Tandem Skydiving: A Business Model Placing Profits Ahead of Safety Risks?

In all businesses, lucrative profits can feed excessive greed, causing business owners to cut corners, sometimes with fatal consequences. In skydiving, the big money-maker is ‘tandem jumps’, and the operator can easily pocket $100+ per jump, after paying other costs. Here is the formula being used by typical skydiving companies, to maximize profits:

  1. set up a facility/operation at a quiet exurban airport, typically 20-40 miles from a large urban center.
  2. promote with garish advertising in the urban core, such as ads on busses and at transit shelters. Appeal to a sense of adventure and life-energy (offering a moment of relief from the dull repetition common to modern urban living). Try to convince consumers that they ‘need’ to skydive to check off their life ‘bucket list’.
  3. encourage as many consumers as possible to spend ~$200 for the biggest money-maker in skydiving: tandem rides (sold as ‘instructional lessons’ but let’s be honest and recognize, these are just rides). Even better for profits, get the consumers to memorialize their ride with a cheesy high-priced video, shot by another jumper using a head-camera.
  4. take advantage of aviation regulations that require pilots to build hours, and so-called ‘instructors’ to build their jump numbers. These requirements enable skydiving operators to pay at low rates, with only a tiny fraction of revenues applied to labor costs.
  5. maximize the number of trips made each hour and day. This is done by altering the propeller and using power settings that are much louder but will allow for faster climbs. Of course, the net result is higher profits for the operator, but with added costs (increased noise & stress, reduced peace & quiet) shifted onto homeowners and others on the ground below.
  6. if and when you get complaints for your abusive repetitive-noise ruining entire sunny days, just blow it off; tell the complainants you are fully compliant with FAA regulations, so they should talk to FAA instead. Be careful to NOT tell them how great it is to you, that you have FAA providing cover for your impacts, framing even a discretionary activity such as skydiving as worthy of federal protection.

Video: Tandem Skydiving, Cameraman Fatality

The video below shows what happens when a commercial skydiving operation puts profit margins ahead of safety margins. Profits in the skydiving business are maximized by making as many commercial flights as possible per day. A part of this strategy is for the pilot to maneuver to immediately land, minimizing time before the next batch of jumpers has been loaded. Obviously, it is critical that the jump plane pilot turn away from the skydivers and avoid flying through them.

20120709scp.. frame showing C208 wing at impact during skydiving accident (time 0113 of 0230 video)

Frame showing the left wing of the C208 passing through at the moment of impact.

In this case, which happened at a skydiving center near Sao Paulo, Brazil on 7/9/2012, skydiving school director Alex Adelman jumped simultaneously with the last tandem duo. Alex’s job was to record a video for the tandem rider, by simply watching them with his helmet camera activated. Alex climbs out and waits under the wing at video time 0:54. The tandem duo jumps at time 1:03. For the next ten seconds, Alex keeps the camera on the jump, but the individual frames at time 1:13 show the left wing of the jump plane passing through.

Alex was hit and almost certainly rendered unconscious; the final minute of video shows that he was spinning out-of-control to an eventual ground impact. While in this uncontrolled descent, Alex reportedly collided with the tandem duo, breaking legs on both the tandem ‘instructor’ and the rider.

The jump plane was a Cessna 208, a very common skydiving plane in the U.S. The pilot of the jump plane did what skydive pilots routinely do: he entered an aggressive, diving descent immediately after all jumpers had cleared. Evidently, he failed to ensure he was clear of the jumpers. This is what happens in skydiving when safety margins are cut too thin … and it will happen again because of the arms-length regulatory failures of agencies like the FAA.

Shuster/A4A’s AIRR Act is All but Dead

20160226scp.. AIRR all but dead (FAA Google Alerts)

(a sampling of headlines/articles generated today in a Google Alert on the word ‘FAA’)

The ridiculous scheme to privatize the U.S. ATC system appears to have died a quick death, but give Bill Shuster, Nick Calio, and Paul Rinaldi credit for putting a lot of effort into it.

The legislative proposal was introduced with great fanfare on February 3rd – even a slick video, loaded with spin (not sure who paid for that production!?!, though it looks like an A4A production). The rollout was after years of work and hundreds of meetings with so-called ‘stakeholders’, to craft the precise language that best served their interests. A fatal error was that the ‘stakeholders’ did not include airport neighbors, airline customers, environmental representatives or ANYONE in the general public. As has become routine in recent years, the ‘stakeholders’ set was limited to parties that stood to personally gain from scheme implementation: the airlines, the airline lobbyists, the air traffic controllers lobbyist (i.e., the union NATCA), and potential ATC contractors.

