The question of whether Lawrence should allow skydiving at its municipal airport has recently re-emerged at City Hall.
Six requests from different individuals have been made this year to use the city-owned Lawrence Municipal Airport as a skydiving drop zone, said Public Works Director Chuck Soules. But there are safety concerns, he said, and no decision on allowing the activity has been made.
The issue was brought up publicly at the Lawrence City Commission’s Nov. 10 meeting, when Commissioner Matthew Herbert asked that the city submit a request for a safety study with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Elizabeth Isham Cory, a public affairs official with the FAA, said via email that a change such as the addition of skydiving operations would require an airport to notify the FAA. FAA officials would then work with the airport to make sure it meets safety requirements, Cory said.
Herbert said at the Nov. 10 meeting that he had received a copy of a letter sent in July from Soules to the FAA, letting officials know of the requests. It stated that the city had safety concerns, Herbert said.
“I’m just wanting to make sure we have formally requested a safety study,” Herbert said. “The letter indicates we have safety concerns. I was just wanting to make sure we’re presenting this in a fair light so we can get a fair judgment.”
Soules said last week that he wasn’t sure when a decision would be made. The issue would likely be brought up at the December meeting of the city’s Aviation Advisory board, he said.
“The commission asked us to talk to the FAA about a safety study,” Soules said. “We’re in the process of determining what we need to do to get that done.”
One local skydiving operator contends the city is wrongly delaying in responding to the requests.
An FAA circular sent via email by Cory states that sport parachuting (informally, “skydiving”) is an FAA-recognized aeronautical activity. As such, federal regulations require that airports receiving FAA funding must accommodate the activity unless it’s determined by the FAA that compatibility issues prohibit it.
According to an FAA listing, the Lawrence Municipal Airport in fiscal 2014 was awarded about $345,000 in federal grants through the airport improvement program.
“We must have airport management’s permission prior to landing on an airport,” said skydiving operator and Lawrence resident William McCauley. “Basically, it just comes down to they continue to refuse.”
McCauley, who spoke briefly at the Nov. 10 meeting, said he submitted his most recent request to use the airport for skydiving in April 2014.
Prior to that, he presented a proposal in 2009 for a business, The Kansas Skydive Center, which was intended to allow people to go into a downtown storefront and then get shuttled to the airport for a jump.
The proposal was nixed at the May 2009 Aviation Advisory Board meeting.
According to minutes from the meeting, eight members of the public spoke against the plan and one person was neutral to it. The board voted 7-0 to disapprove it.
Soules said it was denied because of “lack of information.”
“We couldn’t figure out what his business plan was,” Soules said. “We had some concerns about safety — safety of the operations.”
In 2011, McCauley filed a complaint against the city with the FAA for denying his requests to have a drop zone there.
A Journal-World article from the time says the city argued the airport was too small and that any place a parachutist landed would be near a runway.
Soules said the city responded to the FAA at the time, and that he assumed the complaint had been resolved. McCauley said it “hasn't gone anywhere.”
“It’s expensive to fight City Hall,” he said.
In the time since, Soules said, there has been “essentially no progress on allowing skydiving operations.”
The issue resurfaced when Soules told the Aviation Advisory Board in August that there had recently been six requests for skydiving.
One of those requests was made almost a year ago by Paul Fortier, a skydiving hobbyist from Omaha, Neb.
Fortier said he and a group of friends regularly fly past Lawrence on the way to other drop zones in the Midwest, and they sought to use the airport because of its location and convenience.
He said he received a reply from the city about three months after he submitted his first request. The reply contained the letter from Soules to the FAA asking for a study. Fortier said the letter detailed the city's concerns that skydiving operations would delay the emergency response time of Life Star of Kansas.
Fortier, who has worked with a half dozen other municipal airports, said he has "not heard that particular concern" from other cities.
"It's just foot-dragging," Fortier said. "It's been a little bit of an exercise in frustration. If it wasn't for the foot-dragging, and if they'd been reasonable in talking to me, I would have dropped the whole thing… I've flown right over Lawrence, and I'll refuel at other airports on purpose because I won't spend money where I'm not welcome."
McCauley guessed some of the other five requests had been made because of the airport’s proximity to a new indoor skydiving center, iFLY Kansas City, that’s under construction in Overland Park.
The airport, located north of Lawrence, is an uncontrolled airfield with approximately 100 daily flight operations, according to the city's website.
“The Lawrence Municipal Airport is used for so little," Herbert said in an interview last week. "We’ve got people here who want to do this. For years now, we’ve not been telling them no and not been telling them yes.
"What I care about is we finally tell him (McCauley) an answer. The way it’s been handled, it is very dragged out.”
Mayor Mike Amyx said at the meeting that the issue needed to soon be brought before the City Commission.
“We need to get this on the agenda and make a decision one way or another,” he said.