If there's one local outfit that enjoys a dangerous exemption from regulation - somehow, in this over-regulated state - it is the Lodi Parachute Center.
At least 13 people have died out there. Federal "regulators" have been useless. So now Stockton's Assembly member is stepping in with legislation.
Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, is introducing AB295, a state law that would hold drop zone owners accountable in state court if they fail to obey federal safety regulations.
"We've seen multiple people dying out of that facility in Lodi," said Eggman. "It prompted me to say, how are these regulated? And maybe they're not regulated appropriately?"
To say Lodi Parachute Center is not regulated appropriately is an understatement. The owner, William C. Dause, runs an operation seemingly regulated by no one.
The center is one of the few in the nation that do not belong to the United States Parachute Association. It therefore does not have to abide by USPA's voluntary safety standards.
Dause held a personal membership; the USPA revoked it after finding that the instructor who died in a double fatality in August, Yong Kwon, 25, of South Korea, was certified by a man who forged his credentials. Kwon's certification was therefore invalid.
Nonvoluntary safety laws are the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA's regulations govern aspects such as parachute rigging and airplane maintenance.
In practice, however, Uncle Sam been flagrantly derelict. With few exceptions, they have treated the Lodi center as if it were on an impossibly remote high-altitude plateau in Tibet.
"We are still investigating," said Ian Gregor, the public information contact for the FAA's Western-Pacific Region, said of the August double fatality.
Gregor added, "Our investigations often take some time because we are very deliberate in what we do. And we document everything meticulously."
This would not be an issue - on the contrary, a drawn-out investigation would be a marked improvement - if it led to punishment for violators.
But Uncle Sam never produces results.
In 2010, investigators accused Dause of neglecting airplane maintenance in more than 2,600 flights. They "proposed" a stiff, $664,000 civil penalty.
In 2011, they proposed a $269,000 civil penalty after allegedly finding Dause ignored safety inspections on a plane that took 41 flights.
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What followed was staggering in its toothlessness.
"We couldn't reach a settlement with Mr. Dause," Gregor said. "So per our protocols we referred it to the U.S. Attorney's Office for prosecution. The U.S. Attorney's Office opted not to pursue the cases."
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
It's amazing. Dause simply refused to pay $933,000 in civil penalties, and Uncle Sam let him get away with it. Dause presumably returned to business as normal.
In May, a Cessna plane carrying a pilot and 17 passengers from the Lodi Parachute Center suffered mechanical failure, clipped a pickup on Highway 99 and crash-landed upside down near a farmhouse.
That no one died or suffered major injuries is one of the most astronomically improbable outcomes in the history of San Joaquin County aviation.
Eggman's bill, designed to fill the appalling regulatory void in which the center operates, would give plaintiffs and district attorneys the power to take action in civil court.
"If the feds aren't concerned about keeping people safe in California, we certainly are," Eggman said.
Skydiving is a risky sport. Occasional fatalities are expected. But customers should be able to expect that the safety regulations on the books are being followed.
Reached at the center, Dause said he could not comment because he has not seen Eggman's bill.
He declined to answer numerous questions, including the exact number of people who have died at his business.
"I haven't kept track of that," Dause said.
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, N1114A: Accident occurred May 12, 2016 near Lodi Airport (1O3), San Joaquin County, California
he NTSB did not travel to the scene of this accident.
Aviation Accident Preliminary Report - National Transportation Safety Board: https://app.ntsb.gov/pdf
Flanagan Enterprises (Nevada) Inc: http://registry.faa.gov/N1114A
FAA Flight Standards District Office: FAA Oakland FSDO-27
NTSB Identification: WPR16LA107
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Thursday, May 12, 2016 in Acampo, CA
Aircraft: CESSNA 208B, registration: N1114A
Injuries: 1 Minor, 17 Uninjured.
This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
On May 12, 2016, about 1413 Pacific daylight time, a Cessna 208B, N1114A, was substantially damaged during a forced landing near Acampo, California. The airplane was registered to Flanagan Enterprises (Nevada) INC., and operated by the Parachute Center under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The commercial pilot sustained minor injuries and his 17 passengers were not injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed for the skydiving flight. The local flight originated about 1 minute prior to the accident.
The pilot reported that following takeoff from runway 26, he made a right turn and continued his climb for the skydive drop, however, while passing through 1,000 feet above ground level (agl), the engine lost power. The pilot initiated a turn toward the airport, however, realized he was unable to make it, and landed in an open field. During the landing roll, the airplane exited the field, crossed a road, impacted a truck, continued into a vineyard, and nosed over.
Examination of the airplane by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector revealed that the fuselage and left wing were structurally damaged. The wreckage was recovered to a secure location for further examination.