Security curbs ops at D.C. heliport

 - May 15, 2008, 9:34 AM

The Air Pegasus of D.C.-South Capitol Street Heliport in downtown Washington is fighting to avoid a death by proximity–proximity to Capitol Hill, that is.

When it opened for business in 1998, its location one mile south of the Capitol complex was considered an advantage–one embraced by corporations, government officials, the military, ENG crews and several law-enforcement agencies.

Even following September 11, when a temporary flight restriction (TFR) area was cast around a 25-nm radius of the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) VOR, the D.C. heliport was used by such agencies as the U.S. Park Police and the Metropolitan Washington Police Department.

Eventually the heliport reopened to Part 135 helicopter operations, although when DCA was once again allowed to accept Part 121 commercial airline flights, that airport still remained closed to Part 135 and 91 operators. And three nearby Maryland general aviation airports also remained closed until late February, when based pilots could resume flying under extremely rigid procedures.

One of those GA airport operators questioned the FAA at an open meeting as to why the South Capitol Street Heliport could continue to operate, when other airports–including his–could not. As it turned out, the rotary-wing facility apparently ducked under the radar screens of federal security officials.

At the meeting at DCA in early February, Rear Adm. Paul Busick (Ret.), FAA associate administrator for civil aviation security, admitted that he was unaware that the South Capitol Street Heliport (09W) was still in operation. Later in a private conversation witnessed by AIN, he explained that it would have to close because “it’s just too darn close to the Capitol.”

Heliport general manager Don Scimonelli said he was told by federal officials that efforts to reopen aviation facilities have been concentrating solely on airports, even though his is the only public-use heliport in Washington or the suburban areas that surround it. He said he has a list of 21 customers that had been using 09W and now have been told they cannot.

‘Waivering’ Support

According to Scimonelli, the FAA told him to inform his customers to file for waivers, and that a law-enforcement officer would be required to ride on the helicopter from its point of departure to landing in Washington, and remain with the aircraft until it leaves the TFR. Interestingly, he has received no guidance on what constitutes a law-enforcement officer.

“You just tell us what the rules are and we’ll abide by the rules,” he told Jack Donovan, who is acting as the contact person for the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) GA security staff, at a recent meeting. “I’ve got 21 people here that use the heliport. Nine of them have sent in for waivers and have been disapproved; two of them have  sent in for waivers and have been approved.” He added that remaining operators don’t even want to try because they don’t know what is going to happen.

A frustrated Scimonelli said that the TSA official professed to have no knowledge of the FAA position. That led Scimonelli to question how the TSA, the Secret Service, the FAA and the Office of Homeland Security are ever going to agree on such problems as reopening DCA to non-commercial operations.

“As far as I know, I’m telling my operators to continue putting in the waivers,” said Scimonelli, who revealed that he has gotten approval for operations by a helicopter used by a nearby state governor and by a company doing photography work. “But here’s the funniest thing, they won’t even approve Sen. [Joe] Biden [D-Del.] coming in here,” he added. “They’ve had him picked up over at National.”

Meanwhile, airport operator Air Pegasus has set up a perimeter fence topped with razor wire. More lights were added, along with an external video camera to watch people come into the heliport. “The police are here 24/7 and they’ve said, ‘We’re here, and nobody’s going to come in here without our knowing that they’re here,’” Scimonelli told AIN. Since the Air Wing flies around the clock, there will be police protection on the property at all times. He said that contrary to popular belief, 09W is “easier to close down, shut off and secure than National Airport.”

Despite its convenient location, the South Capitol Street Heliport has long struggled to build a customer base. From the air, the heliport is found along Helicopter Route 1 at the west bank of the Anacostia River, south of the Washington Navy Yard and the Douglass Memorial Bridge. It is one nautical mile northeast of DCA.

There are lead-in lights from the river approach, landing floodlights, a marker beacon and a lighted windsock.  Operated by Air Pegasus of D.C., an FBO subsidiary of Air Pegasus of New Jersey, it is listed on navigation charts and in the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) facility directory.

Since then, HAI has joined with NBAA in its proposal for security letters of authorization (SLOA) that would give qualified GA operators the same access to the NAS as Part 121 airlines.