Airport Authority accuses No. 1 client of unsafe behavior

Stephen Fletcher, of Immokalee, speaks to members of the Collier County Airport Authority Board. Tristan Spinski/Staff

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI, Tristan Spinski

Stephen Fletcher, of Immokalee, speaks to members of the Collier County Airport Authority Board. Tristan Spinski/Staff

— For the second time in about three months, the Collier County Airport Authority is taking Fletcher’s Flying Service owner Stephen Fletcher to task about his behavior at the Immokalee Regional Airport.

The airport has video of Fletcher — the airport’s biggest client — leaving his aircraft running unattended on the airport grounds, Airport Authority Executive Director Chris Curry said. In a separate incident, Curry said the airport has a video of a plane, owned by Fletcher, taking off from the runway while another plane, also owned by Fletcher, lands at the same time.

Fletcher has been asked to cease the offending behavior and a report has been filed with the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight safety division.

“It’s unsafe,” Curry said.

But Fletcher, 60, said he’s now being criticized for behavior he’s engaged in for decades. He said there was no need to report him to federal authorities, especially since he agreed to stop after the issues were brought to his attention.

“If I say I am not going to do it anymore, I won’t do it anymore. There is no need to report me,” he said. “I am not looking to move my business. People depend on me for a paycheck, they depend on me to spray their fields. I am not trying to antagonize anyone. But they really seem to want to make an example out of me or something.”

While Fletcher acknowledges that he did those things, he said they were not unsafe maneuvers.

“The Immokalee Airport’s runways are wide,” he said. “And his description is not quite accurate. One of the planes was on the ground when the other was landing. But I have been doing it for 35 years.”

Fletcher said he had a meeting Jan. 4 with Immokalee Airport Manager Thomas Vergo, who asked him to stop.

“I saw how he could think it was dangerous and I told him I would stop today. Then, on the 6th, I got the letter that said they were sending a complaint to the FAA,” he said. “It goes to show the spirit of the people. I want to work with them. I hadn’t done it again. I hadn’t even flown.”

Curry said he has an obligation to report all unsafe activity at the airport. Failing to report it could one day mean a lawsuit for county taxpayers, he said.

“When you are trying to land and takeoff from the same runway at the same time, it’s negligent and I just can’t let that go without reporting it to flight safety,” he said.

Fletcher confirmed he also stepped away from his plane while it was running.

“It was a turbine airplane and it was in feather mode, so no power was going to the propeller,” he said. “The brakes were locked and the engine control was locked. You don’t shut it off and on like a car.”

It is the second time the Airport Authority has filed a complaint with the flight standards office against Fletcher. In October, the Airport Authority filed a complaint against Fletcher for landing his airplane in the grass.

Fletcher said he has been flying for 40 years and he has never had a problem until recently.

The news comes as Fletcher is set to appear before the Collier County Commission today to oppose the airport ground vehicle access plan for the Immokalee airport.

The airport ground vehicle access plan was developed “to inform the users and tenant of the Airport on safety, awareness, and responsibility while driving on the Air Operations Area,” according to the plan airport officials are presenting to commissioners.

The FAA recommends that airport operators establish policies about vehicle access and operation on the “airside” of the airport. Past assessments by the airport’s insurance carrier have recommended the program be developed, according to the plan.

The plan has been in the works for about six months, Curry said.

“It’s industry standard language,” he said.

Fletcher disagrees and said his biggest complaint about the 19-page document is that it would require airport tenants to escort delivery vehicles on and off airport property.

“It’s going to kill my business,” he said. “We sometimes get 20 deliveries a day. Some of those deliveries are at 3:30 and 4 a.m. If someone is delivering chemicals or gasoline, they have their (commercial driver license) and licenses to transport that materials checked.”

But Curry said he cannot allow vehicles to be driving around unattended on the airport property.

“We can’t put the security of the airport in the hands of someone who is not a tenant,” he said. “If something were to happen, I couldn’t go after that person directly. I have to go after the tenant.”

This concern is not new, Curry said. On Oct. 3, the Airport Authority suspended Fletcher’s driving privileges after they said he took Commissioner Georgia Hiller and Commission candidate Tim Nance around the airport property without authorization.

Nance’s sport utility vehicle caused concern when airport officials say he exceeded posted speed limits, crossed several runways and refused to pull over.

Airport officials called the vehicle suspicious, according to reports, because it crossed several runways and surpassed airport runway speed limits. Airport officials tried to pull the vehicle over, but it would not slow down, reports said.

Deputies pulled Nance’s SUV over outside the airport property. There were no arrests and no charges because no illegal activity occurred off airport property. Hiller, Nance and Fletcher have disputed that report.

Curry stripped Fletcher of his driving privileges at the airport for one year, but they were reinstated by Collier Commissioners by a 4 to 1 vote.

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