The Front Range west of Denver offers spectacular vistas, like the Flatirons shown above, just south of Boulder. Ample sunshine makes it a natural for people to be outside. Many are drawn here for the opportunity to have an active and outdoor lifestyle. But, due to lack of effective FAA regulation, what might have been John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High‘ has instead become a noise nightmare reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’. Repetitive noise, just like intense silence, drives people crazy.
Northeast of Boulder an outfit called ‘Mile-Hi Skydiving’ has been impacting quality of life around Longmont since the mid-1990’s. It is a classic example of the skydiving impacts that FAA refuses to address, just like happens in hundreds of rural areas around the country. Typically, these outfits set up business just outside large urban centers. In Portland, OR, for example, a skydive company intensively advertises on busses and bus shelters to draw customers out to Molalla. A few city-dwellers then drive out to the country and pay for a cheap thrill ride, oblivious to the fact they are destroying the country lifestyle below. The flights are under the south arrival corridor into [KPDX], so way back in 1991, FAA officials coordinated with the operator to do their climbs about 8-miles to the northeast of their airport [OL05]. Most people in that area are unaware of why they are subjected to so much airplane noise, particularly intense on weekends and nice summer days.
The Skydiving Business Model
Jack would understand: this is a business, aimed at making a profit. Mile-Hi flies large and noisy aircraft up and down, up and down, all day long. To maximize profits, they select aircraft for maximum climb rate. If a particular engine or propeller design/setting increases the climb rate, they use it, with zero regard for the noise level. If a noisier climb takes only 12-minutes but a quieter climb takes 15-minutes, most skydiving outfits will opt for the noisier climb to save 3 minutes (and thus add a few more flights per day). Commonly, with skydive operations, they hire pilots on the cheap, which is easy to do since FAA and the industry have worked together for decades to ensure there is a large pool of eager, low-hour pilots. They need to build up hours before airlines will hire them. So, when a company like Mile-Hi offers a $199 cash price for tandem jumps (the kind where you are strapped to a so-called ‘instructor’ for your one-time
lesson thrill-ride), their profit margin is enormous. Which makes it all the more puzzling why local airports often charge very little (or even nothing) to set up at fields like Vance Brand Airport [KLMO], in Longmont. (see the pink circle below)
As a business, they take a fee from each skydiver, to add to their company profit. But that is not the only ‘taking’. They also take peace and quiet from thousands of local residents who must endure the low-frequency reverberating drone that destroys their summer days. Worse yet, the impacts also happen for hours and even full days in the other seasons, for year-round operators like Mile-Hi. The local residents lose quality of life; they get no compensation for their loss. They can complain to FAA, who will routinely tell them to take it up with the business or airport. They can complain to the business or airport, who will tell them the program is ‘FAA compliant’ and refer them back to the FAA with their complaint. The citizens face a black hole where neither operators nor FAA officials are held accountable; thus, real citizens effectively have no rights to resolve an adverse impact that FAA condones.
The Civil Action
The matter has irritated local residents so much that they filed a lawsuit. A group called Citizens for Quiet Skies gradually formed, and in late 2013 the group and seven individuals filed a lawsuit (Case# 2013CV031563) at the U.S. District Court in Boulder, CO. A 5-day trial was held last week. District Court Judge Judith LaBuda plans to do a site visit on May 1st, before issuing her ruling.
The group raised funds to cover their legal expenses, and some incurred personal debt. Of course, people should not have to take on personal debt to right a wrong, and they would not have to if FAA would properly apply environmental considerations to regulate operations like Mile-Hi Skydiving. Nor should people have to endure harassment by aviation companies or even by aviators in flight. In May 2012, Mile-Hi sent Kimberly Gibbs a letter, with a “Have a Great Summer!” poster, as well as a bumper sticker that read ‘I love airplane noise!’. Weeks later, there was the Memorial Day family gathering in the backyard, when a helicopter suddenly appeared over the treetops and hovered at less than 200-feet altitude. This incident is a blatantly serious case of aviation harassment, the sort of thing FAA would aggressively act on, if they were not so in bed with the industry they fail to regulate.
Good people know right from wrong. Better people refuse to cower to bullies. The best people fight back, to not only take care of their own bad situation, but even more to protect others from future repeats of the same injustices. As Ms. Gibbs puts it, “Sometimes you have to stand up and push the bully back into the lockers.”