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Skydive DeLand takes flak from airport pilots

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DELAND -- Skydive DeLand, the city airport's most prominent business, is under scrutiny by local factions of pilots and aviation businesses here who say the company gets preferential treatment from the city. Skydive DeLand has operated out of the tiny airport for 20 years, slowly building the city's worldwide reputation as a skydiving mecca.

Its local lore has also grown, as a place with loud planes and reckless pilots that not only attracts thousands of skydivers from all over Europe and South America, but also lets them stay in campers, tents -- even a teepee -- on airport property.

In recent months, people have complained about the "unsightliness" of the campground, and more than 100 people signed a petition asking the city to investigate the "dangerous" flying practices of Skydive DeLand's pilots.

The complaints surfaced as city officials are trying to map out the airport's future and decide if it will remain a small, mom-and-pop operation or grow to accommodate corporate jets for the city's adjacent industrial park.

"I think right now Skydive DeLand feels a little persecuted," said City Commissioner Charles Paiva, who is also a pilot who uses the airport. "People's perceptions are that [Skydive DeLand] does what they want to do and isn't very regulated. I think there needs to be some leeway given to a very good tenant that brings a lot of jobs and a lot of money. I don't want anyone to think we're giving anyone special treatment."

Company drops plans

Last week, Skydive DeLand dropped its plans to build a second RV park near its hangars and other buildings, which house a bar, a restaurant, a shop and indoor training classrooms.

Owner Bob Hallett said the city was insisting on too many restrictions -- such as an audit by the city's code enforcement office every six months to make sure people weren't using the campground as a permanent home -- to make the RV park worthwhile. "It was not in our political or financial interest to continue the project," Hallett said. "What other RV parks have that type of restriction?"

Under Skydive DeLand's lease with the city, the business is allowed to sublease the 18 spots in its existing RV park. It receives about $150 a month from each of those tenants.

Some of those tenants have kept trailers on the property for years, but they are out-of-towners who use it as a skydiving headquarters rather than a permanent home, said Skydive DeLand manager Mike Johnston.

Johnston told city commissioners last week that he doesn't understand what is prompting the complaints.

"These complaints have surfaced recently and we're not doing anything different," he said. Johnston said his pilots are not reckless and, in fact, follow standard skydive flight procedures accepted nationally.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the agency is investigating the complaints about the pilots.

Neil Brady, a private pilot who has used the airport for 18 years, is part of the faction that has complained about Skydive DeLand. "This airport has grown tremendously in the last 18 years," he said. "There's a lot of flying activity here, and they simply cannot fly the way they did 18 years ago because it's not safe. Their airplane is no better than mine or a student pilot's or anyone else's out here."

Brady said he is also pleased the company decided not to build a second RV park because he considers the existing one an eyesore.

That RV park and campground are part of what has made it a successful draw for competitive and recreational skydivers all over the world, Johnston said.

Word of mouth across Europe and South America, say those who come here, is that Skydive DeLand is the place to train.

'Biggest skydive center'

"It's known as the biggest skydive center in the world, really," said Simon Staalnacke, 26, of Norway. He arrived in town about two weeks ago with two buddies from Sweden and Norway. On a recent morning, the three sat outside the large teepee they've been sleeping in, lounging on an old couch that they say they inherited from the last people who stayed in the teepee.

"The atmosphere is so nice here," Staalnacke said as his friend, Stefan Diahlkrist, strummed a guitar and sang Swedish songs. "Everybody is so fun and laid-back."

Staalnacke and Diahlkrist are typical of the foreign tourists Skydive DeLand attracts. From DeLand, they intend to make their way to another extreme sport -- snowboarding in Colorado.

Their teepee was one of seven tents set up in the yard next to the company's restaurant and bar, which boasts of a large number of imported beers to make their patrons feel at home.

National skydiving teams from Switzerland, Sweden and Italy are training at the facility now, but are renting homes in DeLand rather than camping.

"Florida is the mecca of skydiving in the world, and this has always been the No. 1 place in Florida," said Kurt Gaebel, who moved to DeLand from Germany to make a career as a skydiving coach.

Along with new residents and tourists, several skydiving equipment manufacturers have set up shop in DeLand near the airport. The city estimates Skydive DeLand's economic impact on the city to be near $30 million, said Assistant City Manager Michael Pleus.

Hallett, the company's owner, said he isn't surprised some airport users are getting restless from the growth, and says he also wants to keep the airport small.

"I really don't blame them," he said. "They really want the airport to go back to the days when it was just them and their buddies. We don't like to see the change either."

~Orlando Sentinel



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