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Agricultural pilots pushing for tougher rules to mark, light up hard-to-see towers
February 18, 2011
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  • By Roman Gokhman

    February 16, 2011

    The tower that an agricultural plane crashed into last month on a remote Delta island would have required bright markings and a light had it been 2 feet taller, underscoring concerns about cellular and meteorological structures that are difficult to spot sprouting up on farmland.

    On Jan. 10, Stephen Allen, of Courtland, was killed on Webb Tract Island after his airplane struck an unmarked 198-foot-tall tower designed to evaluate the potential of wind turbines in that location. Only towers 200 feet and taller must be marked with bright paint and a light, according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

    Gary Del Carlo, owner of Haley Flying Service in Tracy, is among those calling for changes to the regulations for marking towers.

    “In a safety sense, it creates a real problem,” the 64-year-old pilot said. “We are opposed to them being in a farm area where the obstruction will interfere with a flight plan.”

    Allen likely never saw the steel tower that caused the fatal crash, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

    Coincidentally, the FAA recently began a public hearing process that may change its recommendation to developers on the height at which towers should be painted and lit.

    The National Agricultural Aviation Administration, the Washington, D.C.-based governing body for agricultural pilots, is recommending that all towers 50 feet and taller be marked.

    “The number of towers is expected to grow significantly as there are requirements for more alternative sources of energy,” said Andrew Moore, the group’s executive director. “As you see the growth of that industry, you will see more of these towers.”

    Allen, 58, was piloting a Rockwell International S-2R Thrush Commander plane for Walnut Grove-based Alexander Ag Flying Service.

    He was dropping seed when he crashed into the meteorological tower, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The tower was installed on the island in 2009.

    Michael Ganson, port captain for the Delta Ferry Authority, which runs a ferry to the island, said the weather was clear at the time of the crash, which he witnessed.

    “He was flying into the sun, north to south,” he said.

    The NTSB quoted the National Agricultural Aviation Administration in its report that “the fact that these towers are narrow, unmarked and gray in color makes for a structure that is nearly invisible under some atmospheric conditions.”

    The company that erected the tower, Renewable Resources Group in Los Angeles, built as dangerous a tower as possible for pilots without surpassing the federal threshold, Moore said.

    “Clearly, they were aware of what the threshold is,” Moore said.

    He said wind energy companies have resisted marking the towers and creating a database of their locations because of competition within the industry.

    “You don’t want to show your hand when you are measuring wind,” he said.

    Renewable Resources Group did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

    Many companies do want to protect their business plans, but the desire to build under 200 feet has little to do with painting them, said Peter Kelley, spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association.

    If they build taller than 200 feet, the FAA public permitting process allows competitors to see a developer’s proprietary business information, Kelley said.

    “The desire to build them just under 200 feet has more to do with exposing those business plans,” he said.

    That way, the only way for a competitor to find out where a developer has installed meteorological towers is to go looking for them in person.

    “I think we can all agree we want to keep the pilots as safe as possible,” Kelley said. “Many of the developers do mark (towers) under 200 feet.”

    NRG Systems, a company that sells meteorological towers in the United States, offers to paint the towers for its buyers, even if the towers are shorter than 200 feet, company spokesman Lawrence Jacobs said.

    “It’s really up to the individual who is installing the tower,” he said.

    Since 2000, nine pilots have been killed after crashing into towers of any kind in the United States, Moore said. An additional 16 have died after crashing into wires that connect the towers to the ground.

    There are about 400 licensed agricultural pilots in California, but only 270 or so fly regularly, said Terry Gage, president of the California Agricultural Aircraft Association in Lincoln. Three or four operators work in Contra Costa County, she said.

    Pilots primarily drop fertilizer, seed or pesticides over farm fields.

    Since 1990, 30 agricultural pilots in California have been killed in collisions, but only Allen’s death was the result of a collision with a tower, according to the NTSB. Many of the other fatalities occurred when aircraft came in contact with power or telephone lines.

    “Our safety record is pretty incredible, considering what they do,” Gage said.

    Agricultural pilots in California need several certifications before they are allowed to fly, Gage said. Before they can be licensed by the agency, they need to have a commercial pilot’s license and a license with the Department of Pesticide Regulation to drop liquid or dry pesticides. To keep their license, they need 28 hours of education every two years.

    The FAA began accepting public comment in January regarding new marking and lighting recommendations to developers of meteorological towers shorter than 200 feet. It would not require developers to change their practices, however.

    “The FAA is aware that meteorological towers under 200 feet tall can be difficult for pilots of low-level agricultural flights to see,” agency spokesman Ian Gregor said. “The FAA does not have the authority to review structures under 200 feet tall unless they are very close to an airport.

    We don’t have the staff or resources to study every structure under 200 feet.”

    Towers shorter than 200 feet fall under the purview of local governments. The Contra Costa County zoning administrator approved the Renewable Resources Group tower after a public hearing process.

    Gregor said the FAA will draft its revised recommendations within several weeks.

    “It doesn’t mandate anything,” Moore said. “What it does is it makes these tower companies much more liable. But that issue won’t necessarily come up until there is another accident.”

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