- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2002

The general manager of the District's only public-use heliport says that barring a "miracle," he will be forced to close his business in the next 30 days because of tighter security restrictions on air travel in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Don Scimonelli, general manager of Air Pegasus, the operator of the South Capitol Street Heliport 1.3 miles from the U.S. Capitol, logged 1,209 charter, corporate and news-gathering visits last year before the attacks.
Since the implementation of federal restrictions in January, Mr. Scimonelli has logged eight flights, and he says federal officials haven't provided answers regarding when or if restrictions will be lifted.
"Just give us the rules," Mr. Scimonelli said. "We want to play by the rules. We want to go back to work, but in 30 days we're going to have to shut our doors."
Deirdre O'Sullivan, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said efforts are under way to restore general aviation flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and action could come within a couple of weeks. She said she could not speak specifically about what that would mean for the future of the heliport.
The heliport, located on the Anacostia River at Buzzards Point SE, has been the home base of the Metropolitan Police Department's helicopter since 2001. Since 1999, it was the home base of the WTTG-TV (Channel 5) SkyFox helicopter before restrictions forced it to move in October.
Some choppers still can use the heliport, but only with federal government waivers.
Among the requirements, the Secret Service Joint Operations Center must be notified before any flight, and law enforcement personnel must ride aboard any helicopter that lands at the heliport and stay with it while it is housed.
The waivers are so difficult to obtain that a request from New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey, Democrat, to fly into the heliport on a state police chopper Saturday was denied because he was not on official police business.
"My job is to be open for these people," Mr. Scimonelli said. That's the whole idea of a public-use heliport."
Of the heliport's 21 business clients, only nine bothered to apply for waivers and two were approved.
After September 11, flights by private aircraft airplanes or helicopters were banned within a 25-mile radius of the District. That has since changed to a 15-mile radius.
Charter helicopters continued to fly into the heliport seemingly unnoticed until January. At a Jan. 7 meeting attended by federal officials and general aviation airport operators regarding the status of restrictions, one airport operator asked federal officials why the D.C. heliport still was allowed to take flights.
On Jan. 11, as Mr. Scimonelli was trying to figure out how he would restore his corporate flights, a Federal Aviation Administration official called to tell him that charter flights would be grounded as well.
"I lost wind," he said. "It just slowly went downhill."
FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler denied that operations at the heliport had slipped under the federal government's radar screen and insisted that strict security measures had been in place since October.
But Mr. Scimonelli said two helicopter charter services based at Reagan National operated out of South Capitol Street Heliport until January when the charter flights were grounded.
Average costs are about $600 for each flight using the heliport. The charges include fuel, tie-down and landing fees. For choppers staying overnight, the cost is about $1,000.
The heliport has the capacity to hold four helicopters in the hangar and three outside on the tarmac. These days, however, the hangar houses the cars of on-duty police officers, and the white chopper with the red and blue MPD logo stands outside alone.
Mr. Scimonelli said D.C. police were responsible for nearly half the flights before September 11, logging 1,118. He said the lease with the D.C. police is the only thing that has kept him in business this year.
"If it wasn't for them, I'd be sitting on the curb right now," he said.
Several other sites could be used to base to base the D.C. police chopper if South Capitol closes. Until 1996, the police helicopter flew out of Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton, Md.
D.C. Division of Transportation Director Dan Tangherlini called it "disappointing" that the city might lose such a valuable amenity.
"He's just an entrepreneur who is providing a service to the District that could have become more valuable over time," Mr. Tangherlini said. "Those flights are still happening. They're just not happening out of the District of Columbia."
Mr. Scimonelli had ambitious plans to expand his site into a "vertiport."
Within walking distance of the Waterfront SEU and Navy Yard Metro stations, he hoped to be an anchor in the Anacostia Waterfront rebuilding project and to attract commercial helicopter flights to New York aimed at the legal community.
"By the time they left their office at 1600 K Street, got on a helicopter and flew into West 30th Street in New York, the total time would have been 70 minutes," he said.
He hoped eventually to bring to the complex tilt-rotor passenger planes, which would have cut the commute to 40 minutes.
"I was on my way," he said. "If anything, we would have probably gotten stronger because we would have been a reliever port for National."


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