Sag Harbor Watches Seaplanes Land Illegally?

Time passes. The wind blows the pages off the calendar. Another summer past, much like all of the previous ones. The big story of summer 2012? Same as the big story every summer. Wealthy people making a lot of noise flying into East Hampton Airport, and other, presumably less wealthy people who have houses along the flight path, arguing that the planes and helicopters should take a different route. Or, in the more extreme version, that East Hampton Airport should close altogether.

How wealthy are the people in the planes? How much does it cost to avoid the traffic on I-495? In an odd bit of numerological symmetry, it costs $495—one-way, that is. That’s the price tag to fly from New York to East Hampton on Fly The Whale. Although Fly The Whale doesn’t actually land at East Hampton Airport—it is in point of fact a SEAPLANE service, and it lands at special moorings off the coast of East Hampton. Then the high-rolling passengers swim for shore? No, they get picked up by a launch and whisked to dry land, or to their waiting yachts.

Fly The Whale, as it happens, is at the center of summer 2012’s big variation on the perennial flight path story. As a seaplane service, Fly The Whale just needs a body of water to land on, and this past summer they decided to set up special moorings in Sag Harbor and then began landing in and taxiing around the harbor in the midst of pleasure boaters. This development combines the traditional nuisance noise issue of low-flying aircraft with the more trendy issue of water safety.

The issue of jurisdiction over seaplanes landing in Sag Harbor is somewhat foggy, and could use a little bit of expanded visibility. According to John Kelly, director of operations for Shoreline Aviation, another air service that brings people out from the city, there IS a Sag Harbor ordinance that specifically prohibits seaplanes landing and taxiing within 1,500 feet of the shoreline within the village’s management area. This restriction, however, is apparently a well-kept secret. Kelly notes that it doesn’t appear on any of the standard navigation maps of the area, nor in any of the published regulations.

Federal law actually says that seaplanes can land in any navigable waters. It also holds that as soon as a plane hits the water, it’s officially a boat—subject to all of the rules pertaining to boats AND receiving all the privileges of any other watercraft.

So Fly The Whale appears to be well within the law as it has been explained to this reporter. Their moorings and taxiing activities are taking place outside of the jurisdiction of the Sag Harbor harbormaster, and as long as they follow the rules of the water while they’re on the water, it would appear that they’re fine.

This doesn’t mean that this story will go away. After all, the planes and helicopters that make their ear-splitting way into East Hampton Airport are perfectly within the law, but summer after summer the controversy continues. That is sure to be the case with seaplanes as well. This will be especially true if, as the Sag Harbor Express reported last week, Fly The Whale intends to make Sag Harbor an actual hub of operations. Because it’s never just about the noise or the outside chance of accidents on the water: it’s always combined with the knowledge that the passengers on those aircraft (nay, air/water-craft!) paid $495 to avoid 495, and THAT story will never go away.

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