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Pilot in Rescue Under Scrutiny : Flier's Employer Says Inquiry Since February Flooding Is Part of a Vendetta

March 10, 1992|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A news helicopter pilot who helped rescue a motorist trapped by floodwaters in the Sepulveda Basin is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration for allegedly interfering with official rescue choppers, an FAA official said Monday.

Robert Prewett, who was hired by radio station KNX-AM and television station KCOP Channel 13 to cover the flooding Feb. 10, is among five news pilots under investigation by the FAA for allegedly flying too close to the basin and interfering with rescue operations by Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters, FAA spokeswoman Elly Brekke said.

Prewett's employer, Robert Tur--whose pilot's license has been suspended for actions he took covering stories--called the investigation part of a vendetta by the Fire Department and the FAA against Tur.

Larry Welk, a cameraman in Prewett's helicopter, was honored by the Los Angeles City Council last month for jumping into the water and helping maneuver a stranded motorist to lifeguards who rescued both men from floodwaters backing up behind Sepulveda Dam in heavy rains.

Prewett said Monday that he feels sure that he will be cleared of the allegations because the Van Nuys Airport control tower cleared him to fly into the basin after the Fire Department had announced to reporters that all motorists there had been rescued.

Prewett said he believes that the investigation may have stemmed from complaints against other news pilots by Fire Department helicopter pilots, who had to turn away several news helicopters that converged on the basin when the flooding initially began.

"At the beginning stage, it was so chaotic that officials did set up flight restrictions," he said. But Prewett said he did not fly over the basin until after firefighters had left the area.

Brekke said the investigation of Prewett and four other news helicopter pilots--whom she would not identify--is still in the preliminary stages. It is based on information provided by air traffic controllers at Van Nuys Airport and at Burbank Airport's radar approach control station, who believed that the news helicopters might have been interfering with rescue attempts, she said.

But Tur said the Fire Department had no helicopters in the sky above the basin when he and Prewett saw the motorist clinging to a utility pole in the fast-rising water.

"How can we interfere with the rescue when they were not there?" Tur said. "Should we have let the guy drown?"

Tur, a news helicopter service owner who is known for his aggressive reporting tactics, filed a $47.5-million lawsuit in U. S. District Court against the Fire Department this month, claiming that two fire officials lied to persuade the Los Angeles city attorney to file criminal charges against him. The charges were dismissed for lack of evidence one day before his trial was to begin.

Tur's pilot's license was revoked on an "emergency basis" six months ago after the FAA alleged five counts of "careless and reckless behavior." Only two of the five charges were upheld by a federal administrative law judge.

Fire Battalion Chief Dean Cathey said that, on advice from the city attorney, he could not comment on the FAA investigation or Tur's lawsuit.

Tur's run-in with the FAA and the Fire Department is not his first. He was criticized by FAA officials for allegedly hovering too low above rescuers as they combed the wreckage of an Air National Guard jet fighter that had slammed into the side of a mountain northwest of Palm Springs in 1987. Dean Paul Martin, son of entertainer Dean Martin, died in the crash.

The two charges of "careless and reckless behavior" that were upheld both stemmed from incidents in 1988.

In one, Fire Department pilot Patrick Quinn complained that Tur came so close to a department helicopter that was carrying a wounded police officer to a hospital in August, 1988, that Quinn had to change course to avoid a collision.

But department records clerk Charlotte Canfield said Monday that she could find no records of a department helicopter carrying anyone on the night of the alleged incident.

The second incident stemmed from a complaint that Tur flew too low over the 1988 Redondo Beach Pier fire, his craft's downdraft blowing smoke and heat at the firefighters who were on the pier fighting the flames. Tur has appealed the decision.

Tur has continued to work for KCOP and KNX, using other pilots to fly his helicopter while he shoots the video.

Tur also complained publicly about the FAA's failure to require the marking of power lines in canyons. He reported almost immediately in February, 1991, that an FAA air traffic controller had guided a USAir jetliner into a collision on the ground with a Sky West commuter plane at Los Angeles International Airport. And in 1987, he reported that the FAA had "steered Dean Paul Martin into a mountain."

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