Drunken pilot raises questions of air safety, law enforcement response
By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer, The Associated Press March 30, 2004
For four hours one January evening, a man piloting a small plane flew drunken loops around southeastern Pennsylvania, coming close to a nuclear power plant and disrupting the flight paths of six airliners, officials say. Critics say the flight, which ended safely, shows an alarming deficiency in law enforcement's ability to respond to out-of-control pilots. Although the military was consulted, it did not send fighters to intervene.
On Tuesday, a Montgomery County judge ruled that pilot John V. Salamone, 44, should stand trial on charges of risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment. A charge of drunken driving was previously thrown out.
On Jan. 15, Salamone took off from the Pottstown-Limerick Airport, 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia, in a single-engine Piper Cherokee and went on a flight that meandered into New Jersey and blundered into forbidden airspace.
The legal blood alcohol limit for pilots, set by the Federal Aviation Administration, is 0.04, or half the legal limit for driving in Pennsylvania. When Salamone landed, his blood alcohol level was 0.15, authorities said.
As flight controllers worked frantically to both identify Salamone and get him down, he flew as low as 100 feet, within a quarter mile of the Limerick nuclear power plant and into the flight paths of six airliners, officials said.
A Philadelphia police helicopter was credited with forcing him down, but even police concede that they were only a deterrent _ there was little they could do to physically bring him down.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command decided the plane was a "non-terrorist event." NORAD has scrambled fighter jets a total of 1,700 times for potential emergencies since Sept. 11, 2001, but it did not do so in this case.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., called the incident "troubling" in a letter to the FAA, and asked whether the agency planned to change its procedures.
FAA spokesman Jim Peters said "the appropriate notifications were made" regarding Salamone's plane. The FAA planned to respond to Specter's letter in early April, he said.
Andrew R. Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron and author of "Aviation Insecurity," said that post-Sept. 11, authorities should have better procedures for responding to pilots of small planes who fly dangerously.
"It shows how even with 9-11 taking place on the East Coast, that East Coast cities still have no system in place to deal with general aviation aircraft that veer off," he said. "That's a scary revelation."
But NORAD spokesman Lt. Col. Roberto Garza said the military can't be called in to deal with drunken pilots, just as "you don't call the military for a bank robber."
"He could have been a threat to someone's home or crashed it into a nuclear facility, just like a car can do or an 18-wheeler, but the decision was made that he wasn't a terrorist," Garza said.
Henry Ogrodzinski, president of the National Association of State Aviation Officials, said there was nothing anyone could do about Salamone short of shooting down the plane. And he said the potential threat of small planes being used in terrorist attacks is "overrated" because of their size.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, have had their own troubles in court. On Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Richard J. Hodgson called the evidence for risking a catastrophe "thin" but nevertheless said District Attorney Bruce Castor had jurisdiction to file the charge. Defense attorney Joseph Green had argued that Castor lacked jurisdiction.
Green said he agreed with the judge that the evidence supporting a charge of risking a catastrophe was flimsy. He declined further comment.
Pennsylvania doesn't have laws concerning drunken flying, and drunken driving charges against Salamone were thrown out after a preliminary hearing earlier this month.
Ogrodzinski said few states have drunken flying laws because it's a rarity and in any event a federal responsibility. But the FAA can't prosecute pilots; it can only take away their license, as it did Salamone's.
For Thomas, the Salamone case simply illustrates that the country isn't yet ready to deal with threats from the air.
"For me there's a big picture beyond just drunk pilots, and that is we haven't done the right thing to secure general aviation in this country," he said. "This story illustrates that."