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Thu, May 17, 2007

Reports: FAA Approved Rocket Launches In LEX Airspace

Aircraft Allowed To Fly Over Launch Area

Lexington (KY) Blue Grass Airport air traffic controllers say the Federal Aviation Administration should not have issued a waiver allowing the Bluegrass Rocketry Society to conduct rocket launches Saturday into LEX airspace.

The FAA allowed the club to launch model rockets, some of which were five feet long, about four miles from the airport into active airspace.

The controllers said that planes, including commercial aircraft, flew through the launch area at the direction of a supervisor and believe an errant rocket could very well have hit one of them, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"You can see it's unsafe," said Randy Harris, president of the Lexington local of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Laura Brown, FAA spokeswoman, said the Louisville FAA office should, indeed, have consulted with the Lexington air traffic manager before issuing the waiver.

"That didn't happen in this case," she said.

Brown said she knew of no aircraft that were endangered and the FAA does allow things like rocket launches near an airport.

"We try to allow a variety of different uses of the airspace," she said.

The waiver was approved by Robert E. Kelly, Jr., an FAA official in Louisville. "Mr. Kelly and I did not discuss the waiver prior to its issuance," Duff Ortman, the FAA's air traffic manager in Lexington said in an e-mail, adding he's opposed the rocket launches for the last two years because of the potential danger.

Ortman denied he directed controllers to conduct normal departures through the launch area.

"There was no guidance issued by me precluding the controllers from issuing any headings that they deemed necessary," he said.

Harris disagreed and contends controllers initially directed planes away from the area, but Ortman instructed them to "put the planes back on track" on the normal departure route -- directly over the launch area.

Harris said his primary concern is ingestion of a rocket into a jet engine, which would probably destroy the engine and force an emergency landing. A rocket could easily go through the windshield of an aircraft injuring the pilot or hit instruments critical to maintaining control of the aircraft, he said.

Brown declined the newspaper's request to make Ortman and Kelly available for an interview. But because Ortman believes the rocket launches present a collision hazard, she said, they will no longer be allowed, regardless of the waiver.

But she did not know whether the waiver would be rescinded.

Darryl Hankes, president of the rocket club, insisted no aircraft were ever in danger during the launches.

FMI: www.bluegrassairport.com, www.faa.gov

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