The need for Transformational Reform of FAA/ATC remains. Let’s hope our Congressional leaders get to work pass REAL legislation, including:

  1. restoration of local authority, including the power of local residents to vote democratically on airport activity limits, so as to ensure local citizens lead in the management of airport impacts, and to ensure the airport serves the local community first, industry last.
  2. a complete reconfiguration of the aviation fee & tax structure, so as to:
    • disincentivize overdevelopment of airline hubs (to encourage wider distribution of moderate traffic levels, and to avoid saturated repetitive flight patterns);
    • minimize fossil fuel consumption;
    • maximize percentage of passenger trips that proceed from origin to destination, without layovers.
    • maximize transparency by both airlines and FAA/ATC, to include required annual data reports, so citizens can see quantified progress toward efficiency and environment system goals.
  3. a thorough correction of aviation noise metrics and rules, to include:
    • remove authority from FAA and place it clearly within an EPA noise office;
    • upgrade the false ’65 dNL’ metric with a more realistic ’55 dNL’ metric, and also establish rules based on other non-dNL noise metrics.

Rocky Mountain Loud: Skydiving Noise Impacts near Longmont, Colorado

20150421cpy.. Flatirons Boulder picThe 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

'Here's Johnny!' J.Nicholson pic in The Shining

“Here’s Johnny!”

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)20150424cpy.. VFR chart vicinity [KLMO]

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

20150421scp.. portion of homepage, citizensforquietskies.org

(click on image to view the Citizens for Quiet Skies website homepage)

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.”

We should all be able to relax in our homes. With summer coming, we are entering the peak season for aviation impacts by parachute operations. If you are impacted at your residence, please contact the aiREFORM.com administrator (ReformFAAnow at Gmail dot com) to help us compile more data documenting the extent of this U.S. aviation problem.

Parachute Accident: Lucky to Be Alive

A skydiver in Cañon City, Colorado was wearing a helmet-camera a few years ago, when he had a serious accident. Fortunately, he survived (though he had to have his left arm amputated) and generously shared the ten-minute video. Here’s the video:

The presence of a truck and trailer in the designated drop zone area was an important factor contributing to this accident. The trailer provided  benches for the skydivers to sit on while they rode back to the skydive building. Many commenters recognized that this rig became an unnecessary hazard when it was parked too close to the landing area.

To see more, including a series of video frame-captures, click on page two.

A letter to Skydive Oregon (in Molalla)

The letter below was emailed to Skydive Oregon, on the morning of 3/30/13. It seeks to resolve an aviation noise impact associated with Skydive’s commercial operation.  A copy is also being sent to the local newspaper, the Molalla Pioneer.

Date: Saturday, 3/30/2013, ~9:30AM
Sent to: skydive@molalla.net; skydive@skydiveoregon.com
Subject: Can you give us a little advanced warning?

Hello, Skydive Oregon.

What noise may I (and thousands of my rural neighbors) expect today?

I am looking at a beautiful morning sky with a joy for what projects I can work on today, in the forest and in my garden. I am happy to be living here, in Clackamas County, Oregon, a place I proudly call home. Yesterday was the first day this year where I had the pleasure of watching violet-green swallows swooping around the trees and over the pastures. They clearly love to fly, almost as much as I love watching them fly; it is wonderful that they thrive on this piece of land that I am dedicated to preserving.

I love being here, but there is a harsh reality I must confront: the quality of this living experience is substantially diminished by the noise you create, while earning profits flying parachutists (mostly Portlanders) out of the small airport on the west side of Molalla. At this moment, under this glorious spring sunshine, I should be singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, …”; instead, I restrain my expectations and fear for what I soon will have to hear. For, as has been the case on nearly all sunny days these past two years, the local rural quality of life here will be diminished by the drone of the turboprops you fly.

As I understand it, you have for decades insisted on doing your drops at higher altitudes which conflict with the arrivals going into PDX. Specifically, your insistence on releasing your paid customers at 12,000′ and 13,000′ and even higher means those parachutists are being dropped THROUGH the flightpaths of PDX arrivals crossing Molalla at 10,000′ to 12,000′ (and descending). As a consequence of your insistence, FAA at Portland TRACON negotiated with you years ago, that you must do your climbs to the east of the Molalla River; the aim was safety; to have you climb clear of that arrival corridor, so that you will not conflict with the passenger flights coming in from California, Nevada and Arizona. An unfortunate consequence of that scheme, though, is it has you climbing miles away from your base, impacting rural residents who likely have no idea that the noise they find so disturbing is associated with a private airport west of Molalla.

I also understand that a couple years ago you purchased Cessna 208’s for your operation. You are in aviation, so you know that FedEx typically uses these as ‘boxhaulers’, to feed cargo between small airports and hubs. You also know they produce a loud and penetrating turbo whining sound. When you conduct climbs over this area, we on the ground have to hear the penetrating turbo whine for far too long. On days like today, if business is good at Skydive, life is not so good on the ground, in our rural homes. Hour after hour, most of the day, for roughly half of each hour, we will be subjected to your noise pollution. Your noise is horrible.

