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Complaints spark aerial combat.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

CRESWELL - Tiny Creswell Airport has become a battleground for, on one side, two sky-diving schools and, on the other, city officials and pilots who say they're worried that someone is going to get hurt.

Airport Manager Shelley Humble said the city has concerns about both operations, Eugene Skydivers and Wright Brothers. The Federal Aviation Administration last week confirmed three open investigations involving complaints filed by other pilots about sky-dive planes or jumpers at the airport.

Eugene Skydivers owner Urban Moore and Wright Brothers owner David Wright counter that their pilots are the safest at the airport. And they dismiss the complaints as weapons in a power struggle between them and Humble, who publicly charged them with "bringing (planes) down as fast as you can ... to get down, get gas and get up with another load."

But several pilots told The Register-Guard that they have had near misses with sky-dive planes or sky divers. Flight instructors say the incidents have frightened and endangered their student pilots. And at least one pilot who has used the airport for decades said that he now avoids it on weekends, when most sky diving occurs.

"Somebody's going to get hurt - it's just a matter of time," said Larry Davis, a retired Lane Community College aircraft maintenance instructor who has used the airport since 1972. He said he made his decision after almost hitting a sky diver who crossed over the runway as Davis was landing a couple of years ago.

Many complaints center on sky-dive pilots "diving into" the middle of the airport's landing pattern from higher altitudes, cutting in front of other planes that are queued up to land, Humble said. But she said she also has witnessed, or received complaints about, sky divers jumping through clouds, flying their parachutes too low over an active runway, walking across the runway in front of aircraft - even of a sky diver deliberately swooping between airport buildings.

All of the alleged activities violate FAA regulations, FAA safety advisories or United States Parachute Association basic safety requirements, she said.

Operators dispute claims

Moore and Wright, fierce business competitors, deny that their pilots pose a safety hazard.

Both acknowledge using an "abbreviated pattern," merging in between slower, lower-flying planes already in the landing pattern. Mike Pohll, one of Moore's pilots has confirmed dropping in from as high as 3,000 to 5,000 feet.

"It's a matter of what's going to be efficient in the airplane," he said. "You try to go as fast as you can go and then just sequence yourself in without cutting anyone off."

But both owners insist that it's safer for their faster, higher-powered planes to do so.

"The jump pilots are absolutely the best pilots at the airport," said Wright, second-generation operator of a family business started in 1952. `We fly all day every day. A pilot who flies five hours a year, watches us fly and says, `You shouldn't do that.' But when I come into the pattern, I know what I'm doing. We come in high, but we can see everything.'

Moore, in business since 1990, agreed. With his planes coming in at 140 to 160 miles per hour, versus the 60 miles per hour of some planes in the pattern, "it's easier to scan for airplanes from above" than from the airport's posted flight pattern elevation, he said.

Both sky-dive operators called the posted landing pattern elevation of 1,400 feet a recommendation, not a rule.

But FAA Aviation Safety Inspector Gary Burns disagreed with their assessment during a tense airport commission meeting last month.

"You have to be at traffic pattern altitude when you enter the pattern," Burns said.

Further, he said, the standard for airports such as Creswell's, with no control pattern, is not simply to be able to see others, but to "see and be seen."

Talks contentious

The airport commission is expected to recommend a new landing zone user agreement to the City Council next month. Among changes: renewable, yearlong contracts; a higher "ceiling" for sky divers crossing the active runway, and proof of at least $1 million in "drop zone" insurance from both sky-dive operations using the landing area.

Humble said the Oregon Department of Transportation, which owns the 32-acre parcel containing the drop zone that is adjacent to the airport, has asked the city to obtain $1 million in liability insurance for sky diving and list ODOT as co-insured.

"The city shouldn't have to pay for that," Humble said. "The users who profit from the drop zone should."

Moore and Wright say such insurance doesn't exist. Both say liability policies for their businesses specifically exclude claims for sky-diving injuries.

Ed Scott, government relations director for the United States Parachute Association agreed. The organization provides liability coverage for individual USPA sky divers, he said, but liability for sky-dive businesses "is not available, so far as we know."

Many of the disputes over sky diving at the airport spring from vague existing contracts apparently not updated since 1993. For instance: Those user agreements, inherited by the city when it acquired the airport in 2000, contain a provision that both sky-dive companies will hit their drop zone 99 percent of the time.

The problem is, the documents don't define the drop zone.

Humble said the city understands it to be a mowed 120-yard by 200-yard area several hundred yards east of the runway. But Moore and Wright say it is the entire 32 acre ODOT parcel, with the mowed area simply a bull's-eye to aim for.

