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    FAA looks into use of ultralights at lake

    Sheriff's Office and federal investigators examine a fatal collision on Lake Seminole.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE, MIKE SAEWITZ and CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it will consider restricting ultralight planes on Lake Seminole after a fatal collision involving a personal watercraft and a small plane.

    "We need to take a look at that situation," said Charles Nolan, manager of the FAA's Flight Standards district office in Tampa. "If we have to take further action, then we'll do whatever is necessary."

    According to FAA regulations, he said, ultralights cannot be operated over a congested area.

    Nolan said one of his investigators spent Monday in Seminole, trying to figure out what happened a day earlier on the 684-acre lake, a popular weekend destination for ultralights and personal watercraft.

    Mary Ann Scibelli, 52, of St. Petersburg died Sunday evening at Bayfront Medical Center after the Sea Doo she was riding collided with an ultralight seaplane that had landed on the lake.

    Some witnesses say the plane appeared to be having difficulty landing and that it seemed unstable as it flew over the dock at the Townhomes at Lake Seminole, a large condominium complex on the lake's western shore.

    But the pilot, John Tanner, 44, of Largo, said the accident occurred when Scibelli's Sea Doo rammed him from the side as he taxied toward a dock. He said that he was teaching student Jeremy Ryan, 50, of Holiday, but that he was at the controls of the small pontoon plane.

    Tanner, who is certified by the Experimental Aircraft Association as an ultralight instructor, said he has been flying for about 15 years. Ryan owned the plane involved in the accident.

    The Marine Unit of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which patrols the lake on busy days, continued its investigation Monday, but has not determined who was at fault, said sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie.

    "(The FAA) will be looking at our report," Dennie said.

    Deputies are waiting for results of a toxicology test to find out whether Scibelli had alcohol in her blood, Dennie said.

    Dennie said deputies did not take blood from Tanner or Ryan. He said there were no indications that either had been drinking.

    Kenneth Scibelli, Scibelli's husband, said Monday that the accident could not have been his wife's fault. The flight instructor and student should be investigated rather than his wife, an experienced jet ski rider, he said.

    "She owned it for six years," Scibelli said. "She owned it and rode it in four states. She knew how to ride it."

    Scibelli said his wife's love for driving the Sea Doo was not about speed and that there was no way she was driving too fast, as Tanner said on Sunday.

    "It was relaxation for her," Scibelli said. "It was a toy."

    For years, personal watercraft and ultralights have been sharing Lake Seminole. For the most part, the operators of both vehicles stay out of each other's way, said Al Farrell, owner of Action Water Sports Rentals on Park Boulevard.

    "There never has been a problem before," Farrell said. "It's pretty much a freak accident."

    But Farrell said the lake, which borders the west side of Lake Seminole Park, could use more supervision.

    "I feel like they probably could have a patroller out here more often," he said.

    Sheriff's deputies monitor the lake, but not on a regular basis. Aside from some no-wake speed zones near ramps and docks, there are no posted regulations on the lake.

    "Both the state and the county have the authority to regulate (the lake)," said Capt. Alan Richard, who is in charge of boating safety and waterway management for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But the state likes to defer to local government to address local problems. You don't need Big Brother trying to micromanage every square mile of the waterway."

    And besides, Richard said, "Everyone is very quick to scream for more regulation, but the simple answer may be more education."

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