Ultimate Thrill

Throw Caution to the Sky

Money burnin' a hole in your pocket? For just under $3,000, Fort Lauderdale-based Zero Gravity Corp. will take you on a converted cargo jet into the world of weightlessness. It may be the ultimate thrill. Float around a padded chamber like an astronaut in a space capsule for 30 seconds at a time. Using the same technique that Universal Studios used in filming its space thriller Apollo 13, the trip begins with a steep ascent to more than 30,000 feet. Then, as the pilot begins a 9,000-foot nosedive, passengers do cartwheels in midair.

When Tailpipe, a roller-coaster and Kamikaze devotee from way back, heard about this, he started counting his pennies.

But then the 'Pipe learned just who was playing the role of NASA to ticket-buying astronauts. Zero Gravity uses planes flown by upstart airline Amerijet International Inc., a Fort Lauderdale company whose security has been questioned by the Federal Aviation Administration and two whistleblower lawsuits. The suits claim that employees routinely skip training and that managers ignore safety concerns. Michael Moulis, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who filed the suits, says the company has the potential to become another ValuJet, whose DC-9 went down in the Everglades on May 11, 1996, when oxygen canisters caught fire in the cargo hold.

"They're playing with fire," Moulis contends. "If you fail to do safety checks and properly train employees, as they're doing, sooner or later, you're going to bring an airplane down."

In one suit, former pilot Pat Major claimed Amerijet ignored him when he said planes were too laden with cargo to fly. On August 17, 1999, Major claims that standing water on the runway at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport required the plane to be lighter but that he was told to take off anyway. Major complained the next day in a report submitted to supervisors, and he was then fired. Last year, a federal jury in Fort Lauderdale found that he had been wrongfully dispatched and awarded him $522,120. Major says Amerijet's safety problems still haven't got the attention they should. "This is an airline that has fallen between the cracks," he says.

In July, Amerijet's former director of safety and airline security, Larry Bond, claimed he was demoted for bringing up concerns over unsafe conditions. Bond contends that Amerijet employees and independent contractors who load the planes have not undergone safety training to identify hazardous cargo. The suit says Bond was demoted a day after sending his superiors an e-mail, on June 23, 2003, about the untrained workers. "This flies in the face of September 11 and all the extra security we're supposed to have," Moulis says.

Pam Rollins, Amerijet's vice president of business development, declined to discuss the lawsuits. She said the company has a clean record on safety. "If [the claims in the suit] were the case, I'm sure the regulatory agencies that govern us would have done something about it."

In fact, seven years ago, the FAA did do something about Amerijet's safety record. On Christmas Eve 1997, Amerijet voluntarily ceased operations after an FAA inspection that found several violations. The inspectors discovered "significant" problems with the cargo handling program, according to FAA documents. The airline resumed flights three days later but under close FAA scrutiny.

Still, the FAA approved Amerijet earlier this year to begin the country's first commercial zero-gravity flights. The company has done 30 so far, Rollins says, giving its passengers 15 dizzying, gravity-free plunges per flight. And it's entering peak season, Rollins adds. The next flight is scheduled for December 30, and tickets are still available. Tailpipe is saving his three grand for that long-dreamed-of canoe trip down some Bolivian waterfalls.

Feedback

Everybody from CityPlace to the Okeechobee on-ramp to the Turnpike wants to know what the electronic message board said that morning on Dixie Highway. Everybody who wasn't there, that is. Tailpipe now has the real, unblurred-out communication, which was posted on November 23 by an unidentified message-board hacker.

A few words to set the scene: Motorists in West Palm Beach have been doing a slow simmer, fast increasing to a rolling boil, as the Florida Department of Transportation conducts three construction projects in the downtown area. The jobs include a three-quarter-mile stretch of Dixie Highway.

On that sunny morning just before Thanksgiving, an electronic sign board there, at Seventh Avenue and Dixie, notified drivers in bumper-to-bumper traffic of delays, with an addendum: "I AM MAD TOO -- LOIS." It was a clear attempt by West Pam Beach's irascible Mayor Lois Frankel that, hey, it wasn't us who did this to you.

Two weeks after that message's appearance, though, somebody with both computer and burglary skills broke into the roadside sign in the predawn darkness and did a little rejiggering. For a few hours, until workers succeeded in turning the thing off, motorists were treated to the succinct "FUCK YOU BITCH."

Says West Palm City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell: "The woman has rubbed every last nerve of every person living in the north part of the city."

Fourth and Long

So much for shameless groveling to get butts into the seats at an athletic event.

Florida Atlantic University's football program needed a big crowd at its final home game Saturday to clinch admission to the NCAA Division I. It was supposed to be the team's ticket to the big time. Venerable FAU Coach Howard Schnellenberger was having flashbacks to 1983, when his University of Miami team edged Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to capture the national championship. All the scrappy Owls needed to be a contender was the bounty that comes from vying with Big Boys: television contracts, bowl bids, heavy demand for tickets, the attention of promising high school prospects.

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