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TUESDAY, AUGUST 14, 2007
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Glider pilot wants to fly at airport in Courtland

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

MOULTON — A 53-year-old thrill-seeker told Lawrence County commissioners they wouldn’t be held liable if he got hurt while launching himself thousands of feet into the sky from the airport in Courtland.

Isaac Jones Jr., a NASA grant officer who has been hang gliding for 30 years, asked the commission Monday to overrule the airport board’s decision to ban him from launching there.

Board members did not explain to the commission why they had banned Jones and could not be reached for comment Monday. But Jones said he believed they were either worried about being held responsible for his safety or worried that the presence of hang gliders would deter other pilots from using the airport.

Though most people would be terrified to strap themselves to fabric “wings” and soar thousands of feet above the ground, most hang-gliding pilots — including Jones — insist that it’s as safe as riding a bike.

The Federal Aviation Administration established the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association about 30 years ago to govern the ultra-light category of air sports. Jones assured the commission that all his practices are safe and in compliance with federal regulations.

Only pilot liable?

But if something were to happen, he would be the only one held liable for his injuries, said Jones.

“To join the association, we must sign a waiver that says no one is responsible for our safety,” he said. “We take responsibility for what we do. Plus, I and both of my sons have a $1 million insurance policy on each of us.”

Jones and his sons, ages 27 and 24, regularly take to the sky, launching from places across the state.

While the majority of hang gliders launch from a hill, Jones uses a winch system that he believes is the only one in the state. The system is basically a truck pulling a trailer with a spool holding 6,000 feet of line.

The hang glider attaches the line to himself, Jones explained. The truck drives down the roadway, usually at about 20 mph, creating wind that lifts the man-turned-eagle into the sky. Once the glider gains enough altitude to maintain flight, the pilot releases the line.

He said the truck needs only a few seconds on the runway to give the pilot a proper takeoff.

Request tabled

Commissioners tabled Jones’ request until they can talk to the airport board members, but Jones said following the meeting that they really had no choice but to allow his family to use the runways.

“Anytime an airport gets improvement grants from the FAA, they have to agree in writing that they won’t restrict any particular kind of craft,” he said.

“But it goes even further than that. They also agree to allow parachutists, balloonists, rocketeers, military aircraft, the whole nine yards.”

Airport grant money

The Lawrence County Airport received more than $1.7 million in federal grants from 2000 to 2005, according to the FAA Web site.

“I don’t want to sound pushy, but we’ll get the clearance,” said Jones. “When they applied for a grant, they made assurances to the FAA that they would not do what they’re now doing.”

Jones said he prefers the Lawrence County Airport over nearby airports that don’t restrict his sport, like the Russellville Municipal Airport, because there’s less air traffic and better weather.

He said he has already spoken with a lawyer and will appeal to the FAA if the commission does not remove the ban.

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