Red Bull Air Race barely gets permits

Flying between Seaport Village and Coronado ferry landing

— The TV spots are already running, posters are up all over downtown, banners fly from the lampposts, and hotel reservations are presumably booked, and the speedy little airplanes of the Red Bull Air Race, set for September 21 and 22, are all ready to rev up. But getting a safety waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly very fast and low in a tightly drawn course over San Diego Bay between Seaport Village and the Coronado ferry landing, a somewhat dangerous proposition at best -- came just in the nick of time. "Flying individually against the clock, the pilots have to execute tight turns through a slalom course consisting of specially designed pylons, known as 'Air Gates,' " notes the race website. "They compete in knockout rounds with the two fastest pilots going head to head in the final." Conceived in 2001, this year the international race circuit, sponsored by Red Bull energy drinks, has grown to include ten venues, including San Diego; Abu Dhabi; Rio de Janeiro; Monument Valley, Utah; Istanbul; Interlaken, Switzerland; London; Budapest; Porto, Portugal; and Perth, Australia.

To make it happen here, race organizers first had to get permits from three U.S. government agencies: the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers. As of last Thursday, however, the FAA still hadn't given its nod. As Jerry Pendzick, the FAA's flight standards manager for San Diego, put it in an August 29 e-mail, "The original application had to be withdrawn and resubmitted due to changes in the race course made by Red Bull. A revised application with the latest changes to the race course proposed by Red Bull has not been received as of this writing."

Pendzick continued, "Essentially the 'FAA Waiver' for an event such as Red Bull proposes to conduct will require Red Bull and its agents to make all regulatory provisions for public safety while the air race is in effect. These safety provisions extend from complex coordination with Air Traffic to minimize mid-air collisions, to insuring effective crowd control of spectators to the event."

Specifically, Red Bull needed to obtain an FAA waiver of provisions covering "Aerobatic Flight" and "Minimum Altitudes for Flight," according to an e-mail last week from Pendzick. The Coast Guard's interest is in limiting water traffic on the bay and keeping curious boaters 200 feet away from the pylons to lessen the chances of getting hit by the race planes, 21-foot-long Zivko Edge 540s with a 25-foot wingspan, which will be doing 265 miles per hour.

Interestingly, the FAA permit does not require that the government notify the public prior to issuing it, according Pendzick. "This public notice and coordination is totally the responsibility of Red Bull and its agents," says his e-mail. Citizens who want to take a look at the permit must submit a Freedom of Information Act request, which the FAA by law can take months or years to process; a written request for the material submitted two weeks ago still hadn't been honored as of early this week.

A call to the Coast Guard did produce an undated e-mail of its "notice of proposed rulemaking," establishing a three-day "temporary safety zone...necessary to provide for the safety of the crew, spectators, participants in the event, participating vessels and other vessels and users of the waterway. Persons and vessels will be prohibited from entering into, transiting through, or anchoring within this safety zone unless authorized by the Captain of the Port or his designated representative."

Until they began their publicity blitz a few weeks ago, race sponsors were flying well under the public radar as they went about seeking the requisite permissions. That may not have been an accident; in some cities where word has leaked out about the race in advance, irate neighbors have shot it down before it could get airborne. In addition to air-safety concerns, the event is big and noisy, attracting huge, sometimes unruly crowds that line the waterfront to take in the spectacle. Last November, public bus security guards in Perth, Australia, held a stop-work meeting after three of them were injured in violent clashes with intoxicated air-race spectators. "From time to time, the sensitivity of proposed operations and their impact on the public and the environment have caused difficulties for the applicant" is the way the FAA's Pendzick puts it in his e-mail.

In a phone call this Monday, Bob Hall, who runs a Florida-based consulting firm that is handling the San Diego permits for Red Bull, said that the company finally got its FAA permit late last Thursday evening. He blamed the delay on changes in the course mandated by the Coast Guard, not on any lingering safety issues. "Washington issued the permit and it was faxed to the San Diego office. Everything is a go," according to Hall. "The track got moved; we had to keep the barges out of the shipping lane." Pendzick was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment.

In addition to their federal permits, Red Bull sponsors also sought and won the endorsement of the port district, which last spring agreed to waive $50,000 in use fees for shutting down Embarcadero Marina Parks North and South near Seaport Village for 16 days and also kicked in another $50,000 worth of "advertising and promotional support," including Web and radio ads and Harbor Police time.

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