Warsaw Flying Club could get evicted because of unauthorized event at Warsaw Airport

(photo supplied / Warsaw Airport)

Warsaw airport officials have threatened to evict the Warsaw Flying Club after the group hosted an unauthorized event at the airport in September.

Board of Aviation Commissioners met Wednesday and is demanding the club  submit a written statement to the board by next month’s meeting about how it will conduct future activities at the airport.

The club hosted a barbecue and flour bag drop at the airport on Sept. 19.

Airport Manager Nick King said circumstances over the event are being reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration, a fact that club member Jayson Slabach disputed Wednesday.

King told the commissioners that at approximately 7 p.m. Sept. 19 he was driving home from dinner near CR 350N when he noticed an aircraft that he thought was flying irregularly near the airport.

He pulled into the National Guard Armory parking lot and observed that the club’s plane was flying very low over the taxiway hangar area. Shortly thereafter, King saw something fall out of the aircraft, which impacted the ground. The item turned out to be a bag of flour.

He then made his way to the terminal building. At that time, the aircraft was taxiing up to the hangar and shutting down, so King thought that whatever was happening was over. A few minutes later, the aircraft took off again, circled around the airport, flew directly over the taxiway and dropped another bag of flour, which impacted the taxiway. King estimated that the airplane was flying at 250 to 300 feet off the ground. He did take pictures of the bag of flour being dropped out of the aircraft.

He also photographed and witnessed a golf cart on a runway with two individuals at the cart, followed by two small children running out to the runway. The kids then ran through the grass, over the taxiway and back to the hangar.

People were out and about in front of hangar 12’s ramp. One of the flour bags had hit 125 to 135 feet away from where the people were standing, about 135 feet away from privately owned hangars and 255 feet from where aircraft were parked on the ramp.

“These are huge issues for the airport. I did, at that time, I proceeded out to the runway and told the people with the golf cart that they could not be out there, that they needed to exit the runway surface area. And I did tell (Club President) Jon Fussle that the event had to shut down, that we can’t have that type of event at the airport without proper authorization,” King said.

King did not know who the pilot was, but Slabach was one of the people at the golf cart.

King said he made contact with the FAA. “Their concern strictly is safety for the airport. The flying aspect, the piloting aspect, we as an airport have no authority over whatsoever. But what we do have authority over is the ultimate safety of the operators and users of the airport,” King said.

King said he has worked with the club in the past about the group’s activities at the airport.

“We were never contacted about this,” King said. “We had no idea that the barbecue was going on, and to do this type of operation at an airport, you absolutely can not do it at an airport without the proper federal waivers. There is a proper way to do it. It (the flour drop) is an aeronautical event,” King explained, adding that there is paperwork that needs to be filled out and submitted to the FAA.

Commissioners President Jay Rigdon asked if the ground activities were within the area the club was previously told they could be. King said some were, but people out on the runway and taxiway were not.

“What it comes down to is a non-standard use of an airport. If this had been held on private ground … we would not be having this conversation at all. We have no jurisdiction at all … but because it happened at the airport, the BOAC has authority,” King said.

Mayor Joe Thallemer asked if the flour drops are common in past events. Commissioner Dan Robinson said similar events were held at the Warsaw airport in the 1960s and ’70s.

“So besides the FAA and their concerns, the bigger issue is the liability if one of those kids would have got bonked on our property?” Thallemer asked. “Absolutely,” King replied.

King said there also was another aircraft in the area at that time. Had it landed on the airway where the people were, that could have resulted in a problem.

He said the adopted airport rules also state that there are to be no vehicles at all on a landing surface. Those rules are posted publicly at the airport.

In telling the club’s side of the story, Slabach said he didn’t recall seeing any children on the runway, but were on the ramp and a couple ran north of the club, but were chased back in.

“As far as the FAA saying we can’t do this, I did call the Flight Standards District Office up in Grand Rapids … The guy I talked to … at FSDO said that the way I described it, he said no rules were broken,” Slabach said, adding that aircraft can drop items as long as care is taken not to hurt people or property. He said before any pilot took off, ground rules were set. One of the rules was the plane’s altitude had to be higher than 500 feet (above ground). Slabach said he piloted one of the airplanes and never went below that height in his drop run.

He said all the planes were below pattern and made position calls the whole time. The club also had a transceiver on the ground listening for other aircraft. Slabach said the other plane that King referenced that was in the area did not make any traffic calls while the club was there.

King disputed that, saying, “They absolutely did. I heard them make the calls. I assure you they did.”

Slabach said it was a difference of opinion then, but King said it wasn’t a difference of opinion but rather, fact.

Club member Chris Long said the aircraft they were in were making position calls so the other plane would have known about that. King said he appreciated that, but not all planes are required to have radios at an uncontrolled airport like Warsaw. Slabach said he gets pretty good range on his transceiver.

Rigdon asked why the club didn’t tell the airport it was going to do that “atypical activity.” Slabach said, “I didn’t know we were doing that event until I showed up that night.”

Slabach said after talking with an attorney at Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, it was his understanding that the club didn’t break any rules, though King said it broke seven federal regulations. Slabach said he also called the Airport District Office, who told him to fill out a waiver to deviate from rules, but Slabach said they weren’t breaking any rules and he was waiting to hear back from the office.

King said the FAA district office was investigating it, but Slabach said he talked to someone there last week and they weren’t. King rebutted he talked to the office Wednesday afternoon “and they are investigating. Whoever you talked to, didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Slabach said if there was an investigation he would welcome it because he’d like to find out what rules he broke.

Rigdon later said, “It just seems like there’s several things here that just as a matter of common sense are obviously wrong in terms of them being potentially dangerous to people. … The liability thing is not as important as the safety thing. If we’ve got a golf cart issue, or someone else has a plane issue, to me, if they get hurt, that’s what I want to stop.”

Long said safety was an important part of the club’s protocol.

Rigdon said it sounds like the event was  thrown together that night. “That’s not good,” Rigdon said.

Robinson said the biggest problem to him was the kids and the golf cart being out where they shouldn’t be.

“More importantly, Nick is in charge and has responsibility to this airport, and, to me, I would bank my reputation on his knowledge of what needs to be done,” Thallemer said.

At minimum, Thallemer said, King should have been notified.

“That’s why he’s my airport manager. I know he’s diligent and he understands the rules,” Thallemer said.

Rigdon said if he had to make a decision right then, he would move to evict the club, but “that doesn’t mean you can’t convince me otherwise.”

He said he was giving the club an opportunity to do just that.

“So what I would like is, before next month’s meeting, I would like a written commitment from the flying club as to what steps they will take to make sure the problems here are not repeated,” Rigdon said.

“ want something that says ‘this is what we did as a club and organization to make sure we’re following the rules … the people at our activities are following the rules … to make sure the airport is properly notified of atypical behavior at the airport.’ And then that would be a commitment the club has made to us,” he said.

Rigdon warned that if the club couldn’t make enough of a commitment to make him feel safe about the club’s use of the airport, he’d vote for an eviction of the club.

Robinson and Commissioner John Yingling agreed. Rigdon said he wanted the written commitment to King by Nov. 10 so the board members could review it in advance.

Fussle did not attend the meeting, but it was requested he attend the November meeting.