CHATHAM – A Federal Aviation Administration skydiving safety risk assessment released Tuesday concludes that with some minor mitigation efforts, Chatham Municipal Airport is safe for skydiving.
The four-page report dated Dec. 18 comes at a time when the town is engaged in two lawsuits over skydiving at the airport. Based on the report's findings, selectmen said in a statement issued Tuesday that it was time to “close the book on the debate regarding the safety and appropriateness of skydiving” at the airport and called on the parties to withdraw the litigation.
“The town is hopeful that all pending litigation relative to skydiving at the airport can be brought to prompt closure without the need to expend further taxpayer dollars and devote further valuable time of town officers and staff to the defense of these matters,” the two-page statement reads.
A neighborhood group, Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport (CSCA), is suing the town to prevent skydiving from taking place at the airport. Skydive Cape Cod, which operated at the George Ryder Road facility from 2011 to 2013, is also suing the town, seeking $100,000 for breach of contract.
Town Counsel Patrick Costello said he will be discussing with town officials how to proceed with the litigation in light of the report.
“This decision does add a new element,” he said, and is a “new and material development” in the long-standing situation. The CSCA suit, in which the neighborhood group claims that skydiving is unsafe, is set to go to trail March 12. Costello said he's had discussions with Skydive attorney Robert Lawless and expects to continue those talks following further communications from the board of selectmen.
Lawless said he is optimistic that a resolution can be reached.
“My client is thrilled that the FAA validated his position and he can't wait to be servicing the people of the region with skydiving activity again,” he said.
After Town Manager Jill Goldsmith declined to renew Skydive Cape Cod's contract in 2013, the FAA ordered the town to allow the activity to resume based on assurances the town had signed as a condition of receiving more than $6 million in federal aviation grants. The town sought proposals from skydive firms, but did not award a contract pending the outcome of the CSCA suit.
Essentially, the town finds itself caught in a three-way squeeze between the FAA, which has ordered it to allow skydiving; CSCA, which claims skydiving is a nuisance and unsafe; and Skydive Cape Cod, which claims its contract to operate at the airport was violated when it wasn't renewed.
Safety has always been a key factor in both arguments both for and against skydiving. Selectmen first requested a safety assessment of the activity by the FAA in November 2012. At the time, the request was “neutral,” selectmen said in the statement issued Tuesday. The board wanted to determine if skydiving “posed any material risk to the public safety and welfare of those using the airport and the community at large.” Following “vocal and well publicized” claims to the contrary, the board hired its own expert, who said skydiving could be conducted safety at the airport.
Last June, the board repeated its request that the FAA conduct a full safety risk assessment. Henry Trammel and Jorge Panteli of the FAA's offices of Flight Standards and Airports conducted the inspection on Nov. 9 along with Airport Commission Chairman Peter Donovan and James Mendonca and Mathew Benelli of Skydive Cape Cod, according to the report, signed by Mary T. Walsh, director of the FAA New England Division's Airports Division. Using the FAA's Risk Assessment for Parachute Operations checklist, they reviewed the airfield and parachute landing area to determine if skydiving is possible with an “accepted level of risk.”
Fourteen risk factors were evaluated for low, medium or high risk. Twelve were determined to be low risk and two were judged to be medium risk, according to the report.
The lack of written airport procedures that include parachute operations and are available to airport users was one of the “medium risk” factors. Mitigation to lower the factor to low risk requires the airport commission and operator to create operating procedures for future parachute operations using previous documentation and procedures including standard operating procedures previously used by Skydive Cape Cod. Those procedures should be formalized with a future operator and distributed to the local aviation community.
The 25 to 50 daily flight training operations at the airport also produced a risk factor rating of medium, according to to the report. When Skydive Cape Cod operated at the airport, a number of steps were taken to make sure flight students knew about the activity, and those steps need to be incorporated into the current flight training curriculum in order to mitigate the risk level to low. Steps include incorporating standard operating procedures for skydive operations into the flight training curriculum, incorporating radio announcement protocol used when skydiving is active into flight training, and establishing safety briefings between the flight training and skydive operations to discuss and develop operational awareness of skydiving activities.
“Implementation of the mitigation measures described above...will produce a final risk assessment level of 'low' overall,” the report concludes. “Therefore, we have concluded that it is feasible from a safety perspective to introduce parachuting operations into the airspace at CQX (Chatham Airport) in the future.”
“The results of this comprehensive FAA safety risk assessment are clear,” selectmen wrote in their statement. “They are consistent with the advice of the town’s consultants, and they, hopefully, will provide closure on this issue.”
Selectmen also noted that the airport has been in operation since 1949 and provides “valuable economic, recreation and public safety benefits” to the town. “All airports,” the statement continues, “by the very nature of the aviation activities conducted thereon, do create some level of unavoidable noise and risk in addition to the beneficial aspects of their operations. The town has worked diligently, and in conjunction with the FAA and Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Aeronautics Division, to operate CQX in as safe and convenient a manner as possible for Airport users and the general public alike.”
Based on the report, selectmen said, “It is time to move forward, close the book on the debate regarding the safety and appropriateness of skydiving at CQX, and withdraw all pending litigation in this regard.”
Kenneth Arnold, a member of Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport, said Tuesday the group had just received the report and had no immediate comment. It would be passed on to their experts and a statement issued at a later date.