Six months after an agricultural pilot died when he slammed his plane into a gray weather tower on a Delta island, federal regulators last week recommended that all such structures be clearly marked to avoid future tragedies.
The Federal Aviation Administration said towers 200 feet and shorter should be painted from top to bottom with alternating bands of orange and white and have eight orange marker balls, as well as brightly painted sleeves or flags, attached to the wires that hold them upright. Such markings already are required for towers taller than 200 feet, but the FAA is only recommending the steps for shorter towers.
"It's guidance from the FAA," agency spokesman Ian Gregor said.
Meteorological towers are designed to evaluate the potential of wind turbines in a given location.
The issue gained momentum, according to an FAA report released Friday, following the death of agricultural pilot Stephen Allen, who crashed into an unmarked tower on a remote Delta island in Contra Costa County in January.
"It's something that's sorely, and sadly, overdue," said Allen's daughter, Angela Lucero, of Sacramento. "I wish it was mandatory."
The FAA did not recommend that towers shorter than 200 feet also be lit, which is required of taller towers and which some pilot advocates had sought.
"I'm encouraged the FAA recognized the safety hazards posed by these structures," said Terry Gage, president of the California Agricultural Aircraft Association, which licenses state agricultural pilots. "I'm slightly discouraged it's still voluntary and that the lighting is not included in the recommendations."
It is often difficult to provide a power source to the remote locations where the towers are located, the report said.
"For those facilities to gather information, there has to be a some kind of power source," Gage said.
On Jan. 10, Allen, 58, of Courtland, was killed on Webb Tract after his airplane struck a 198-foot-tall tower that he likely did not see, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Towers shorter than 200 feet fall under the purview of local governments, which do not typically require the markings mandated by the FAA for taller structures.
Five days before Allen's crash, the agency began accepting public comment regarding the marking of shorter towers in response to concerns by associations representing agricultural operators and state governments about their visibility in rural areas, according to the FAA report.
The FAA received nearly 500 comments -- many in response to Allen's crash -- and only three opposed marking towers, according to the report.
While the FAA recommendations do not require those that build towers to change their practices, they will provide ammunition to a potential plaintiff in a lawsuit involving a crash, Walnut Creek personal injury attorney Stan Casper said.
"If a plaintiff files a lawsuit because some pilot is killed, experts will be able to make references to the guidelines," Casper said. "A (judge) is not likely to instruct a jury that if the guidelines were violated, it was (the developer's) negligence.
But reference will be made to these guidelines, and it will give a basis for (the plaintiff's air safety) experts."
In Contra Costa County, the Department of Conservation and Development is also reviewing its regulations for permitting meteorological towers.
Planners are calling other counties with a large agricultural and wind-technology presence, and consulting with the NTSB, FAA, the county Agricultural Advisory Task Force and the California Agricultural Aircraft Association, which licenses agricultural pilots in the state.
Building a meteorological tower requires a common land use permit in Contra Costa.
The zoning administrator approves or denies the application.
A state bill that would require all towers in California from 50 to 200 feet to be marked and lit is before a Senate subcommittee.
Contact Roman Gokhman at 925-779-7189. Follow him at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.