Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Sid Nelson: Pilot grounded for incident at Morris Municipal Airport (C09), Grundy County, Illinois

MORRIS, Ill. - The Federal Aviation Administration has found fault with the actions of a politically connected crop duster who operates out of a small city owned airport in Morris, IL.

WGN Investigates first reported on the air field confrontation between Sid Nelson and two other pilots in August of 2017.  Cell phone video showed Nelson landing at the Morris airport and then jumping out of his yellow crop duster and getting in the faces of a flight instructor and student pilot preparing for take off yards from the runway.

“You’ve heard of road rage – but this was more akin to runway rage,” said pilot John O’Connor.  His student pilot that day told a similar story. “I’d never seen a face on a human being look like that,” Nick Scholtes said.  “He was just livid.”  The two say Nelson violently shook their plane all the while propellers of both aircraft continued to spin.

The FAA just released the findings of its investigations into the incident.  “Your operation as described… was careless or reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another,” the FAA wrote.  The agency suspended Nelson’s pilot’s license for 42 days, effective January 11, 2018.  WGN Investigates only recently obtained the FAA’s letter after months of open records request denials by the agency.

Nelson did not return calls for comment.  However, in a previous interview he denied doing anything inappropriate and insisted he was trying to “help” the other pilots.

Morris police responded to the altercation near the runway but no charges were filed.  A police report indicated Morris mayor Dick Kopczick intervened in the investigation and instructed an officer to re-interview those involved.  Kopczick denied attempting to influence the investigation into his political ally’s conduct.  Nelson is once again flying out of the Morris airport. “He has his license and every right to be there,” Mayor Kopczick said.  However, the operators of a flight school that raised concerns about Nelson were told they’d have leave their office building on the airfield to make way for a long-planned parking lot expansion.   Mayor Kopczick called it “vindictive” to suggest the move was payback for speaking out.

Grundy County State's Attorney Jason Helland, who asked for a review of the mayor's intervention in the case, said he "commends the FAA for taking action."

Story and video ➤

Harsh words. Bad blood.  Even a physical confrontation near a runway.  These are turbulent times at the city-owned airport in Morris, Illinois.  Now the FAA is investigating an incident between several pilots on the airfield.

“You’ve heard of road rage,” said veteran pilot John O’Connor.  “This was more akin to runway rage.”  O’Connor, who spent 35 years as a military aviator, is describing a confrontation on a taxiway at the Morris airport in July.

O’Connor was applying for a new certification with flight instructor Nick Scholtes.  They were idling just shy of the runway while completing their final checklist when they say a larger crop duster landed from the opposite direction.  They say the pilot of that plane passed several open taxiways and brought his plane almost nose-to-nose with theirs.

“I’d never seen a face on a human being look like that,” flight instructor Nick Scholtes said.  “[The crop duster]  was just livid.”  Cell phone video recorded by Scholtes captured the tail end of the confrontation.  The crop duster got out of his plane with the propeller still running.  “He was making arm gestures and telling my pilot ‘get out of the plane! Get out of the plane!’”, O’Connor said. “He seemed to want to fight.”

The pilot of the crop duster is seen on video reaching his arm through the window and swatting away the cell phone as he yelled words to the effect of ‘get off the runway.’  When Scholtes and O’Connor refused they say the crop duster attempted to spin their small plane around and violently shook the plane’s wing.

After the two men say they refused to comply, the other pilot walked back to his running crop duster and spun it around.  “His wingtip couldn’t have been more than an inch-and-a-half from our propeller,” O’Connor said. “It’s still amazing to me they didn’t hit.  Then he prop-blasted us and our little plane was bounced back and forth.”

The two were rattled enough they called Morris police.  Initially, they said they didn’t want to pursue criminal charges.  That changed when they felt like they were portrayed as the aggressors.   The responding officer’s report describes “bad history” between two camps at the airfield.    On one side: The flight instructor and other pilots who use the airport for leisure flights.  On the other: The crop duster and the airport manager who referred to flight instructor Nick Scholtes as a “trouble maker” in the police report and talked about getting him “kicked out of the airport.”

The pilot of the crop duster claims the flight instructor intentionally blocked his path, the latest move in an ongoing feud.  He said he only got out of his plane because he thought the other pilots were having trouble.  “I grabbed the strut and shook it like that.  But that’s all I did.”  The crop duster insisted shaking the other plane was safe.

And who is the owner of that crop duster?    His name is Sid Nelson.  And he’s not just a crop duster.  He is also the former manager of the Morris airport and a current member of the Morris city council who was appointed to that position by the mayor.   That’s why it raised eyebrows when the responding officer noted in his report that he delivered a copy to Morris mayor Dick Kopczick “for his review.”

The mayor directed the cop to re-interview the airport manager, who offered a new witness who would say the flight instructor “intentional[ly] pulled in front of [Sid] Nelson.”   Police took no further action.  The case was closed.

Mayoral intervention is a no-no according to the Grundy County state’s attorney.  “I’ve been a career prosecutor for 13-and-a-half years,” Jason Helland said. “I’ve never seen a mayor get involved in a police investigation before.”   State’s attorney Helland said his initial requests for police to more thoroughly investigate the case were rebuffed.  However, after WGN began asking questions and confronted crop duster Sid Nelson nearly one month after the incident, Morris police reached out to the flight instructor to gather more information.

