifty Dollar car rental started operations at the airport Tuesday and Norma’s Mexican Restaurant opened April 1.

•And the board approved a request by the Shoshone Forest to post a 3x5-foot poster commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act.


San Luis Obispo County Coroner's Unit makes positive identification of plane crash victim: Morrisey 2150, N5102V, accident occurred January 14, 2014 in Pismo Beach, California

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office finalized the identification of a passenger in the Jan. 14 single-engine airplane crash off the coast of Oceano as Alan George Gaynor, 52, of Los Angeles.

Gaynor had previously been identified as a probable victim in the crash that killed him and pilot David Brian Casey, 63, of Friday Harbor, Wash., but a California Department of Justice DNA test recently confirmed the identity based on remains found in the water.

Local officials and others from the National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI are still waiting for ocean swells to subside to continue the recovery effort for the sunken aircraft, which they expect to resume next week.

NTSB Identification: WPR14FA096
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Tuesday, January 14, 2014 in Pismo Beach, CA
Aircraft: MORRISEY 2150, registration: N5102V
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On January 14, 2014 at 1352 Pacific standard time, a Morrisey 2150, N5102V, was destroyed after it impacted the Pacific Ocean near Pismo Beach, California. The airline transport pilot and his passenger were fatally injured. The pilot/owner was operating the airplane under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the local flight, which had originated from the Santa Maria Public Airport, Santa Maria, California, approximately 20 minutes before the accident. A flight plan had not been filed.

Witnesses said they saw a "white streak" descending towards the ocean, which was followed by a "loud boom" noise.

Radar data provided by the Federal Aviation Administration tracked the airplane's flight path from takeoff at Santa Maria to the accident site.


PT boat project turns into battle: Marina, Liberty Aviation Museum battle over World War II-era attack craft’s ownership, re-tooling


A battle between a local marina and local museum over renovations to a World War II era PT boat has escalated into a lawsuit and a criminal probe.

The fight pits Treasure Cove Marina, which says it is owed more than $100,000, against Liberty Aviation Museum, which says the marina has been submitting fraudulent bills. Sheriff Steve Levorchick confirmed Monday his office is reviewing the allegations concerning billing practices.

Treasure Cove owner Rob Moore declined to comment and referred the Register to his attorney, James Reinheimer of Port Clinton, who didn’t return a phone call.   

Ed Patrick, CEO of Liberty Aviation Museum, contends Treasure Cove submitted obviously false invoices for parts his boat doesn’t use and has refused to submit a monthly statement of account, which Patrick contends is standard for a business carrying out an ongoing project.

Treasure Cove’s parent company, JMR Marine Consulting LLC, filed a lawsuit against Liberty Aviation Museum and PT 728, the torpedo boat, on April 2, alleging JMR is owed $121,823.81 for repairing, maintaining, storing, furnishing and equipping the boat.

The suit asks for the $121,823.81 and for permission to seize the boat. It also seeks an order for the boat to be sold.

The case has been assigned to Common Pleas Judge Bruce Winters and a hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday.

Patrick, a retired police officer for the city of Rocky River, said the museum has nothing to hide and phoned the Register to discuss the case. He sent the Register a written summary of some of his complaints against Treasure Cove.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had a problem with anyone,” Patrick said. “We are not behind or delinquent with anyone” He says that Treasure Cove has billed Liberty for parts that clearly belong to civilian boats, including Mercury outboard motor parts, personal watercraft, trailer parts, and gasoline engine parts. “The PT boat has diesel engines,” Patrick wrote in his summary. “None of these items has ever appeared on the job site …” Patrick also contends that Treasure Cove sent documents claiming one employee worked 25.5 hours in one day, and 19.5 hours another day. “Maybe Treasure Cove has a time clock that bends and squeezes time” he said. He said the museum has taken some of its complaints to the sheriff’s office and is alleging fraud.

Levorchick confirmed his office has begun a probe but said it’s in its early stages.

“We do have a detective looking into it” he said. “There’s an audit being performed right now in house at the museum”

The office will likely seek help from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, he said. He said he has no opinion yet on whether fraud occurred.

“This is really early” the sheriff said. “This is something that’s going to be ongoing for a while, I think”

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Kestrel Aircraft again missing loan payments to Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

One of the high profile companies to receive backing from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is again delinquent on its loans with the state.

Superior-based Kestrel Aircraft Company — a firm touted by Gov. Scott Walker as an example of his business recruitment efforts hasn’t made any payment on its $4 million in loans since October. It is supposed to pay $6,600 monthly and is now over $26,000 in arrears.

In January 2012, Walker traveled to Superior to announce that Kestrel intended to invest $120 million in a production facility that would eventually employ 600 workers, the most new jobs in Superior since World War II.

The company is looking to produce a high-performance, single-engine plane made from carbon fiber. It is headed by Alan Klapmeier, a legend in Midwest aviation circles who was recently named to the board of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Kestrel has received two loans that are being administered by WEDC: a $2 million state loan and a $2 million state small business credit initiative loan, which is a federal loan. Kestrel also has a $2.4 million loan from the city of Superior with payments on that debt coming due in October.

