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Don’t Expect Bird’s-Eye View of Baseball

When Major League Baseball returns to the District of Columbia next spring, it will bring with it a host of traditions — home runs, hot dogs and peanuts — and one notable exception: an empty sky overhead.

The large blimps used to provide aerial broadcasts at other major league stadiums will likely be absent from the skies above RFK Stadium, where the relocated Montreal Expos are expected to spend three seasons, because federal aviation regulations severely restrict use of the airspace above the nation’s capital.

In addition to federal guidelines that govern stadium facilities nationwide, the city is also governed by separate regulations that bar nearly all aircraft except commercial flights into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

While the stadium regulations, which bar aircraft from circulating overhead at facilities that seat more than 30,000 spectators, are often waived for sporting events in other cities, blimp operators and officials familiar with the restrictions assert similar leniency seems unlikely in the District of Columbia because of the additional measures protecting the city.

“The restricted flight zone … is currently a 17-miles radius around the Washington monument, and clearly the stadium would fall into that,” explained William Shumann, an FAA spokesman.

That zone, created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, does allow exceptions for government, medical and military aircraft — including a blimp being tested by the Army over the city last week.

But one major blimp operator seemed pessimistic as to whether federal officials will issue waivers for the first baseball games to take place in Washington in nearly three decades.

Mickey Wittman, director of client services for Orlando-based Lightship Group, which broadcasts hundreds of events each year, points to FedEx Field in Landover, Md., home to the National Football League’s Washington Redskins.

“No one can get into FedEx,” laments Wittman, a 35-year veteran of the aerial broadcast industry. The stadium sits roughly 8 miles east of the Washington Monument. “We hope that we can do it. We want to return to the area.”

But a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, which grants waivers for aerial broadcasts of sporting venues, stated: “As part of our efforts to secure the capital region, private aircraft are generally not permitted in the skies over Washington.

“FedEx Field, RFK and the proposed new stadium lie within this restricted area,” added TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser.

With only about a dozen blimps operating across the country, including those produced by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Wittman asserts the industry lacks the political muscle to press for changes to those rules.

“Blimps are such a small segment of aircraft, there’s no lobbying,” Wittman said.

Instead, Wittman said, blimp operators are pushing the potential for the vehicles to fill security needs while still providing traditional aerial coverage.

“We’re always willing to give our feed to security,” Wittman said. “Most people have not seen the security value of a blimp.”

(The Army blimp tested in Washington last week is a product of the American Blimp Corp., the Lightship Group’s parent company.)

In the week since announcing baseball’s return to Washington, District officials have not addressed whether FAA restrictions could impact televised coverage of baseball games.

Chris Bender, a spokesman in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, noted Monday that efforts are primarily focused on publicizing information about a proposed $400 stadium, which would be located in the District’s Southeast quadrant.

“It’s been four or five days, and we’re so involved in the grassroots efforts to help people understand the way we’re financing this thing … that some of those issues haven’t come to forbearance,” Bender said.

In the coming weeks, he said, District officials will also look at preparing RFK Stadium for televised games, adding facilities for broadcast vehicles and installing instant-replay capabilities on screens inside the

venue.

A spokesman for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, also confirmed the topic has not been raised on the panel.

“No one on our staff has yet been contacted about the stadium [or] flight restrictions,” said Mica spokesman Gary Burns.

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