Fission Stories #135: Look in the Sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane.

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It’s an innocent man about to be arrested and detained overnight for a crime he did not commit.

According to a recent posting on the website of the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, 70-year old Robin Fleming was arrested on July 26, 2012, for flying his sailplane in restricted airspace over the HB Robinson nuclear plant in South Carolina and for having been “ordered several times to land.”

Odd. According to charts and advisories issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are no such restrictions. While he was airborne, the FAA was contacted by nearby airport authorities. The FAA reportedly said that Fleming did not have to land.

Odder. The only person in contact with Fleming by radio during his flight stated “I never demanded him to land.”

Oddest. The Darlington County Sheriff Department arrested Fleming when he landed at the Hartsville Regional Airport near the plant. They denied his request to call the people waiting for him at Bermuda High Soaring in nearby Jefferson and locked him in a cell overnight with 11 other inmates. The 70-year old man was released the following day.

On August 21, 2012, the case against Fleming was dismissed after he agreed not to take any legal action against Darlington County law enforcement officials.

Our Takeaway

Look on the ground! It’s plainly Barney Fife!

Nope. Barney Fife was amusing. It’s not amusing at all to arrest an innocent man and incarcerate him overnight without justification.

After 9/11, the FAA issued a notice to airman stating that “pilots are strongly advised to avoid the airspace above, or in proximity to such sites as power plants … Pilots should not circle as to loiter in the vicinity over these types of facilities.” The Soaring Society of America queried the FAA specifically about the circling aspect of the notice because gliders routinely circle to gain altitude in thermal updrafts. The FAA explicitly responded that it did not consider this behavior to be loitering.

During Fleming’s contested flight, the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s helicopter flew to Hartsville Regional Airport. But the pilot left after pulling out an aviation chart to show folks “nothing in this chart says you cannot fly over the nuclear plant.”

Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. A person cannot evade accountability for violating a law on ground that he or she did not know about the law.

Ignorance by the law cannot be an excuse, either. Arresting and detaining individuals for violating laws that do not exist is un-American. Or it should be.

Mr. Fleming reported stated that “he wouldn’t be satisfied until he could be sure a pilot can rely on the sectional [aviation chart] for direction and not go through a similar ordeal.”

While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards can’t get no satisfaction, we certainly hope Mr. Fleming does.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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About the author: Mr. Lochbaum received a BS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1979 and worked as a nuclear engineer in nuclear power plants for 17 years. In 1992, he and a colleague identified a safety problem in a plant where they were working. When their concerns were ignored by the plant manager, the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), they took the issue to Congress. The problem was eventually corrected at the original plant and at plants across the country. Lochbaum joined UCS in 1996 to work on nuclear power safety. He spent a year in 2009-10 working at the NRC Training Center in Tennessee. Areas of expertise: Nuclear power safety, nuclear technology and plant design, regulatory oversight, plant license renewal and decommissioning

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  • Sean McKinnon

    I have the feeling that had nothing been done about this incident there would be accusations of complacency over airborne threats to dangerous nuclear power plants. I guess darned if you do, darned if you don’t!

  • David Gissen

    I think what we had was an over zealous police department who were ignorant of the law. The sherif showed poor or no supervision of his yaho officers. It is very disappointing that this can go on today in the USA. The right to sue should never have been given up.