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Ultralight pilots organize push for safety

A fatality on Lake Seminole prompts the Seabirds to promote safe flying and boating on the congested lake.

By LEON M. TUCKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


A fatality on Lake Seminole prompts the Seabirds to promote safe flying and boating on the congested lake.

SEMINOLE -- As federal aviation officials scrutinize ultralight operations on Lake Seminole, a group of pilots who fly the small aircraft there have banded together to promote safe flying and boating.

The Lake Seminole Seabirds organized after the May 6 collision that left a boater dead when her personal watercraft crashed into an ultralight plane that had just landed.

"We will be proactive in setting up safety measures and educate boaters and Jet Skiers on the fundamentals of aircraft safety on the water when around airplanes," said organizer Ron Barretto, an ultralight pilot who is a circulation operations manager for the St. Petersburg Times.

"We also want to try to work with the county division of parks . . . to put up some signage and designate some areas that can be used for aircraft operation," he said.

Parks officials will listen to the Seabirds, said Liz Warren, Pinellas County park director.

"They would need to meet with county staff, get something in writing and we would review their proposal," she said. "Anything we can do to make their leisure experience safer, I'll support."

Pinellas County sheriff's officials concluded earlier this month that Maryann Scibelli, 52, was at fault by creating a dangerous crossing situation and violating ultralight pilot John Tanner's right of way.

But the investigation could still find that Tanner, 44, was operating his ultralight over a congested area which is against FAA regulations.

An ultralight is any airplane weighing less than 254 pounds. They vary in design, but many are made with an aluminum frame covered in fabric.

Most have a five-gallon fuel tank and a two-cycle engine that uses about two gallons of fuel an hour. Some are capable of flying 70 mph but usually cruise at 50 to 55 mph.

Though the FAA has minimal regulatory power over ultralights, guidelines prohibit ultralight pilots from flying over crowded areas or creating hazardous situations.

Fines for violating such guidelines can be as much as $1,000, FAA spokeswoman Holly Baker said.

Baker said Lake Seminole is often too crowded with boats for ultralight pilots to safely fly there.

"At times that it's really busy and congested, (ultralight pilots) should not be operating in that area," she said. "But it is still being determined if the pilot was operating in a congested area."

The 18 Seabird members have met twice since the crash and plan to meet for a third time today.

Tanner, who has yet to attend any of the meetings, said he may go to the next one.

"I've already talked to a couple guys there and they let me know they were going to start meeting and talking about the common interest we have, which is safety," he said. "There are numerous boats out there and we are going to try to curtail our activity there because the watercraft activity is so unpredictable."

But some agencies that regulate activity at Lake Seminole say designating an area of the lake for ultralight activity only is a bad idea.

"It doesn't sound feasible to me," said Deputy Cal Dennie, sheriff's spokesman. "We patrol the lakes, but can we allow them to designate an area for their use? I can't say that they can just corner off a section just for ultralights."

Baker agrees.

"Our regulations are pretty clear that ultralights are not to be operated over a congested areas," she said. "So we would be more prone to just enforce that."

Although Tanner also does not think the lake should be divided, he has another solution. "I'm more for possibly distributing some literature and educating the watercraft population on lake operation," he said. "We just need to educate the watercraft folks that the seaplanes are there."

Recent coverage

Sheriff faults boater in crash (May 18, 2001)

Water lovers more cautious after crash (May 14, 2001)

FAA looks into use of ultralights at lake (May 8, 2001)

Woman dies after crash on lake (May 7, 2001)

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