July 31, 2008

FAA Investigating Concord Low Flyer

By Robert Salonga, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jul. 31--CONCORD -- The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether a Concord man repeatedly flew his small plane over his ex-girlfriend's neighborhood in violation of FAA rules.

FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said his office does not comment on active investigations, but he confirmed that the Beech single-engine fixed-wing plane under scrutiny belongs to 50-year-old Thomas Mark Huey.

Over a two-week period in July, residents reported several instances, day and night, where they either saw or heard a small airplane buzzing over the neighborhood bounded by Treat Boulevard and Cowell and Clayton roads.

"It sounded low and close," said Chris Keith, who lives on Sherwood Drive. "You could hear a plane circling."

Keith, a 20-year resident of the area, said he has gotten used to small planes passing overhead since Concord's Buchanan Field is nearby, but that this plane's presence was unusual.

County airport officials received 22 noise complaints about the plane, which has been based out of Buchanan Field for more than 20 years, said airport director Keith Freitas. The complaints were sent to the FAA's Flight Standards District Office in Alameda.

The plane's call numbers seen by residents matched Huey's FAA filings for the plane, registered to another home address in the city of Groveland, in Tuolumne County.

The neighborhood affected includes the home of Huey's estranged girlfriend, who last week was granted a five-year

restraining order against him stemming from allegations of domestic violence and harassment.

Calls made to Huey's listed phone number in Concord on Wednesday were not answered, and his attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

There have been no reported complaints about the plane in the past week, Freitas said. They stopped around July 24, which is when the FAA put the pilot on notice, he said.

Still, residents want clear answers about what happened above their heads.

Kim Lesnansky, a 33-year resident of the neighborhood who lives on Shakespeare Drive, recalled an afternoon sighting where the plane made as many as 100 passes overhead, getting disturbingly close to the trees around her home, which stand between 40 and 50 feet high.

"He was spiraling and slowly descending," Lesnansky said.

"I went out to see if he had a heart attack or something. I was afraid he was going to hit (power) wires."

Another resident who wants answers is Brian Isikoff, a Sherwood Drive resident whose SUV was struck by a large rock he believes came from the sky, pummeling the vehicle's back window and tailgate.

"It had to have come from overhead," Isikoff said. "Someone could have gotten killed."

FAA visual flight regulations dictate that a pilot must maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 feet over a congested area.

But Fergus said depth perception from the ground can be misleading, and that people can think a plane is a lot closer than it actually is.

"Depending on the size of the plane, it could be at 1,000 feet and feel like it's on your shoulder," Fergus said.

Penalties for violations range from an admonition to the loss of the pilot's license, Fergus said, adding that a pilot's track record is taken into consideration and that the FAA is given wide latitude in determining punishment. Huey's flight history was not immediately available.

The flights could also yield criminal charges if it's determined the man violated a restraining order by annoying or harassing the protected woman, said Contra Costa County deputy district attorney Jason Peck of the domestic violence unit.

Prosecutors would consider filing a separate charge for every flyby, with each count carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail or $1,000 fine, Peck said.

This might not be the first time Huey has drawn attention for flying out of bounds. According to news reports, in October 2006 he was one of two pilots diverted by fighter jets to Merced after entering restricted airspace in Stockton, where President Bush was visiting. Huey was interviewed by Secret Service agents and released.

Staff writers Malaika Fraley and Roman Gokhman contributed to this story. Robert Salonga covers public safety. Reach him at 925-943-8013 or [email protected]


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