Airport cited safety concerns of banner-toting plane

Noise of plane, banners' messages noted in FAA memo
A plane towed a banner over the Augusta National Golf Club during the first round of the Masters Tournament. Five banners were to be flown by Air America Aerial Ads, but just two made it up.

Mike Gunn, air traffic manager at Augusta Regional Airport, was worried enough to call the Federal Aviation Administration when he saw a small private plane pulling a banner taunting Tiger Woods during this year's Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.

"Mr. Gunn expressed safety concerns that since the airport was operating over thousands of spectators the FAA should perform a ramp inspection to ensure the airworthiness of the aircraft," says an FAA memorandum dated April 11.

Gunn, who requested an inspection of the Cessna 150, also worried about the noise of the plane and its banner's message.

"He also noted there was an advisory Notice to Airmen encompassing Augusta National Golf Course due to noise sensitivity during the Masters Golf Tournament. Mr. Gunn also indicated the message on the banner was inappropriate, which was not an issue for our Flight Standards Office," says the FAA memo, which was among a stack of documents received Wednesday by The Augusta Chronicle after a Freedom of Information Act request filed April 12.

FAA officials said at the time of the incident that there was no airspace restriction over Augusta National, but because of increased flights in and out of local airports during the Masters, nonmandatory advisories were issued, asking pilots not to fly within two nautical miles of the tournament.

A total of five banners were to be flown by Genoa, Ohio-based banner-towing company Air America Aerial Ads, but just two made it up.

The first one read: "Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?" The second said: "Sex addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me too."

The company's president, Jim Miller, has since said he thinks the inspection of the plane -- which found "a number of mechanical issues," according to FAA documents -- infringed on his client's freedom of speech rights.

The client who paid to have the banners flown over the course has yet to be named.

The plane returned to its home base after its pilot, identified as Justin Polen, was told the plane required repairs.

According to an FAA aircraft condition notice, the plane had "several screws missing from engine upper cowling," "several fasteners loose on engine cowling," and "TSO tags on seat belts missing -- (not legible, unable to read information)."

Miller has called it a "bogus" inspection and said he got a call from Masters officials the day the banners flew asking the plane not to fly anymore because the messages were in poor taste.

A club spokesman has confirmed that call was made, but that was the club's only involvement. FAA documents support that, saying that only Gunn reported the incident.

When contacted by the FAA, pilot "Justin Polen was very cooperative with the inspectors, and their interaction was cordial and professional. The pilot was found to be a properly certified airman, holding all the proper ratings for the operation he was conducting."

FAA reports showed that the only thing Polen failed to do was notify area Flight Standards District offices prior to flying. The report states that a Detroit office that issued Polen's certifications had been notified of this "for any additional action required by that office."

FAA records also note the high-profile nature of the case.

One document with a "political/media considerations" heading states "The Augusta National Golf Course during the Masters Tournament draws enormous national media attention. This year due to Mr. Tiger Woods' return to professional golf and since the aerial banner appeared to be addressing an issue with him this has become a media concern."

An e-mail sent by an FAA spokeswoman to another FAA official also states: "So far only Augusta media have called, but it's on Fox News, and ESPN."