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EAA Member Leads Grassroots Effort to Protect Tennessee Small Airfield Owners

June 2, 2010 — Thanks to the persistence and organizational efforts of a Tennessee EAAer, owners of private air strips in that state now enjoy the same limits on liability of other recreational activities on private land, like whitewater rafting, horseback riding, camping, and off-road vehicle riding. Ken Franks, EAA 159894, of Eagleville, Tennessee, owns a 3,600 ft. x 85 ft. grass strip, T-Top Airfield (TN14), and has for several years tried to get lawmakers to include private air strips in an existing law that limits liability to owners when they allow access to their property for various recreational activities.

It all paid off last week when Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen signed a bill into law doing just that. The new law will enhance the ability of small airfield owners to allow recreational non-commercial aircraft operations, or recreational non-commercial ultralight vehicle operations, on their property. State law had already granted limited liability to landowners for many other recreational activities on their land, and the new aviation provision was added to that.

“It’s been a very long battle,” Franks said. “I first tried (to get the law changed) in 2002 and got my teeth kicked in.” However, Franks, who said he stopped hosting at least two annual fly-in events at TN14 in 2005 out of liability concerns, took up the effort again this past year. He credits the success this time with getting the right bill sponsors (Rep. Ty Cobb of Columbia and Sen. Doug Jackson of Dickson), bipartisan co-sponsorship, better overall organization – “Thank God for the Internet,” he said - and a willingness of citizens to contact their elected officials.

“I was a coach and cheerleader, contacting a lot of folks, squeezing a lot of hands at the state capital,” he said. “Aviation people like to enjoy their recreation like everyone else.” The new law waives liability from the private airstrip owners “if such waiver does not limit liability for gross negligence, or willful or wanton conduct, or for a failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity” for recreational non-commercial aircraft operations and recreational non-commercial ultralight vehicle operations.

“What we proved here is that the system still works,” Franks stressed. “By participating and joining others in the process, contacting your elected officials, you can get things done.”

As word has spread about Frank’s legislative success, he’s been contacted by private airfield owners from two other states seeking to get similar efforts started. Through his research Franks discovered that five other states have similar laws to what was passed in Tennessee and 10 others with limited liability laws specifically for aircraft.

Franks, who plans to attend AirVenture Oshkosh 2010, said he welcomes inquiries from people in states lacking liability waivers for private airstrip owners. Reach him at kfranksttop@att.net.

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