In addition, Kestrel is certified to receive up to $18 million in enterprise zone tax credits from WEDC, and $30 million in federal new market tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA). Kestrel had collected $402,408 so far on those credits.

WEDC is the public-private corporation formed by Walker to take over the economic assistance duties from the defunct Department of Commerce.

Despite Kestrel’s cash flow issues, WEDC secretary and CEO Reed Hall said his agency remains committed to the company as it tries to find its footing in the competitive aircraft manufacturing business.

On Jan. 31, representatives of WEDC, WHEDA and the city of Superior met with Kestrel executives and its banks to discuss the company’s financial situation.

“We had a productive meeting in Superior with Kestrel, its bank and the city as we were briefed on the company’s current financial status,” Hall said in a statement. “We all want Kestrel to be successful, and we’re going to continue to work with company officials as we look at alternate options for repaying these loans.”

Kestrel first ran into financial problems last fall when it missed payments on its loans and failed to make payroll for some 100 current employees, split between operations in Brunswick, Maine, and Duluth-Superior.

The company has not said how many employees it currently has and WEDC was not able to provide that information. Calls to Kestrel requesting comment on the situation were not returned.

The last payment made by Kestrel was a wire transfer of $26,536 made in October the day after The Capital Times reported it was delinquent on its loans.

Meanwhile, Kestrel remains embroiled in a legal fight with officials in Brunswick over its tax exempt status and has been late with rent and payroll payments, according to published reports.

The firm was one of the first to locate in a former Naval Air Station there that was converted into a business park, but owes $114,000 in taxes to the township.

Last year, Maine Gov. Paul LePage — like Walker, a pro-business Republican — pushed legislation that would have exempted Kestrel from property taxes, but it was later withdrawn.

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More activities planned for Roanoke Municipal Airport (7A5) Appreciation Day

Dr. Russell Peterson will be flying his Turbocharged Cirrus aircraft and offering rides in it on Saturday, April 26, as part of Airport Appreciation Day. Dr. Peterson, a family practice physician, began flying at an early age and soloed at the age of 16. When he moved to Roanoke in 1995 he began his pilot training in earnest. In just a short time he completed his private pilot's license, his commercial pilot's license, and his instrument rating, which allows him to fly even when the weather is less than perfect.

The Cirrus is a high performance aircraft with an excellent safety record. This aircraft will be used on the sunset flight for two lucky individuals. The flight will tour Roanoke, Wedowee, Lake Wedowee, R.L. Harris Dam, down the Tallapoosa to Wadley and back to Roanoke. Woodland can easily be substituted for Wadley upon request.

As part of their industry appreciation initiative, the Randolph County Economic Development Authority (RCEDA) has joined with the Randolph County Aviators (RCA), and the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce to hold an Airport Appreciation Day at the Roanoke Municipal Airport, Saturday, April 26, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The event is made possible by community partners such as Koch Foods, Randolph County Sheriff’s Department, RCA, the Roanoke Rotary Club, Handley High Interact, the Republican Party of Randolph County, TEC, and many other local volunteers. It is open to the public at no charge. Organizers hope to use the day to offer a family-fun activity in the county, while educating the community about the importance of having a viable airport in the area.

Sid Hare, president of RCEDA and a member of RCA, said, “The airport is an essential part of economic development, business retention and recruitment. We want the citizens of the area to come out to learn about the importance of having an airport and to afford kids the opportunity to experience a flight from the Roanoke airport.”

Several events will be available for enjoyment during the day. Plane rides will be offered for a charge of 10 cents per pound or $25 per person; food vendors will be on site; children’s’ activities will be available and a variety of airplanes will be on display.

Throughout the day, participants may enter a raffle for two lucky people to win a sunset flight around Lake Wedowee, which will cap off the day’s activities.

Chances on the sunset flight for two are also available at several local businesses throughout the county, including TEC, M.L. Awbrey, WM grocery in Wedowee and Stephens Station in Wadley. Participation waivers will be required for those who wish to participate in flights.

“We are so appreciative of the partnerships that have come together to make this event possible,” said Hare. “I believe this will be both an exciting and educational day for Randolph County.”

Due to the generosity of several veterans who wish to remain anonymous, four skydivers from the Tuskeegee Jump Club will parachute onto the airfield between 4 and 5 p.m.

Everyone is asked to enter the airport property from the corner of Airport Road and Country Club Road. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Roanoke Theatre Project. For more information on Airport Appreciation Day, contact the RCEDA office at 334-863-7243 or the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce at 334-863-6612.


Help wanted for Central Texas Airshow: Producers seeking another 100 volunteers to assist with annual event

The Central Texas Airshow 2014 is seeking more volunteers, said Cheryl Stipple, vendor coordinator for the event. The event usually gets around 200 volunteers, but so far has fewer than 100.

As an incentive, each volunteer who serves at least one four-hour shift will get a weekend pass for this year’s edition of the show May 2-4 at Draughon-Miller Central Texas Regional Airport. The final volunteer meeting before the show will be 2 p.m. April 27 in the pilot’s lounge of the airport terminal.