HARRISBURG - A legislative proposal to create penalties for pilots who fly drunk, prompted by a January incident in Limerick, was unanimously approved by the state House Tuesday.
"It was broad bipartisan support. There was a lot of support for this measure. I'm delighted," said State Rep. Kate Harper, referring to the 200-0 vote in favor of the measure. "I'm hopeful the Senate will jump right on this."
House officials acted upon the measure quickly after it was introduced earlier this month. Known as the Flying While Impaired bill, it now goes before the Senate for its consideration.
A co-sponsor of the proposal, Harper, who represents the 61st District, said pilots have no business flying while under the effects of drugs or alcohol.
Harper, whose district includes parts of Whitpain, Towamencin and Lower and Upper Gwynedd, said Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the country without a law that makes it illegal to fly while intoxicated.
A principle architect of the state's current DUI laws for drivers and boaters, Harper was surprised to learn that there was no corresponding law for pilots.
"This common-sense measure simply fills a void in Pennsylvania law to ensure that intoxicated pilots are held accountable for their lapses in judgment," Harper said.
The proposal would amend the Pennsylvania Transportation Code by adding a chapter on flying while impaired. If passed into law, the legislation would make flying while intoxicated a misdemeanor, punishable of a minimum of 72 hours in jail and fines of up to $5,000. A judge also could order defendants to undergo drug and alcohol treatment evaluations.
Under the proposal, local or state law enforcement authorities would be required to notify the Federal Aviation Administration of a pilot's infraction. The FAA could then choose to sanction a pilot's license. The FAA doesn't have the authority to prosecute drunken pilots in criminal court. That is left up to the states.
In January, Montgomery County prosecutors charged John V. Salamone, of the 900 block of Temple Road in North Coventry, with DUI, risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment after a Jan. 15 incident in Limerick. Salamone, according to prosecutors, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent, nearly twice the current legal 0.08 percent limit to operate a motor vehicle in Pennsylvania, when he was forced to land his plane at the Pottstown-Limerick Airport. He performed "stunt rolls" over Conshohocken, had a near mid-air collision with a police helicopter over Pottstown and risked crashing into the Limerick nuclear power plant during the Jan. 15 incident, according to court documents.
Proseutors claimed state DUI laws applied because the runway Salamone used to land the plane was a public highway and that the airspace over the county could be considered a highway.
However, in March, a district justice dismissed the DUI charge, determining there is no state law on the books regarding the operation of aircraft while intoxicated. Salamone, 44, is now awaiting trial only on the risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment charges.
"This bill is way overdue. It was the incident near Pottstown that told us we had this gap in the law," said Harper, who co-sponsored the measure with Reps. Jacqueline Crahalla (R-150th), who represents parts of Upper and Lower Providence and West Norriton in Montgomery County, and Kathy Watson of Bucks County.