The helicopter pilot who came to the rescue of St. George-area flood victims in January, only to be threatened with sanctions by the Federal Aviation Administration, has been cleared of wrongdoing by the agency.
Jeremy Johnson, 29, made headlines in January after he risked his life to save a family stranded by the overflowing Santa Clara River. He also flew numerous rescue and supply missions as part of the relief effort, then raised $20,000 by giving chopper rides to help Rolf and Renae Ludwig's family get back on their feet.
Johnson was touted as a local hero, but the FAA didn't quite see it that way.
The agency said Johnson failed to give a required seven days' notice before offering helicopter rides above the flood-damaged region for the purpose of raising charitable donations. It also told Johnson he violated federal regulations when he carried explosives and an explosives expert across the river at the request of local rescue coordinators to help break up a river blockage that was contributing to the flooding.
Johnson had feared he might lose his private helicopter pilot's license or be forced to pay hefty fines. Instead, the matter is now considered resolved after Johnson recently took a piloting refresher course and passed the same test given to pilots seeking a commercial pilot's license.
FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said Friday that Johnson also was given a "letter of admonishment" by the FAA's hazardous materials division, advising him to become more familiar with the FAA's regulations and to "know that you are not allowed to be carrying hazardous materials unless you have approval from the FAA."
Fergus said the four-hour pilot's examination cost Johnson $100. He said Johnson would not be fined or penalized in any other way.
"His background did not show any hotdogging or any kind of negative history," Fergus said. "There were no sanctions, as such, in this case due to the guy's track record and his intent."
Johnson, in a telephone interview from St. George, said he spent about $800 for the class, test and all costs associated with the FAA's inquiry. But he said the expense and hassle were small prices to pay for the benefit yielded by his efforts.
"That was never the issue," Johnson said of the money he spent as a result of the FAA's investigation. "I would have gladly paid the $800" at the time in order to help the Ludwig family and others.
Johnson said he has been told by the FAA that if he stays out of trouble with the agency for the next two years, the entire incident will be erased from his flying record.
"I feel good about the whole situation. I felt like they (the FAA) were really good with me," he said. "I think I would do things a little differently if I did it again. . . . I would try to do it right and work with the FAA."
Johnson described the requirement to re-test as something similar to "a verbal reprimand. . . . The good thing is, I didn't have an official citation from (the FAA), and that was really good for me because if you do, every time you get insurance you have to tell the insurance company, 'Yeah, I've had (a sanction for) hauling explosives,' and they get out the 'decline' stamp."
The Utah Department of Commerce also sent Johnson a letter a week after the flooding saying he may have violated the state's Charitable Solicitations Act by not registering with the Division of Consumer Protection before soliciting donations.
Francine Giani, the division's director, said shortly after he received the letter Johnson told her staff that he was no longer collecting money for flood victims. As a result, Giani said, her division considered the matter closed.
"If that is the case, then we don't have any issue, either," she said. "We did send our letter out (to Johnson). It's a very nice and friendly letter that we send out to make certain that people are just aware of the statutes. A lot of times they're not."
Johnson is well aware of all the rules and regulations now and certainly will know how to go about things if flood waters should rise again.
Johnson said he was gratified with the public support he received throughout the ordeal. Public officials and citizens alike wrote letters in support of Johnson to local media, as well as to the state and the FAA. Johnson said FAA representatives in Salt Lake City showed him a file folder full of letters supporting him. That, he said, took him by surprise."A lot of people came to my defense and helped me, and I'm sure that helped" dissuade the FAA from levying stiffer penalties, he said. "People were calling me on the phone, people I didn't know, asking if there was anything they could do to help. "
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