Blue Angels' Show Nearly Canceled
By Amy Argetsinger
For nearly half a century, Annapolis residents have thrilled every spring at the sight of the U.S. Naval Academy's graduation-week air show that sends Blue Angel stunt planes zooming close above their heads.
Maybe a little too close, it turned out.
This year, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the academy to start complying with a decade-old regulation requiring spectators to stay more than 1,500 feet from the flight zone above the scenic Severn River.
But when one prominent onlooker -- Washington lawyer Brendan Sullivan -- balked at leaving his waterfront home in the newly restricted area, the Navy and FAA were drawn into last-minute deliberations that nearly forced the cancellation of the show, for which more than 20,000 spectators had turned out Wednesday.
Ultimately, Sullivan, who has represented such high-profile clients as Oliver L. North and Marlene Ramallo Cooke, agreed to move his annual Blue Angel-watching party to a neighbor's yard, and the show went on after a minor delay.
"Although I've fought the government for 30 years in law practice, I wasn't willing to say no to their requests and disappoint so many people," he said yesterday.
The incident raised questions about safety at the academy's Annapolis air show, which for years has allowed the daring Navy stunt jets to fly somewhat closer to crowds and homes than is allowed at most air shows.
James Peters, a spokesman for the FAA's New York office, said the agency has long allowed the Blue Angels to perform over the Severn in an "aerobatic box" that is 12,000 feet long and 2,700 feet wide -- narrower than the usual 3,000-foot width required for most shows with high-performance jets.
"We can do that under certain conditions" in which the FAA deems that the narrower path is safe for flight, he said.
A 1988 regulation requires spectators to stay an additional 1,500 feet beyond the margins of the aerobatic box. Three years ago, after a review of air shows indicated that some did not abide precisely by these standards, FAA officials ordered a crackdown. The Annapolis Blue Angels flight was among the shows ordered to comply with the 1,500-foot rule by this year.
That put three homeowners, who had long enjoyed front-row seats to the show, in the off-limits zone for the first time. Academy officials asked the residents several weeks ago if they would leave their property during Wednesday's show.
All agreed, except Sullivan.
Sullivan, who every year invites as many as 200 friends to watch the Blue Angels show from his sprawling riverfront lawn, offered a compromise: He would move his party back about 100 feet. He said that academy officials agreed, pending FAA approval.
On Tuesday evening, he said, academy officials called to say the FAA had tentatively approved the arrangement. But on Wednesday morning -- just a few hours before the air show and Sullivan's party -- academy officials returned with a different story: The FAA said no.
For the next couple of hours, he said, Navy and FAA officials debated. Finally, at 1:30 p.m. -- a half-hour before the show -- the FAA said it would not relent: If Sullivan didn't move, the show was off.
He said that's all it took for him to agree to move.
"I had to decide whether my strong principles of not being moved off my property by the government should be pushed aside for the benefit of the graduates and their parents and thousands of other people who would be there for the show," he said.
Sources close to the dilemma confirmed Sullivan's account. Academy spokesman Cmdr. Mike Brady said simply that school officials were pleased to work "together with the FAA and local residents . . . to satisfy all safety requirements and enjoy yesterday's performance."
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