Air Show Imbroglio Pushes Crowds Back
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 1999; Page B1
Last year, Washington super-lawyer Brendan Sullivan Jr. had to move to accommodate the Naval Academy's annual air show featuring the aerobatic Blue Angels. This year, it's thousands of loyal showgoers who will be evicted.
Therein lies a tale of power, planes and the Federal Aviation Administration's insistence that the Navy's premier performing team abide by new safety rules.
It's a clash that emerged last month when the Naval Academy in Annapolis announced that Dewey Field, one of the most popular spots to watch the famous six-jet Navy flight team, will be off-limits to the public during this year's show Monday.
The waterfront field is immediately adjacent to where the roaring blue jets sweep down in tight formation and execute gut-wrenching turns just 100 feet above the Severn River.
It also just happens to be across the river from where Sullivan lives. His $688,000 home sits under what had been proposed as the airspace of the low-flying F-18 jets and would have been in danger of falling debris from an accident.
So organizers did what they had to do: They moved the spectator-free safety zone 300 feet to the southwest and away from Sullivan's home, thus depriving thousands of other showgoers of a prized vantage point across the river on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Academy officials said the closure is necessary to avoid a repetition of last year's well-publicized confrontation between the show's organizers and Sullivan over the safety rules.
Sullivan, who has long hosted a Blue Angels viewing party on the day of the show, strenuously objected to the FAA's ruling last year that he and two other area homeowners had to vacate their homes during the show. The two other residents agreed, but it was only after the FAA threatened to cancel the show that Sullivan agreed to leave his house, and he did so only after extracting a written promise from the Naval Academy that he wouldn't be disturbed this year.
The agreement to shift the safety zone and close Dewey Field has upset some fans of the show and put Sullivan in an awkward position for desiring nothing more than to remain in his home.
"Friends call up and ask us, 'Has Brendan been excommunicated from Annapolis yet?' It is so unfair," said Sandy Brock, a neighbor of Sullivan's who is married to former U.S. senator William E. Brock III. Brock said the FAA has handled the dispute "totally inappropriately."
W. Minor Carter, a Naval Academy graduate and resident of a downtown Annapolis residents association, blames Sullivan.
"It is incredible that so many people are going to lose the best place to see the Blue Angels because of the idiosyncrasies of one man," Carter said.
Sullivan is hardly one to back down. A senior partner at the powerhouse law firm of Williams & Connolly, Sullivan first became a public figure when he defended Oliver L. North, the former Reagan White House aide, during the congressional investigation into the Iran-contra affair in 1987. When one of North's interrogators criticized Sullivan's frequent objections, Sullivan famously retorted: "Sir, I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the lawyer."
Since then, he has lived up to his hard-nosed reputation by taking on high-profile clients ranging from the president of the Teamsters union to Marlene Ramallo Cooke, the widow of sports magnate Jack Kent Cooke.
Last week, Sullivan issued a two-page statement about the air show controversy. He portrayed himself as a property owner who had been dragged into "a bureaucratic squabble" between the Naval Academy and the FAA that had been resolved to his satisfaction.
"The show will go on without interfering with property rights," he wrote.
Sullivan blamed the FAA for last year's confrontation. He said the FAA had agreed to let him keep all the guests inside his house, 150 feet away from water's edge, and then "reneged."
Adm. Charles R. Larson, now retired as Naval Academy superintendent, acknowledged that his staff told Sullivan that the FAA had agreed to let Sullivan stay in his house. But the FAA said it never agreed to any such proposal either with the Naval Academy or with Sullivan.
Sullivan also made public a copy of a letter he received from Larson after the show: "We will schedule no more airshows unless we can do it without affecting your property," Larson wrote.
In his statement, Sullivan said, "Neither the Admiral nor I could understand why the flight safety zone which had been adequate for twenty years, was no longer safe."
Nick Sabatini, the manager of the FAA's Eastern Region Flight Standards Division, said in an interview that the tighter supervision of the Blue Angels air show last year was the result of an agreement signed in 1995 between the aviation agency and the Defense Department.
The two bureaucracies, he said, agreed to phase in uniform regulations of air shows involving the three biggest and fastest air show performance teams: the Navy's Blue Angels, the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds and the Canadian Air Force's Snowbirds.
The key safety issue, according to Sabatini, is the size of what is known in the air show industry as the "aerobatic box" the air space in which the jet pilots perform their stunts. The regulations call for this box to be two miles long and 3,000 feet wide 300 feet wider than the Severn River between Sullivan's property and Dewey Field.
Sabatini says that, in accordance with the 1995 agreement, the FAA can no longer automatically give Naval Academy air show sponsors the kind of waiver that allowed them to put on the show for 46 years with a smaller aerobatic box.
Nevertheless, the Naval Academy still tried to seek a waiver this year. When the FAA turned down the academy, Navy officials submitted a revised application moving the no-spectator zone several hundred feet toward the opposite side of the Severn River. That satisfied the FAA's safety concerns and eliminated using Dewey Field for spectators.
John Cudahey, president of the International Council of Airshows, a trade organization representing pilots and promoters, said the FAA is "simply enforcing the rules."
"All they're asking is that Brendan Sullivan go walk his dog or go to somebody else's party for an hour and a half. Is he such a potted plant that he can't move?" Cudahey asked.
Sullivan, in his statement, suggested the closing of Dewey Field would not harm the public.
"Having seen about twenty annual air shows, I can guarantee that spectator enjoyment will not be diminished one bit by having to move back from the river 150 feet which is what I have offered to do to accommodate the FAA's concerns," Sullivan wrote.
Naval Academy officials, while refraining from criticizing Sullivan, disagree, saying spectators will have to go to Hospital Point down the river or to the roofs of academy buildings.
"A majority of people will not have the unobstructed views of the entire river that they would have from Dewey Field," spokesman Mike Brady said.
With military dignitaries in uniform, midshipmen and their families on picnic blankets, locals in lawn chairs and roaring jets at eye level, Dewey Field was "the prime viewing location" for the Blue Angels extravaganza, according to Brady.
Spectators who descend on Dewey Field this year, he said, will find it cordoned off and will be asked to move on.
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