Can this problem be fixed? Are there operational changes you could make that might reduce your impact? It seems plausible that you could slow your climb-rate, thus lower the power setting and the resultant engine noise level. Maybe that would fix the problem? Or, you could do shorter trips; conduct your drops under the PDX arrival corridor (maybe all drops at 8,000′ or 9,000′?), which would negate your need to make lengthier and more impactful climbs. Or, as a compromise, you could limit the higher drops to smaller time windows of each day; that way, if we can develop a workable noise management plan and you comply with it, we residents will know the noise impact will be done in another hour or two, and not dread it going on all day long. That might help. Or, you could just quit. For the record, I respect the right of a person to make a living; I hope we all respect that a person also has a right to improve and protect the quality of their home environment.

Is there a way for us to all get together and fix this problem? Yes, but that depends on you agreeing to participate. Do I (or others) expect or insist that you close down? Not me, though I have learned there are a few others who would love to see you closed.

Should we be able to expect you to meet, to voluntarily hear our concerns (just as we are involuntarily subjected to your noise), so that a noise impact management plan might result? Absolutely.

We need to resolve this problem. So, as a starter, can you please advise via a simple email reply: what impact may we expect from your commercial operation today…?

  • how many flights?
  • from what start time to what finish time?
  • at what frequency (how many operations per hour)?
  • climbing to what altitudes (so we can anticipate the duration)?
  • and using what aircraft type(s)?
  • to carry how many parachutists per trip?

I look forward to your reply, and to a chance to work to fix this noise problem.

– Jeff Lewis

See also… (blue dates link to online content)

A Noise Issue: Molalla Skydive’s parachute planes
POST by aiREFORM.com
Rocky Mountain Loud: Skydiving Noise Impacts near Longmont, Colorado
POST by aiREFORM.com, showing a similar impact pattern and FAA regulatory failure in a different community.
Molalla Skydive Airport [OL05]
REFERENCE – maps, data, etc. for the airport and the skydive noise issue.

A Noise Issue: Molalla Skydive’s parachute planes

In this part of Oregon, we have so much rain and dreary gray from October through June, that we come to treasure – even need – the dry sunny months of summer. That is, until the noise starts.

This year, for me, it started in June. I attended a Relay for Life cancer fundraiser at the Molalla H.S. track. Both days, I was hearing an airplane climbing circles over the south part of town. It sounded repetitive, not just a series of planes flying through. Then, I saw parachutes (the airport was about two miles to the west of the Relay site) and thus started to recognize the true cause of the noise: a parachute jump-plane.

Summer started in earnest a few weeks after the Relay, and I was hearing the same noise six miles away, at my place in the country. It did not make sense that they should be climbing so far from their airport, so I started to investigate. I sent a FOIA request to FAA and, in a couple months, received records showing jump fatalities at the airport,[1] and correspondence with the FAA. I was already aware that the airport was badly located, almost directly under the arrival corridor for commercial flights from California to PDX. Well, the correspondence showed that this problem was ‘fixed’ by getting the parachute jump-planes to do the bulk of their climb east of the Molalla River, which put them six miles from their homebase, and over the homes in my rural neighborhood.

This is a parachute jump operation called Skydive Oregon, based at a private strip a mile west of Molalla. The runway is relatively short and sloped, so the flights take off to the north. It appears that they have two modes of operation. On clear days or when the clouds are very high, they climb to 13,000′ or even 18,000′, with the bulk of the noise happening east of the Molalla River. But, if cloud layers force the drop to be lower (say, 8,000′ to 10,000′), then they do their climb close to the airport, impacting rural neighbors in the area south of Molalla. The planes are very loud, such that you hear them and they interfere with conversation, but you look and look, then finally see a tiny plane way up there, two miles or higher.

How do we fix this?[2] I found the Skydive business online and sent an email. Suggested we need to get together and discuss how to quiet down their operation.[3] No reply, so I forwarded the same email and a short note a few days later. This time they reply, only to ask me for my address. I did not provide a street address but said I live very near the Salo and Windy City street intersection. So, he had my full name and a nearby cross-street. A couple days later, I get a lengthy email reply telling me my address and noting I bought this place in 2003. Huh? I emailed a reply and asked for his name; the terse response to that request was, “we are a business, not a person.” I can sure see why people like to remain anonymous when dealing with aviation interests.

And what’s next? Well, the Fall rains are setting in this week and the noise problem should abate until next Spring. But, we still need to have a meeting with Mr. Skydive Oregon. Hopefully, before next summer, we will have a few other residents from around Molalla, ready to speak up so we can all have a quieter summer next year.

See the new webpage for the Skydive Airport: Molalla, OR (OL05)

Jeff Lewis


[1] March 1998 (ACN: 395444); July 1998 (ACN: 408507); August 2010 (Molalla Pioneer article(OregonLive article)
[2] Solutions likely will include reducing hours, reducing days, limiting the number of climbs impacting any one area in a day, reducing climb-rates, etc.
[3] I asked about his climb rate, prop design, prop pitch and engine RPM’s, suggesting maybe they could be adjusted to have less impact.