Shawnee airspace restrictions apply to drones

Jason Burger, Assistant News Editor

It is January, in the year of 1964. 

The aerial photo illustrates which areas are “no fly zones” in Shawnee. / Courtesy Photo

The weather is cold, the foliage is barren, and it seems as if it is just another ordinary day in Shawnee, Okla. 

On the campus of OBU, J-term finals are being completed, and students are focused on their winter final exams. 

Later on, 22-year-old OBU student Michael Lawson walked down the sidewalk no less than 100 yards from Shawnee Hall, when all of a sudden his father’s Cessna 150 aircraft crashed into the upper level of the building, killing himself in the crash.   

The shocking news of the events of Jan. 14th, 1964 not only made news in Oklahoma, but also nationally. 

The Dessert Sun newspaper of Palm Springs, CA got wind of the story and published the harrowing details of the crash the next day on their front page. 

Above: a national paper from January 1964 contains the story from the Shawnee Hall crash. / Courtesy Photo

The article read, “SHAWNEE. Okla. — Robert Lawson, 43, returned to his alma mater Tuesday to die in a bizarre suicide plan by crashing a rented plane into the administration building while his student son looked on.

“‘I’m going to build a monument,’ he radioed shortly before he hedge-hopped across the campus, nosed his Cessna 150 into the wall of Shawnee Hall at Oklahoma Baptist University, and died in the flaming wreckage.

“Lawson’s 22-year-old son, Michael, one of the 1,356 students at OBU stood about 100 yards from Shawnee Hall unaware of his father’s suicide plans—when the tragedy happened.

“About 300 students in the hall taking semester final examinations at the time escaped injury.”

Of those 300 students in the building at the time of the crash were alumni Phil and Oretha Brewster, who recall the events of that day quite vividly. 

“We were dismissed orderly and left the class room for that day.  We filed to the oval and watched as debris fell from the window,” Mr. Brewster said.

“When we got out to the oval, we saw the tail of the plane protruding from the second floor of the building,” he said.

“There was little flame because the plane was apparently out of gas when it hit.  The man flying the plane was killed instantly.”

Phil’s wife, Oretha, recalls that before the crash happened, unusual events had taken place over campus that same day. 

“As I walked to class with some friends at lunch time, the plane actually buzzed the building [Shawnee Hall].  We saw him very clearly and one of my friends remarked, ‘Oh, that is probably my friend, just showing off.’  It was not who she thought it was, fortunately.  We learned later that the pilot had intended to hit the administration building, which was Shawnee Hall at the time.”

Although nothing as serious as the events of Jan. 14th, 1964 have taken place in the town of Shawnee since then, it makes sense that the airspace restrictions over OBU and the town of Shawnee are in place for the safety of the public and are meant to keep unstable or questionable people from doing things in the air that are dangerous. 

These restrictions include rules such as where aircraft can and cannot be flow, land and water use, obstructions to runways, aircraft size and pilot safety. 

What is interesting about these regulations and rules is that they seem pretty straight forward for the standard pilot who wants to fly his small plane for recreational purposes, but in the technological age we live in, it isn’t surprising that new forms of aircraft have come into the mainstream industry of flight. 

Do the codes and regulations apply to, for instance, aircraft that are NOT planes?

So what is this new technology? Drones. 

Contact the airport before flying a drone within a five-mile radius. / Courtesy Photo

They seem to be the new flight fad for any amateur, experienced military vet or the average bored teenager.  Domestic drones have a multitude of sizes, and can be as small as the palm of a hand, or they can be as large as a coffee table in the sky. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has put limits on drones, and has implemented new regulations that say that commercial drone pilots cannot fly drones that exceed 55 pounds, and cannot fly at a speed of more than 100 mph. 

The Shawnee Oklahoma Code of Ordinances, Regional Airport Article 3, Section 6-61 outlines several use restrictions about airspace in the Shawnee area, that also pertains to drones.  Part B reads:

“Restricted Areas. The airport operations area consists of all runways, taxiways, aprons and other paved areas regularly used by aircraft. In addition, it consists of the safety areas, which is the turfed area adjacent to operational pavements within 500 feet of the runway centerline, 39.5 feet from a taxiway edge or apron edge, and extending 1,000 feet beyond the physical ends of the runway.

“All areas of the airport except those areas open to the public are restricted, and no person shall enter upon the operations area. 

“The following are exempted from this restriction:

(1) Persons assigned to duty therein.

(2) Authorized representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration.

(3) Persons authorized by the airport manager.

(4) Passengers under appropriate supervision entering the ramp areas for the purpose of enplaning or deplaning.