"We land east of the runway 99.8 percent of the time," Wright said.

Under the old user agreements, the sky-dive companies also listed their days of operations as weekends and holidays. Both now routinely operate on weekdays, as well.

More flights, more friction

Moore says Eugene Skydivers does about 7,000 jumps a year, while rival Wright Brothers claims about 5,000. Both businesses say they draw two to three times that number of spectators to Creswell, as well.

"We and Dave are basically the only attraction here," Moore said. "As far as tourism, we're it."

Other aviation uses have grown along with sky diving at the airport. More than 100 planes are regulars, Humble said, including two flight schools, an aerobatic company and experimental aircraft.

The increased use has brought increased complaints from other pilots over what they see as sky-dive operators' "above the law" approach to the airport's 1,400-foot landing pattern. Upset pilots once talked directly to Moore or Wright or simply complained to her, she said. But some have now begun filing formal complaints with the FAA.

FAA Northwest Region spokesman Mike Fergus said the agency has investigated six or seven complaints at Creswell. Some have been dismissed as unsubstantiated, but three investigations are ongoing. Penalties range from a $1,100 fine per incident for sky diver and pilot and possible suspension of the pilot's license.

He said the FAA receives such complaints "pretty infrequently" from other airports with sky-dive operations.

"Most operators are pretty responsible," he said. "We aren't saying these (Creswell) operations aren't. We're still investigating some complaints, but that doesn't mean they're valid."

Moore called the charges a baseless vendetta by Humble and a few disgruntled pilots.

"If we had done something documentable, we would have already had a fine," he said. "This is a political test of wills between us and the airport manager over a landing zone."

Fergus said the FAA is "very much in favor of" the city's proposed changes: "We think they will enhance safety."

Pilots fear collisions

Among those filing FAA complaints is Paul Preziose, a flight instructor with About Time Aviation.

`In the three years I've been here, I've had six close calls,' he said. `None this year, although I was cut off by a jump plane on Sept. 25 while I had a student with me. It came rocketing past us with their pilot telling us on the radio, `I'm faster. I'll go first.' '

Pilot Steve Searle, a former sky-dive pilot who flew nearly 500 hours for Wright Brothers, agreed that such planes are "coming in way too high and way too fast."

In one case this summer, Moore, himself, was the jump plane pilot. Searle said he had entered the landing pattern at 1,400 feet when Moore suddenly contacted him by radio.

"He told me to dive away, that he was right on top of me," Searle said. "I never did see him."

Moore acknowledged the incident in a discussion before the airport commission, but said, "I had an engine problem, I didn't see Steve."

Pilot Ben Hallert reported that he was on final approach to land on July 31 when a group of people began walking from the drop zone across the runway.

"I decided to do an emergency go-around to avoid hitting them," he wrote. "If I had a horn on the plane, I would have been honking it, because this could have been really bad."

Jumping through clouds?

The FAA has also received complaints about sky divers jumping through clouds at Creswell Airport, although FAA rules require them to be at least 2,000 feet away from any clouds when they're over the airport.

In one complaint, Preziose reported 24 sky divers jumping "through or immediately next to clouds" in 10 separate incidents on an overcast day.

Both Moore and Wright denied dropping sky divers through clouds.

"I can't say we've never punched one," Wright added. "When you're up at 10,000 feet and your student is slow getting out, maybe five seconds or three seconds too late, you can catch the edge of the clouds. But we work hard to avoid them."

Moore said witnesses on the ground can have a skewed view of the opening between clouds.

"What we're doing is safe, totally," Moore said.

He said Eugene Skydivers has such a strong safety record that it recently received an FAA waiver of airspace restrictions to jump into Oregon State University's Reser Stadium. Wright said he's proud of the fact that his company has never had a student seriously injured in 53 years.

"Now the airport wants to make rules that make us unable to do what's safest," Moore said, adding that the city's proposed new rules could make it difficult for his business to survive.

That's not what complainants want, Preziose said.

"They have as much right to take off and land as I do," he said. "If they were following the rules and flying safely, this would be a nonissue."

CAPTION(S):

Urban Moore, owner of Eugene Skydivers at the Creswell Airport, denies that his sky-diving pilots pose a safety hazard at the airport.
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Title Annotation:Government; Some pilots say two sky-diving schools are flying, jumping unsafely
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 19, 2005
Words:1782
Previous Article:BRIEFLY.
Next Article:Oversight of police common elsewhere.


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