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For the week of Sept. 15, 1999 through Sept. 22, 1999

Exhibition flyer buzzes airport area

Pilot Bill Rheinschild denies any involvement with the incident


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

Here’s how Terry Lafleur, an operations specialist at Friedman Memorial Airport saw it:

Three Saturdays ago, at about 10 a.m., he was on the airfield doing maintenance with his radio tuned to the control tower’s frequency when the pilot of the P-51 Mustang, "Risky Business," received clearance for takeoff.

"Risky Business" and pilot Bill Rheinschild have long been a mainstay at the Reno Air Races, where contestants hurtle around pylons at half the speed of sound with their wing tips just 50 feet above the desert floor.

Because the P-51 is a rare and historic aircraft, Lafleur paused to watch the plane’s ascent. But what it did just after its wheels left the tarmac alarmed Lafleur enough for him to make a written statement to the airport’s management.

After banking east and crossing over Highway 75 and the bike path, Lafleur wrote, the Mustang then buzzed the Woodside and Fox Acres subdivisions, heading north at approximately twice the height of a telephone pole.

Moments later, according to Lafleur, the plane came roaring back into view, straight down the runway, passing directly over Lafleur’s head at about the same altitude as the control tower’s cab, or 35 feet.

"In my opinion, the [aircraft] looked to be making maneuvers more fitting for a low-level racing course than a traffic pattern by a residential neighborhood," Lafleur wrote in a two-page report.

In a brief telephone interview last week from Southern California, Rheinschild, who owns a house in Sun Valley, denied he was at the Hailey airport on the morning Lafleur reported seeing the Mustang. However, airport records indicate Rheinschild paid for 126 gallons of fuel for the plane on that day.

The alleged low-altitude pass was not the first time Reinschild came to the airport’s attention. In an interview, airport authority Chairwoman Mary Ann Mix called him "one of those folks that really causes us a problem."

Mix said she couldn’t comment further on Rheinschild because of a pending investigation of "Risky Business" by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A representative at the FAA’s Boise Flight Standards District Office declined to confirm whether the investigation involved Rheinschild. But, he said, the office is "investigating the flight of a P-51 that violated federal regulations by its dangerous, low flight over the area."

"Everybody says, ‘ooh, ahh,’" the representative said about illegal exhibition flying, "but it’s dangerous. If that thing hits a house, it’s a bomb—it’ll explode."

Since 1991, Friedman airport authorities and the city of Hailey have sent at least six letters addressed to Rheinschild at Unlimited Air Racing in Van Nuys, Calif., asking him to comply with the airport’s noise abatement procedures, which they say he has violated with his loud, low flying.

Rheinschild said he has never received a letter from the airport or from Hailey.

He also said he sold the highly modified race plane two and a half months ago. But according to a representative at the FAA, the P-51 has been registered to Unlimited Air Racing for at least the last year and has not changed owners recently.

Rheinschild declined to comment on his connection to Unlimited Air Racing.

Last year, Rheinschild flew "Risky Business" to a third-place finish at the Reno Air Races at an average speed of 420 mph.

"Reno is aviation’s last bastion of organized recklessness," Air and Space magazine reported this year. "Here a pilot can literally take his life into his own hands and as close to the desert floor as he or she dares. The racers explain their daring as an attempt to gain competitive advantage rather than an expression of machismo."

Whatever the motivation is, experts say it’s a dangerous tactic. The only way a pilot can tie the unofficial standing record for low flying at Reno is to fly his plane into the ground. Last year, racer Jim Mott tied the record and was lucky enough to survive.

Also registered to Unlimited Air Racing is a Hawker Sea Fury, nicknamed "Bad Attitude," which is another plane Rheinschild has entered in the Reno Air Races, according to a Reno Air Race Web site.

In 1998, Friedman Airport chief operations officer, Pete Kramer, filed a memo with the airport describing a high-speed, low altitude pass he witnessed the Sea Fury perform over the runway. Kramer described the plane’s maneuvers as "exhibition flying."

According to Idaho code, an aircraft can lawfully fly over the lands and waters of the state, "unless so conducted as to be imminently dangerous to persons or property beneath."

However, Friedman airport manager Rick Baird said the clause is difficult to enforce because it is difficult to document a pilot’s wrongdoing. When someone driving an automobile breaks the speed limit, he said, you can aim a radar at him and get proof he is speeding, but with an aircraft you can’t do that.

What you have to do, Baird said, is get enough eye-witnesses who are willing to testify against the pilot in a federal investigation. Baird said that such an investigation can result in the revocation or suspension of a pilot’s license.

Rheinschild said he no longer flies into the Wood River Valley because he considers it to be a hostile environment.

"I think the noise abatement procedures are unsafe," he said.

He said he believes the program asks pilots to climb too quickly at too low a speed.

 

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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.