Friday, May 26, 2017

More unknowns in the drop zone

By Michael Fitzgerald
Record columnist

Yet another skydiver plummeted to his death at Lodi Parachute Center on Wednesday.

Matthew Ciancio, 42, of June Lake came down in a nearby vineyard. By some accounts that makes at least 18 deaths at Lodi Parachute Center.

Strangely, no agency keeps count. The drop zone’s owner, William C. Dause, says he doesn’t either. “I haven’t kept track of that,” he said in August.

All you business owners who truly do not know how many people have died at your business, raise your hands. I thought so.

Three people died at the drop zone last year. One was a solo diver. Two were doing a tandem jump. The tandem instructor was found to have invalid certification.

There also was a hair-raising plane accident out there. In May, a Cessna operated by the center packed with 17 passengers lost power at 1,000 feet and ended up upside-down in a field.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, “During the landing roll, the airplane exited the field, crossed a road, impacted a truck, continued into a vineyard, and nosed over.”

Miraculously, no one died.

Dause runs one of the few drop zones in the U.S. that does not belong to the United States Parachute Association or abide by its safety guidelines.

Dause held a personal membership; the USPA revoked it.

All that said, that doesn’t mean Dause is at fault for this latest death. Ciancio died doing a solo jump in a wingsuit. Most solo jumpers are experienced. They are certified to pack their own chutes.

“Based on what little we know, it was an experienced jumper who perhaps didn’t enact his proper emergency procedures,” said Ed Scott, executive director of the USPA. “That can happen at any jump zone in the USA on any day.”

Nor can it be said Dause is to blame for the tandem death incident. Or the plane crash. Both still are under investigation, the former by the Federal Aviation Administration, the latter by the NTSB.

I can’t even say the accident rate at Lodi Parachute Center is above the industry standard. Since Dause won’t disclose either the number of jumps or accidents out there, it’s impossible to calculate the accident rate.

But the center is open most days, so the number is high, meaning the accident rate may not be above the standard for an inherently risky sport.

Crazy as it sounds.

Back in 2010 and 2011, the FAA “proposed” fining Dause with upside of $1 million. The feds alleged Dause neglected airplane maintenance and safety inspections.

Dause simply refused to pay. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern Division, let it drop. They declined to comment. So what can be said is that it’s very unclear if federal regulators are giving Lodi Parachute Center sufficient oversight.

That’s OK with some skydivers. They say it’s nobody’s business if they risk their life.

It’s not OK with Assemblymember Susan Eggman, D-Stockton. Eggman’s bill, AB295, would give local law enforcement power to enforce federal safety laws. A D.A., for instance, could bring an injunction against a rogue operator.

The bill cleared the Assembly. It’s in the Senate.

I was flabbergasted to learn that the USPA opposes the bill.

“Only in the respect that it simply requires that operators in California comply with federal law,” Scott said. “They are already required to comply with federal law. We see it as a redundant effort that doesn’t address or fix an issue.”

But it’s not clear Lodi Parachute Center is required to comply with federal safety regulations or whether the regulators’ systemic shortcomings allow Dause to cut corners.

Shouldn’t we know?

Original article can be found here:

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