Thursday, October 22, 2015

Horry County reaches point break with Skydive Myrtle Beach • Grand Strand Airport (KCRE), North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

The owner of a skydiving company at Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach says Horry County has done everything it could to put him out of business.

The county says it had to do something about the company or its federal airport funding would be in jeopardy.

Skydive Myrtle Beach has been in operation for almost four years at the county-owned airport. That is, until last week when the company was evicted from its hangar by the county.

SDMB owner Aaron Holly said he had had no problems at the small airport when it was managed by Ramp 66. But when the county took over the operations, his troubles began.

County attorney Arrigo Carotti said essentially the same thing—the county had no problems with any of the tenants at the airport except SDMB.

The county says there have been numerous safety violations by the skydiving company since then and the company refused to follow rules established by the county and also refused to sign agreements to occupy the hangar where their business was located.

“They have thumbed their nose at the county,” Carotti said.

After turning to the FAA for guidance, the FAA told the county that the safety issues better be resolved as soon as possible or Horry County was in danger of losing federal grants for all of its airports-a loss of tens of millions of dollars that would be devastating to airport operations.

The county took over operations at the North Myrtle Beach airport from Ramp 66 in August of 2013. At that time all of the tenants were asked to sign six month temporary Space Use Agreements until individual leases could be negotiated.

SDMB signed the agreement along with other tenants including a helicopter company and a banner plane operation.

Holly said the county proceeded to harass his company including having an airport employee break into his hangar, block part of his parking area and required him to make improvements to his hangar even though the space agreement wouldn’t allow it.

Carotti said when the first six-month agreement expired, the county wanted SDMB to sign another space use agreement instead of a lease because of the issues that had started to crop up with the company. He said the company refused to sign it and occupied the hangar without a lease or agreement.

In the meantime, the county and air traffic controllers at the airport began to compile a list of safety violations, Carotti said, and that list continued to grow almost daily.

The county also came up with a list of specific rules for all of its airport tenants at the four locations the county owns: Myrtle Beach International, Conway, Loris and Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach.

Holly contends the rules were passed illegally without any public input and only after he had started legal action against the county.

“We knew nothing about them,” Holly said. “Their attorney even went to the county council and said we need these rules because we’re in the middle of litigation.”

Carotti said the rules were put in to clarify what is expected of all tenants, not just SDMB, and were passed through the “three reading” process like all other ordinances.

Holly said the rules were passed in May of 2014 and in October of that same year, he met with Airports Director Pat Apone who showed him the list of rules.

“She said they were just a proposed list and wanted our comments even though they had been passed in July,” he said.

Because the company would not sign another space use agreement, the county served an eviction notice in the summer of 2014. Carotti said SDMB had been a “squatter” on county property since then.

SDMB sued the county and a host of county employees for discriminating against the business. The suit went from the magistrate level to the circuit court. Along the way, the court ruled that the individuals couldn’t be sued.

Currently, Holly said he’s taken the case to the appeals level hoping to get the individuals added back to the lawsuit.

He also filed a business discrimination complaint with the FAA against the county.

Carotti said the first complaint was dismissed because the company didn’t follow proper procedures in filing it. They filed again with a stack of papers “five feet high,” he added.

In response to the complaint, the county submitted a litany of violations that had been documented by the air traffic controllers regarding the sky diving company and its jumpers.

From March, 2013 through Sept. 27 of this year, 112 incidents have been recorded. These include pedestrians crossing the runway without notifying the tower and parachutists landing outside the designated “drop zone”—an area on the airport property where the jumpers are supposed to land.

Among the violations listed are: jumpers landing in front of moving planes on the runway, causing the pilot to shut off the engine for fear of hitting the jumper, parachutists landing on or near the runway or taxiway, landing in the Intracoastal Waterway, landing near Highway 31 and on the beach.

Some of the incidents say the parachutists were injured, a claim denied by Holly.

Holly said the original drop zone his company operated under was much larger than the small “imaginary” one drawn up by the county. He contends that all companies use a drop zone but sometimes conditions cause the parachutists to drift. And as long as the landing is on airport property, it’s okay.

A number of the listed incidents are “pedestrian” violations involving jumpers walking across the runway or taxiways. In his response to the FAA, Holly said his customers are parachutists and should be considered as such on the ground, too, not as pedestrians so these incidents aren’t actual violations.

He added Wednesday that it’s just a matter of common sense when walking back to the company hangar.

“Walking across a runway is like crossing a street,” he said. “You look both ways before crossing. And it’s not a problem when the planes are 5,000 feet at the other end of the runway.”

Carotti said at one point a federal investigator was on the scene to check out the company but Skydive employees wouldn’t let him in their hangar, even though by law they are supposed to allow inspections.

“While the FAA guy was standing there, a parachutist landed right in front of him,” he said.

As to the incidents reported by the air traffic controllers, Holly said they were wrong, adding, “how can a guy sitting a mile away make a judgment as to where someone lands. He can’t even see over the trees to the waterway or Highway 31.

“And these guys aren’t with the FAA, they’re contractors hired by the county.”

According to Horry County spokesperson Lisa Bourcier, the tower services are handled by a company called Robinson Aviation. Robinson does air traffic control at 93 airports across the country, according to the company’s website.

In a 70-plus page document, the FAA threw out the discrimination complaint against the county.

Randall Fiertz, director of Airport Compliance and Management Analysis for the FAA, cited safety concerns by the county as legitimate reasons for trying to regulate the sky diving activities at the airport.

In his order, Fiertz wrote: “the FAA requests that as soon as possible, the county take action to mitigate the unsafe skydiving operations at CRE (Grand Strand Airport) by taking appropriate action such as closing the existing parachute drop zone and rescinding related approvals; and submitting a corrective action plan incorporating acceptable risk management measures and revised procedures under which safe skydiving operations may resume.”

Fiertz said he was particularly concerned with the fact that “SDMB has denied that there are any safety deficiencies in this case and challenges any FAA intervention or recommendations.”

The order was signed on Oct. 7 and the county told SDMB to be out by last Friday, Oct. 16.

Holly said the move puts him out of business and he’s started trying to find buyers for all of his equipment.

He vowed to continue to fight the county as long as his money holds out, hoping to be able to re-open.

“This is a popular tourist attraction that’s brought a lot of money into this county,” Holly said. “It’s not fair to us or the people who come from all over to skydive.”

Carotti said the county tried every way possible to work with Sky Dive Myrtle Beach but was met with resistance time and again.

“We know it’s a popular attraction but safety is a paramount issue for us and that’s what we’ve tried to accomplish here.”

He added the county had spent “hundreds of thousands” of dollars on this matter, not counting county staff expenses.

“We’re pleased with the FAA’s ruling,” Carotti said. “Their only fault with the county is that we didn’t stop these guys sooner.”

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1 comment:

  1. I am active duty military, I used to work there occasionally. We always had people hiding around the corner taking pictures of us. It was harassment in its simplest form. I have been jumping for 20 years. Teaching it for nine years. They safety incidents are fabricated. The truth is slowly coming to light all across the web.