Mayor Kopczick, the Morris police chief and Morris airport manager Jeff Vogen did not respond to repeated requests for comments on the incident.

The crop duster insists he did nothing wrong. “I’ve been flying for 41 years,” Nelson said. “I got over 15,000 hours.  This is the first time I’ve ever encountered anything like this.”

The two pilots who felt they were threatened by Nelson say they simply want the friendly skies to return to the city-owned and subsidized Morris airfield.  “They get money from us as customers and money subsidized from the federal government but it’s not managed that way,” Scholtes said.

Story and video ➤



No. 13 C 04272
Judge John J. Tharp, Jr.

The plaintiffs, Chapter 1 of the International Aerobatics Club and one of its members, Nicholas Scholtes, claim that the City of Morris is impermissibly regulating flight—which, they contend, only the Federal Aviation Administration can do—and is maliciously and arbitrarily threatening the Club’s members with prosecution under a local ordinance and regulations. Scholtes was in fact prosecuted for a violation of the Morris ordinance, although the charge eventually was dropped. The defendants are the City of Morris, where the airport from which the Club operates is located, the airport manager, Jeffrey Vogen, and former airport manager and current “Airport consultant” Sid Nelson, both of whom are alleged to be agents of the City of Morris. They have moved to dismiss the entire complaint. First, they argue that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because there is no live case or controversy and no standing. They further argue that the plaintiffs fail to state a claim for any constitutional violation or for the tort of malicious prosecution, and, finally, that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. For the reasons that follow, the defendants’ motion is denied, except as to the substantive due process claim, which is dismissed without prejudice.

The International Aerobatics Club Chapter 1 is a non-profit membership organization that, among other things, provides opportunities for pilots to practice and perform aerobatic maneuvers. The City of Morris owns and operates the Morris Municipal Airport. IAC Chapter 1 members “fly through airspace, depart from and arrive at Morris Airport, and also rent hangar space at the airport.” Aerobatic flight is a legally recognized form of aircraft operation regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has prescribed rules and regulations for 2 such flight. See 14 C.F.R. § 91.303. Under the regulations, no person may operate an aircraft in aerobatic flight: over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement; over an open air assembly of persons; within the lateral boundaries of the surface areas of certain airspace designated for an airport; within 4 nautical miles of the center line of any Federal airway; below an altitude of 1,500 feet above the surface; or when flight visibility is less than 3 statute miles. These regulations are subject to an FAA-issued waiver, for instance to create an Aerobatic Practice Area or an Aerobatic Competition Box, inside which the normal restrictions do not apply. An Aerobatic Practice Area is “established for the purpose of practicing aerobatic skills.” FAA Flight Standards Information Management Systems (FSIMS1 ), Vol. 3, Ch. 5, Section 1, ¶ 3- 118(a)(3)(a). “Pilots who wish to practice aerobatic maneuvers that do not meet the requirements of § 91.303 must obtain a waiver from the appropriate part(s) of § 91.303 in a designated area referred to as an aerobatic practice area. These areas are not to be considered event or competition sites. The aviation community uses these practice areas to establish and maintain proficiency as well as to enhance competitive skills in aerobatic maneuvers.” Id. ¶ 3-119. 

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  1. What the hell is this? Idiot politicians licensed to fly planes, causing a ruckus on the tarmac? Oh wait... 'politicians', are a crash waiting to happen!

  2. ^^^ YUUUP! Laugh out loud funny!

  3. When you can’t get your way, just have a tantrum. I have contact with many pilots that act like that.

  4. Ramp rage, I see it every once in awhile. Kind of like when driving only not as bad. Usually pilot has huge ego and jealously issues. Usually older, still working because of lousy financial decisions. Allot of aviation experience. A”legend” in their own mind. We have a “mayor” (self appointed) at our airport that acts like this. Glad I’m perfect. Good case to learn something from.

  5. I've personally been accosted and verbally assaulted by Mr. Nelson years ago. The face in the video was the same face I saw - out of control, angry, and dangerous.

    His story doesn't line up with the video or the facts. I've flown more than 1000 hours, and I've never exited a plane with the engine running to "check" on another plane. If a plane is on the taxiway ahead of me, I wait. That's what the Laws say. To approach another plane head on, engine running is reckless, and shows a complete disregard for safety of both the individual exiting their running plane, and to the safety of those in the other plane. What if the brakes slipped? Disaster - which is why you never do it!

    He should have his certificate terminated, not suspended. He's a hazard, who can't control his temper.

  6. You have to wonder why the Mayor would intervene.

    Unless they are best buddies.

    You see, the mayor appointed Sid Nelson to be alderman of the Second Ward in Morris (see the link above). He appointed him even though he wasn't nominated by the Republican Party chairman, who had actually suggested 2 other people, including one with a diverse background for the position. Each of those, the mayor found "unacceptable."

    But Sid (former Airport Manager, no degree, no government experience) was acceptable.

    One must wonder what political hi-jinks are going on in Morris.