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Pasco Sheriff's Office reaches agreement with Pilot Country

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has sent federal aviation officials the final paperwork for its helicopter hangar — more than a year after the heliport opened near the county jail in Land O'Lakes.

The last stumbling block for federal approval was largely procedural, a simple three-page letter signed by the sheriff and nearby Pilot Country airport. The letter, signed last month, removes any lingering legal concerns surrounding the hangar's operation.

The previous manager of Pilot Country, David Parks, refused to sign the so-called "letter of agreement" with the Sheriff's Office, citing safety concerns. But a new manager took over in November and didn't have a problem with the letter, which outlines procedures to keep helicopter pilots out of the private airport's flight path.

"I really don't anticipate any problems at all," said Rex Myers, the new manager. His message to pilots: "Just don't get low on the approach over there. Make sure you fly your patterns properly and there won't be a problem with the helicopters."

The Federal Aviation Administration required the letter because the heliport is only about a mile from Pilot Country and falls within its traffic pattern.

The agreement requires Myers to post two signs warning pilots about the choppers. Requirements for the Sheriff's Office 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 will try to fly south of the heliport to avoid Pilot Country flight paths.

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the agency has been complying with the requirements for months, even though the letter wasn't yet approved.

The area near the Pasco County jail isn't exactly buzzing with aircraft.

Doll said the agency has four helicopters based out of the hangar. Only one is likely to be in the air at a time unless there is a major incident like an escaped prisoner. Myers said he's never seen a sheriff's chopper fly out of the hangar.

Pilot Country's traffic also is down significantly, to about five flights per day. Myers said that's due to a weak economy and past management problems. "If (pilots) follow the rules, there shouldn't be a conflict," he said.

Sheriff Chris Nocco earlier argued the previous airport manager refused to sign the agreement after the agency didn't spend $200,000 to buy space at Pilot Country for the hangar. Nocco directed the hangar project when he was a captain before being appointed to the agency's top job last May.

Although the FAA required the letter before it gave its blessing, the agency's rulings are only advisory. Officials at the Florida Department of Transportation give final approval.

DOT issued a site approval, contingent on the two sides reaching an agreement by September. Last month's letter clears that deadline by months.

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

Pasco Sheriff's Office reaches agreement with Pilot Country 04/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 8:42pm]
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