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Pilots to offer proof of safety checks

After a series of crashes involving Clearwater Airpark, the city will seek copies of annual inspections.

Published March 1, 2005

CLEARWATER - The city will now ask Clearwater Airpark pilots to produce copies of their plane's annual inspection report, hoping to allay public fears after a deadly crash last month.

Ralph Herrlin, 78, of Clearwater and James Edward Smith, 63, of Palm Harbor died Feb. 15 when their single-engine Beechcraft Debonair struck a south Clearwater ranch house and crashed a minute after taking off from the small municipal airport.

It was the third fatal crash involving the airpark in 18 months, and the seventh since 2000.

Although city officials said Monday that they have no reason to believe any of the crashed planes skipped an inspection, the additional paperwork will address broader questions surrounding the airworthiness of the 135-plus plane fleet.

"It's something that the public has a very heightened interest about," said marine and aviation director Bill Morris. "One of the things I have been asked by members of the public is, "How do we know these planes are safe?' Well, hopefully, this can answer that."

Morris said he will send a letter this week to the airplane operators asking for the inspection reports. Based on how they respond, Morris may make the requirement part of the city's month-to-month lease for use of the runway hangars.

According to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, all planes are required to have an inspection every 12 months. But FAA spokesman Kathleen Bergen said the agency does not keep records of each individual checkup. In Florida, there are 22,771 planes registered with the FAA, including 1,019 in Pinellas County.

Morris said city employees can check inspection records online, but they haven't routinely. Bergen said she was not aware of a Web site where inspections were available.

"There's too many," she said.

Municipal airports in Tampa and St. Petersburg do not ask for inspection records and the airport manager at Albert Whitted Airport said he had never heard of such a practice.

"I'm not saying it's not a bad idea," said Rich Lesniak. "I'm just not aware that that's a common practice."

Deric Dymerski, who works for Atlas Aviation, the company that operates Peter O Knight Airport in Tampa, said it can prove difficult to police individual aircraft operators. Pilots may have a friend who is a certified mechanic sign off on an inspection as a favor, he said.

"Private owners, there's just not a whole lot of ways to regulate them," Dymerski said.

Pilots at Clearwater Airpark can have their annual inspection performed at the airpark only in the airport's maintenance hangar. Morris said he believes some pilots have broken the terms of their lease by hiring mechanics to perform the inspection on other parts of the airpark grounds, like personal hangars.

"They wouldn't be illegal aviationwise, but they would be illegal in regards to their lease," said Morris, who added that pilots can fly elsewhere legally for an inspection.

Morris said he wants more pilots to use the airport's maintenance hangar. He said city officials have not decided what will happen to pilots who have broken the terms of the lease.

Herrlin, whose plane was involved in the most recent crash, had problems with a fuel pump on his plane, friends have said. Smith was a licensed mechanic who friends said worked on single-engine aircraft.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said a preliminary report on what may have caused the crash could be released any day.

On Monday, City Council members discussed the future of the airpark during a work session. Mayor Frank Hibbard asked how much it would cost to build a control tower. Morris said a tower would take $1.2-million to construct and close to $550,000 a year to staff and maintain. The entire budget for the airpark is now $240,000 annually.

City officials will discuss airpark regulations again at Thursday's City Council meeting.

[Last modified March 1, 2005, 01:10:14]

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