Pilot Arrested, Charged for Doing Nothing
The arrest of a pilot in South Carolina this past summer highlights the chasm between enforcement and common sense.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Jan 15, 2013
By now, hopefully, you’ve heard the story of pilot Robin Fleming’s lazy glider flight one fine day last summer in the blue skies of beautiful South Carolina. Well, that’s the way it should have turned out, but it didn’t. Instead, that would-be great summer flight ended with Robin getting thrown in jail after a high-stakes criminal drama.
Except in this case, there was no crime involved. Not even a whiff of one. Mr. Fleming, an articulate and conscientious 70-year-old glider pilot and instructor was instead arrested simply for going flying. The presumed offense was his briefly flying over a nuclear power plant at approximately 1,000 feet AGL while looking for lift.
In her fine feature story on the subject, AOPA’s Sarah Brown details the events of the late afternoon of July 26th, 2012, when Robin was first made aware over the radio that he was being “ordered” to land his glider, a 1,100 pound max weight model that is hardly capable of crashing through a chain link fence let alone being used to damage a power plant. Local law enforcement cannot, for the record, order any pilot of an airplane in flight to do anything. (If you haven’t read the AOPA story or seen its video of the events, please check it out here.)
As Brown details in her piece, scheduled for release in the March issue of February's AOPA Pilot magazine, Fleming complied with the request to land, was detained on the spot, brought to jail, held overnight on a charge of “breach of peace,” and not released until he was bailed out late the next day. The Darlington, South Carolina, sheriff’s office denied Fleming’s request to call someone when he was initially detained, so the members of his soaring club (Bermuda High Soaring in Jefferson, South Carolina) were understandably alarmed when he didn’t return from his flight and rightly assumed that he was forced to land off airport. After not hearing from him after several hours, they organized a search for him.
Fleming was, they did not know, in jail, being held for the “offense” of flying over a nuclear plant, which was, the sheriff’s department claimed, a “no-fly” zone. When Fleming complied with the order to land and touched down at Hartsville Regional Airport, one observer there counted 17 police vehicles involved in the apprehension. The subject of the “chase” was that of an unpowered glider flown by a pilot who had willingly landed. The glider was on the ground and stopped. One can only suppose that in the hysteria of the moment, the sheriffs were calling for additional backup while hoping a stiff wind didn't pick up.
The only problem with the detention or the arrest was — and this is a big problem — there is no such kind of zone, no such regulation and no such offense. It’s hard to read this case any way other than that Fleming was arrested falsely. The charge the sheriff’s department eventually hung on Fleming, breach of peace, was a flimsy excuse for that dubious arrest. After all, how could it have been breach of peace for Fleming to do something that he was perfectly within his rights to do? It’s equivalent to someone being arrested for going 50 in a 55 mph speed limit zone and then being arrested for not breaking the law that led to the arrest. The charge was an absurdity, an assault on Mr. Fleming’s good name and an insult to all aviators. An apology was what the Darlington County Sheriff’s Department should have issued, not an arrest warrant.
As part of the settlement to make the charges go away, Fleming was, according to people familiar with the story, required to agree not to sue the sheriff’s department. If that isn’t an admission by the department of a mistake, I don’t know what is.
There are, as you probably know, no specific rules against overflying at an appropriate altitude a power plant that is not marked on the charts as being restricted airspace. Fleming was, he says, using a current sectional chart for his flight, and the chart shows no such “no-fly” zone over the power plant or no restrictions on the airspace at all. There is a notam, issued shortly after 9/11, that recommends that pilots avoid sites such as nuclear plants, but it stops far short of prohibiting flight over them.
The message, of course, is that the nightmare Robin Fleming went through could have happened to any of us. As responsible and conscientious as we might be, how can we comply with laws and regulations that don’t exist?
We salute AOPA for bringing this incident to our collective attention. Moreover, we applaud the organization's ongoing work to promote a greatly increased understanding on the part of law enforcement, from Homeland Security down to local law enforcement, of the nature of perceived airspace violations and the relative threat they present.
In this case, that threat was zero, and the response, sadly, was an eleven on a scale of ten.