(5) Persons engaged or about to be engaged or having been engaged in the operation of any aircraft.

(6) Persons authorized under contractual agreements with the city.”

Shawnee Regional Airport Manager, Keenan English, also stated his stance on the issue of drones flying in restricted airspace.

“You are supposed to contact the airport operator if you are planning to fly a drone within a five-mile radius of the airport.  That’s the whole town.  They can call 405-615-4201 and leave a message saying where they are flying, for how long and at what altitude,” English said. 

“I don’t mind drones in the area as long as they are away from the areas that are on the map,” English added. (See map of critical zones above)

The problem with drones, especially near the airspace of the airport, is that they can become a flight hazard and a liability for aircraft with real life pilots and passengers on board. 

That is mainly why there are city codes against the use of drones near airports to begin with. This comes from City of Shawnee Ordinance Number 2545NS, Section 22-215.5-Use Restrictions. 

The code reads, “…no use may be made of land or water within any zone established by these regulations in such a manner as to create electrical interference with navigational signals or radio communications between the airport and aircraft, make it difficult for pilots to distinguish between airport lights and others, result in glare in the eyes of pilots using the airport, impair visibility in the vicinity of the airport, create bird strike hazards, or otherwise in any way endanger or interfere with the landing, takeoff, or maneuvering of aircraft intending to use the airport.” 

All of theses factors could be brought upon by drones; they have colorful lights on them, they could collide with larger aircraft, they can reflect sunlight, and it is not unheard of for birds to attack drones either. 

So how does all this impact the community around OBU and Shawnee? 

Professional Photographer and small business owner Ed Bolt, the owner of a $4,00 and five pound DJI Inspire 1 photography drone, and a legally licensed commercial drone pilot, said that he has to adhere to these regulations pretty often in his line of work. 

“Whenever I fly my drone, I call the airport and let them know that I’m going to be flying, because most of the town is within five miles of the airport.  You can’t go above 400 feet [without telling the airport you are flying].  You also can’t fly after dark,” Bolt said. 

Bolt also noted what the registration process of a drone the size of his looks like, along with several other regulations he must take into account.

“My drone has a serial number on the side; you have to have it registered [with the FAA/airport]. If it weighs .55 pounds or more, you have to register it.  Another regulation is you aren’t supposed to fly over people.  If you wanted to fly over a baseball field full of people you aren’t allowed to do that.  I also can’t fly over OBU without getting their approval first.  It’s a very busy area over there.”

Bolt said that the staff at Shawnee Regional has been very easy to work with and that it is not very difficult to get permission to fly his drone on airport property, but with that clearance, drone pilots still have risk factors to be aware of. 

“It is the obligation of the drone pilot avoid the larger aircraft.  You have to stay away from them,” Bolt said.

Bolt also described a few safety precautions he takes for his own sake that are separate from the regulations of the airport and the FAA. 

“In my case, I have  four thousand dollars invested in my drone,” Bolt said. 

“I consider where there is a large, open space away from people for takeoff and landing, and I also have liability insurance for the drone.  If somebody gets hurt…if my drone was to crash, or I accidently hit someone, then I would be liable personally.  Every time you take that thing [the drone] up in the air, there is the opportunity for something to happen, so generally my drone doesn’t go in the air unless it is going to make me money.” 

Despite all the regulations, safety issues and negative things that can happen when a drone flies, Bolt said that the positive possibilities that drone technology opens up is remarkable. 

“You are only limited by your imagination.  To me, [the drone] gives me another look that you can’t get from the ground.  I’ve done stuff over here at the Splash Park; the city wanted pictures of that from above.  I’ve done stuff at the Veteran’s park; they’ve got that area around the flag poles that have the big star in the middle, and from above, it’s a really cool view.  You can’t see that from the ground.  I’ve also done projects for large commercial buildings around town here.  You can attach a FLIR camera (a heat reading camera) and do roof inspections on houses and towers to see where heat is leaking out.  I’ve also heard of drones dropping life preservers to people in trouble out on the water.”

In reference to the crash at OBU in 1964, Bolt also explained why he thinks the airport and drone regulations are so strict, and brought up cars and terrorism as examples. 

“It’s safety,” he said.  “It’s just like with our cars.  Your car is a useful thing to get from point A to point B, but you can do bad things with your car too.  Look what happened out in Stillwater, (the OSU Homecoming tragedy) look what happened out in Nice (France).  It’s just like anything else.  You can use it for good or you can use it for bad, but with as many of them [drones] being sold, I think they [the FAA] just wanted to get things under control and keep people safe, because people were doing some stupid stuff.  People are going to continue to do stupid stuff; it’s the way the world works.”

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