Angry altercation on runway sparks investigation at Morris’ city owned airport

WGN Investigates
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Harsh words. Bad blood.  Even a physical confrontation near a runway.  These are turbulent times at the city-owned airport in Morris, Illinois.  Now the FAA is investigating an incident between several pilots on the airfield.

“You’ve heard of road rage,” said veteran pilot John O’Connor.  “This was more akin to runway rage.”  O’Connor, who spent 35 years as a military aviator, is describing a confrontation on a taxiway at the Morris airport in July.

O’Connor was applying for a new certification with flight instructor Nick Scholtes.  They were idling just shy of the runway while completing their final checklist when they say a larger crop duster landed from the opposite direction.  They say the pilot of that plane passed several open taxiways and brought his plane almost nose-to-nose with theirs.

“I’d never seen a face on a human being look like that,” flight instructor Nick Scholtes said.  “[The crop duster]  was just livid.”  Cell phone video recorded by Scholtes captured the tail end of the confrontation.  The crop duster got out of his plane with the propeller still running.  “He was making arm gestures and telling my pilot ‘get out of the plane! Get out of the plane!’”, O’Connor said. “He seemed to want to fight.”

The pilot of the crop duster is seen on video reaching his arm through the window and swatting away the cell phone as he yelled words to the effect of ‘get off the runway.’  When Scholtes and O’Connor refused they say the crop duster attempted to spin their small plane around and violently shook the plane’s wing.

After the two men say they refused to comply, the other pilot walked back to his running crop duster and spun it around.  “His wingtip couldn’t have been more than an inch-and-a-half from our propeller,” O’Connor said. “It’s still amazing to me they didn’t hit.  Then he prop-blasted us and our little plane was bounced back and forth.”

The two were rattled enough they called Morris police.  Initially, they said they didn’t want to pursue criminal charges.  That changed when they felt like they were portrayed as the aggressors.   The responding officer’s report describes “bad history” between two camps at the airfield.    On one side: The flight instructor and other pilots who use the airport for leisure flights.  On the other: The crop duster and the airport manager who referred to flight instructor Nick Scholtes as a “trouble maker” in the police report and talked about getting him “kicked out of the airport.”

The pilot of the crop duster claims the flight instructor intentionally blocked his path, the latest move in an ongoing feud.  He said he only got out of his plane because he thought the other pilots were having trouble.  “I grabbed the strut and shook it like that.  But that’s all I did.”  The crop duster insisted shaking the other plane was safe.

And who is the owner of that crop duster?    His name is Sid Nelson.  And he’s not just a crop duster.  He is also the former manager of the Morris airport and a current member of the Morris city council who was appointed to that position by the mayor.   That’s why it raised eyebrows when the responding officer noted in his report that he delivered a copy to Morris mayor Dick Kopczick “for his review.”

The mayor directed the cop to re-interview the airport manager, who offered a new witness who would say the flight instructor “intentional[ly] pulled in front of [Sid] Nelson.”   Police took no further action.  The case was closed.

Mayoral intervention is a no-no according to the Grundy County state’s attorney.  “I’ve been a career prosecutor for 13-and-a-half years,” Jason Helland said. “I’ve never seen a mayor get involved in a police investigation before.”   State’s attorney Helland said his initial requests for police to more thoroughly investigate the case were rebuffed.  However, after WGN began asking questions and confronted crop duster Sid Nelson nearly one month after the incident, Morris police reached out to the flight instructor to gather more information.

Mayor Kopczick, the Morris police chief and Morris airport manager Jeff Vogen did not respond to repeated requests for comments on the incident.

The crop duster insists he did nothing wrong. “I’ve been flying for 41 years,” Nelson said. “I got over 15,000 hours.  This is the first time I’ve ever encountered anything like this.”

The two pilots who felt they were threatened by Nelson say they simply want the friendly skies to return to the city-owned and subsidized Morris airfield.  “They get money from us as customers and money subsidized from the federal government but it’s not managed that way,” Scholtes said.


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