Monday, August 27, 2012

Navy calls for relocation of St. Marys Airport: Repeated skydiver intrusions must be eliminated, Navy says

The Aug. 12 landing of two skydivers inside Kings Naval Submarine Base’s perimeter has heightened the Navy’s security concern to the point that the base commander on Monday called for the relocation of the St. Marys Airport from which a skydiving business operates.

The St. Marys Airport Authority last week revoked The Jumping Place’s operating permit, but in spite of posted trespass warnings the business carried dozens of skydivers aloft Saturday, three of whom landed in a city park. Four skydivers received warnings and five were cited.

That action was apparently not sufficient to allay the Navy’s concerns.

In a letter citing the landing on a base softball field, Kings Bay commander Capt. Harvey Guffey Jr. reminded St. Marys Mayor Bill DeLoughy of the city’s failure to “eliminate parachutists encroaching on the base despite multiple letters of concern from several base commanding officers...’’

Rear Adm. John C. Scorby Jr., commander of the Navy’s Southeast Region in Jacksonville, reinforced Guffey’s letter with one of his own.

“Repeated exposure to these security threats in this era of terrorism creates significant disruption for the [submarine base’s] mission, and raises the specter of needlessly dangerous reactive responses. We can no longer accept this state of affairs,’’ Scorby wrote.

The Navy “must heighten and reemphasize’’ it’s desire for that moving the airport be made a priority, Guffey wrote.

“Let me be clear,’’ he said, “parachutist intrusions on the base must be eliminated.”

The Navy said as much Wednesday at the meeting in which the Airport Authority revoked The Jumping Place’s permit. The vote came after owner Cathy Kloess said she could not guarantee that parachutists who jumped from her plane’s would not again land on Kings Bay. Those Aug. 12 landings were the sixth and seventh in three years on the base that has some highly restricted areas.

Although things got off to a late start Saturday, Kloess said it would be business as usual.

By the end of the day, however, the St. Marys police had issued four criminal trespass warnings, two criminal trespass citations to skydiving instructors and three reckless conduct citations to three jumpers who landed in the city’s Sweetwater Park, authority lawyer Jim Stein said.

With no clear end to the jumps, Stein said authority members Frank Frasca and Frank Drane will ask the FAA what steps it should take next to provide better assurance no more skydivers from the airport will land on the base.

Stein said the Navy’s strong letters will help him make his case to the city and the FAA.

“It’s my advice nobody be allowed to operate at that airport as a skydiving business,’’ Stein said.

Kloess’ son, Casey Kloess-Finley, who owns the business with her, called the arrests a “gross misuse of power by the city and the Airport Authority board.”

The latter three jumpers had intended to land on a two-acre piece of property off the south side of the airport’s runway, he said.

Kloess and Kloess-Finley told the Times-Union Saturday morning that they own the property and the authority could not stop them from using it as a drop zone.

“Their intent was not to land in the park. They didn’t feel they could land there safely,’’ Kloess-Finley said of the two-acre landing spot. “They found a safe landing spot in the park.”

Kloess-Finley said The Jumping Place believes police were clearly wrong in citing the two instructors for criminal trespass after telling all the jumpers that officers would issue only warnings.

“They were singled out as our instructors,’’ Kloess-Finley said.

The two were cited after completing tandem jumps and as agents of The Jumping Place clearly knew they could be charged with criminal trespass, Stein said.

Stein also said that shifting the landing zone Saturday to the plot closer to base only increased the risk that a skydiver could again land on King’s Bay.

Kloess-Finley disagreed saying the spot is only 0.6 miles closer meaning it’s still more than a mile from the base, which provides plenty of buffer for an experienced jumper.

He also said any assertion that The Jumping Place doesn’t take Kings Bay’s security seriously is wrong.

“The Jumping Place policy is to never land on the base. Never,’’ he said.

But when a skydiver leaves the plane, he becomes his own pilot and in charge of his own landing, Kloess-Finley said.

Individual skydivers must make decisions for their own safety, he said.

Kloess has said that skydivers blown off course by “acts of God’’ chose the base to ensure they could land safely, most recently on a softball field that they thought was in a city park.

As part of its pre-jump education, The Jumping Place tells skydivers not to land on the base even as a last resort and shows them aerial photos, Kloess-Finley said.

“But we’re not going to tell them to hit a tree to avoid landing on the base,’’ he said.

Asked if The Jumping Place will take skydivers up again Saturday, Kloess-Finley said “Our plan right now is we’re looking for other fields to jump in.’’

The two-acre field off the airport is not suitable for student landings, he said.

“We’re looking at anything to keep our business open,’’ Kloess-Finley said.


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