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A local pilot who repeatedly flew his airplane at an extremely low altitude and high speed over Sag Harbor’s waterfront for about 15 minutes beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 13, prompting a flood of 911 calls — and also buzzed areas of East Hampton, lighting up 911 circuits from there as well — will face a criminal charge or charges, Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire confirmed on Friday afternoon.
The chief declined to specify the charge or charges he would be filing in Sag Harbor’s justice court, but earlier in the week he had mentioned reckless endangerment as possibility.
“A person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person,” according to the New York State website. The penalty could be from two and one-third up to seven years in prison.
Low-level maneuvering, especially at high speed and with steep turns, is considered a potentially dangerous activity by the FAA, and the NTSB’s records are full of fatal accidents that occurred when pilots engaged in extremely low-level maneuvering.
Federal regulations require all fixed-wing aircraft to maintain a minimum altitude of at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle in a radius of 2,000 feet in any congested areas. The tracker website Flightaware showed a range of altitudes for the flight from as high as 900 feet to as low as 100 feet. Witnesses claim the pilot flew even lower than that.
The FAA is also investigating the episode, according to Stephen R. Ferrara, operations unit frontline manager at the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Farmingdale. If the FAA pursues an enforcement proceeding, its only power would be to suspend or revoke the pilot’s license.
Heads turned and some people even came outside of buildings to see what was happening when the plane, a single-engine Cessna 182 owned and flown by David J. Wisner of East Hampton, owner of Springs Auto Collision on Springs Fireplace Road, roared overhead, maneuvering at what appeared high speed and an extremely low altitude over downtown Sag Harbor and the Bay Street waterfront.
Mr. Wisner holds a private pilot certificate that was issued in December 2020, according to the FAA’s airmen registry.
According to police, 911 reports and comments that appear on a Facebook thread that features a dramatic video clip posted by Aubrey Elizabeth, a salesperson with Griffing & Collins Real Estate on Shelter Island, the plane made multiple loud passes and steep turns over the village. One observer thought the plane just missed clipping the flagpole at the north end of Main Street. People from the Springs area also reported extremely low passes and posted video of the plane just above the treetops.
It was “total insanity! I could practically touch the wheels!” a witness on her second-floor patio on Division Street wrote on the Facebook thread.
Ms. Elizabeth was shopping with her daughter and, after watching three low passes, told her “we need to get out of here” because she feared the plane might crash at the hands of what she considered “a clearly irrational” pilot.
Chief McGuire said he had just driven east onto Route 114 from police headquarters when he heard the loud roar overhead and looked up through his windshield. The plane wasn’t there. To his shock, he said, it flashed into view in his rear-view mirror very low over the north end of Route 114 at Bay Street.
“I thought he was in distress and aiming for the water,” he said, until the plane came around again for another pass. “In all my years,” including in his youth lifeguarding at beaches in Montauk and East Hampton, he said, “I’ve never seen anybody doing anything like that, flying that low over a populated area.”
For a time, he feared the pilot might be contemplating doing harm to himself or others.
Police officer Kelly Anderson was making a traffic stop when the plane roared over and, after it had “whizzed around for a few minutes,” she, too, wondered if the pilot might be suicidal. “What’s his plan?” she remembered thinking.
Believing “this wasn’t really something that could be ignored,” she recalled, she live tracked the airplane on the website Flightradar24.com, which she said indicated the plane’s altitude had been as low as 80 feet, and determined Mr. Wisner was the owner. After she obtained his cell number through the police dispatch office, she called him. He told her he had been “just having some fun” and that “everybody needs to calm down,” she said.
Contacted the following day via text message, Mr. Wisner wrote that the low-flying episode “was just a bad decision” he had made trying to take pictures of a property. “Sorry, it was dumb,” he wrote, adding that because his altimeter setting was incorrect, he had thought he was flying at a higher altitude.
Chief McGuire said that, at first, he thought the episode should be left to the FAA to handle, but upon considering the seriousness of the case — an airplane flying and maneuvering at extremely low altitudes over densely populated areas — had been dangerous and a threat to people on the ground. He said then that he would call the district attorney’s office to explore whether a state charge such as reckless endangerment “would be applicable.”
Late Friday afternoon he confirmed that a charge would be filed. “When the paperwork is done,” he wrote in a text message, “we will contact his attorney and arrange for him to turn himself in. He will be mugged, [finger]printed and arraigned.”
Kent Feuerring, president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, who was asked for comment Wednesday, acknowledging that Mr. Wisner was a member of the association, like many pilots who fly from East Hampton Airport.
Mr. Feuerring issued the following statement: “The EHAA is dedicated to strictly adhering to and enforcing all aviation safety regulations and protocols. We unequivocally denounce the actions of a single pilot over Sag Harbor yesterday and support a full investigation by the FAA. We will not tolerate any careless or irresponsible flying over our community by any of our members or other pilots using our airport, and reaffirm our commitment to the new Pilot Pledge program and Fly Neighborly practices.”
He said the organization’s board of directors would be meeting to discuss the matter.
Arthur Malman, chairman of the East Hampton Town Airport Management Advisory Committee, commented on Friday morning, “You’re always going to have bad apple in every barrel. The East Hampton Aviation Association, [as well as] the landlord of the hanger where this particular rogue pilot is keeping his plane, as well as the FAA are all very, very upset, to say the least, about this.”
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