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Small airport balks at site of sheriff's helicopter hangar

When the Pasco Sheriff's Office was getting the final permits this winter for its new helicopter hangar in Land O'Lakes, one stubborn stumbling block was a simple three-page letter.

Before receiving the Federal Aviation Administration's blessing, the agency had to sign a "letter of agreement" with the nearby Pilot Country airport to prevent sheriff's helicopters from entering the airport's flight pattern. And to get state approval, the Sheriff's Office needed the go-ahead from the FAA.

That letter hasn't been signed. Both federal and state officials say the Sheriff's Office and the airport should reach an agreement.

But the hangar opened in March and the sheriff's pilots can fly their choppers.

Pilot Country manager David Parks isn't happy.

"There is no way they can operate and not be a safety hazard where they located the heliport," said Parks, who has refused to sign the letter. "A letter of agreement is not going to alleviate the safety issue."

But Sheriff Chris Nocco, who as a captain directed the hangar project before he was appointed in May to the agency's top job, said he wants to sign the letter, but Parks won't agree. He thinks Parks is upset the agency didn't spend $225,000 to buy space at Pilot Country for the hangar. To save money, he said, the hangar was built a little more than a mile away near the Pasco County jail.

Said Jeremiah Hawkes, one of Nocco's top administrators: "It really seems that he wants to kind of shake us down."

• • •

The dust-up over the letter shows that the line between a requirement in a mere recommendation isn't always as clear as it seems.

According to Hawkes, "the FAA recommended the letter. They recommended certain safety parameters."

But that isn't quite the case.

In a January e-mail to Nocco, an FAA official in Orlando explained that even though the helicopter flight paths largely avoid Pilot Country, the heliport "is still located within the traffic pattern." As such, he said, "we must require an operational Letter of Agreement between the two operators."

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen confirmed the requirement and said the letter "would allow for safe operations." But she said FAA rulings are only advisory and that officials at the Florida Department of Transportation give final approval.

On Jan. 14, an official in DOT's aviation division asked Nocco for a copy of the signed letter "as part of the site approval conditions." Nocco protested, saying the airport does not "wish to even consider any type of agreement." He pointed to a July 2010 site approval letter from the department and said that should be sufficient.

A week later, the DOT official agreed. "As far as our private aviation facility requirements are concerned, you have satisfied them."

Asked to explain, DOT spokesman Eric Carr said the letter is required but that Nocco's office has until September 2012 to reach an agreement with Pilot Country. If the letter isn't signed by then, Carr said, DOT can either extend its approval for two years or revoke the approval. Carr said the letter won't be the only factor that affects that decision.

• • •

So is the heliport safe?

There have been no accidents or near-misses between choppers and private planes since the hangar opened in March. And the area isn't exactly a superhighway for aircraft.

Nocco said two of the agency's four helicopters are operational. Only one is used at any given time on an on-call basis. "We're not like LAPD that has 24-hour air coverage," he said.

Even though the letter isn't approved, Nocco said his pilots follow the letter's proposed requirements. Those include keeping helicopters at a low altitude while in the area and delaying takeoffs or landings if a plane is heard near Pilot Country. Sheriff's helicopters also fly to the south of the heliport to avoid Pilot Country flight paths.

But Parks said that any pilot would say that the sheriff's hangar is too close to Pilot Country, which doesn't have a control tower. His biggest fear is that a helicopter accidentally flies underneath an unsuspecting pilot, causing a midair crash. Signing the letter, he said, would be a "tacit approval" of the location.

"It's a menu for disaster," he said. "Hopefully it will never happen, but who knows?"

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Small airport balks at site of sheriff's helicopter hangar 07/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 8:16pm]
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