Brent Batten: Hot topic of hot fueling

BRENT BATTEN
Fletcher Flying Service owner Steve Fletcher turns on a pump to fill his crop dusting plane with pesticides as he runs his business from the Immokalee Regional Airport on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, in Immokalee. Fletcher has run his crop spraying and firefighting business from the airport for more than 30 years.  David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

Fletcher Flying Service owner Steve Fletcher turns on a pump to fill his crop dusting plane with pesticides as he runs his business from the Immokalee Regional Airport on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, in Immokalee. Fletcher has run his crop spraying and firefighting business from the airport for more than 30 years. David Albers/Staff

The already hot topic of hot fueling could grow even hotter in coming weeks as county officials and a key tenant at the Immokalee Regional Airport try to hammer out a lease.

A proposal last month by Collier Commission Chairwoman Georgia Hiller called for a lease specifically allowing Steve Fletcher of Fletcher’s Flying Service to hot fuel, or fuel with the engine running, his planes at Immokalee.

Fletcher has been operating without a long-term lease and Hiller believes it’s high time he had one.

But the hot fueling provision is troublesome on a number of levels. While not banning it outright, the Federal Aviation Administration strongly cautions against hot fueling.

Airport professionals, including Collier Airports Executive Director Chris Curry say it should only be permitted in extreme circumstances.

And the county’s own airport rules prohibit hot fueling.

Had Hiller’s recommendation for a lease allowing hot fueling for Fletcher’s planes gone through, he would have been contractually granted an ability no one else operating at the airports has.

As it stands, Commissioner Tom Henning volunteered to work with Fletcher and Curry to come up with a lease that satisfies everyone. Henning says he has met with Fletcher and is in the process of gathering information. He plans to come up with a draft lease to present to his fellow commissioners, who serve as the Airport Authority. He did not say if he expects permission to do hot fueling to be part of that draft.

In 2010, the FAA issued a safety alert drawing attention to the case of a helicopter that was hot fueling. Fuel spilled on the engine, causing a fire that seriously injured the pilot.

“Hot fueling/loading can be extremely hazardous and is not recommended except when absolutely necessary due to the nature of the operation,” the warning read.

Curry interprets “absolutely necessary” to mean in emergencies such as a plane fighting a brush fire or serving as an air ambulance.

Fletcher mainly flies as a crop duster. Dusting crops doesn’t rise to the level justifying hot fueling, Curry said. Fletcher’s planes also have the ability to fight fires. Curry said he would favor hot fueling in those cases if proper safety procedures are in place.

Bill Johnson, executive director of the Florida Airports Council, the largest airport-specific organization in Florida, said he doesn’t have an exact number of Florida airports that allow hot fueling but says it is low.

“I can’t imagine anyone allowing hot fueling,” Johnson said. “I find it hard to believe an insurance company would even write liability insurance if they knew that kind of thing was going on.”

The county airport rules, adopted in 1997 and revised in 2002, state, “No aircraft shall be fueled or de-fueled while one or more of its engines are running or the aircraft is then being warmed by external heat.”

On April 23, when Curry pointed the rule out to Hiller during her presentation in favor of a lease for Fletcher, Hiller initially questioned whether that rule, or any of the county airport rules, is valid.

County commissioners took over as the Airport Authority in 2010. Before that the Airport Authority was a board of volunteer appointees.

Since county commissioners never specifically adopted the 2002 rules, Hiller suggested they might not be applicable today.

County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow assured her that the rules are still the rules.

Different people were sitting on the Airport Authority then, but it was the Airport Authority nonetheless, he reasoned.

County Commissioner Fred Coyle said writing an exemption to a rule into a lease would be akin to allowing a favored grant recipient to skirt the rules associated with receiving the grant.

“That is of course the wrong way to do this,” Coyle said. “She could have proposed we change the rules.”

Curry said he would never suggest changing the rules to allow hot fueling, or landing planes on grass, another violation of county rules that Hiller wanted written into Fletcher’s lease. But if commissioners want to do that, he’d abide by the new rules.

“If they want me to operate the airports, I’m a rules and regulations guy,” Curry said.

When accidents happen at an airport, the FAA is very thorough about looking into all possible contributing factors. A manager not enforcing rules about hot fueling or grass landings could be cited as a reason for an accident, he said. “I’ve seen airport accidents play out and I know how that goes. You do not want to be on that list,” he said.

On the other hand, if a governing board sets rules, then the board members, not the manager, are taking responsibility. That would take the heat off the staff and put it where it belongs in a case like this — on the commissioners.

(Connect with Brent Batten at bebatten@naplesnews.com)

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