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Possible skydiving drop zone in Middletown park area leads to packed council meeting

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Middletown-based non-profit Combat Outpost Robinson partnered with Start Skydiving to offer Ohio military veterans free tandem skydives above Middletown Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A proposal to use part of Middletown’s Smith Park as a new landing zone for skydivers at the Middletown Regional Airport drew a packed city council chambers on Tuesday with opposition on multiple sides.

More than a dozen people, mostly against the proposed use of Smith Park as a landing zone for Start Skydiving, attended the meeting. Representatives from youth sports associations, Light Up Middletown, the Ohio Challenge and Start Skydiving/Start Aviation voiced opposition.

Some private pilots who have been based at Middletown Regional Airport for years, however, said the current landing area is a distraction for pilots and needs to be moved.

ExploreMORE: Middletown airport plans stalled until new skydiving drop zone is settled

The current landing zone is along the airport’s 6,100-foot runway and taxiways. At times, jumpers cross the runway and taxi-way to return to their hangar. City officials said this is against FAA regulations.

City officials said work on the airport’s master plan is being slowed because the drop zone issue has not been resolved.

The organizations said they were upset that they had not been consulted about the proposed option until they read it in the Journal-News. They did not want the skydiving drop zone to interfere with their activities at the busy park, and noted they have contributed financially for park improvements over the years.

The proposal was made by Matt Eisenbraun, acting economic development director, during City Council’s retreat on Feb. 1. The city is also considering three other proposals for a move of the landing area.

Bill Becker, former Middletown police chief, city manager, councilman and Light Up Middletown representative, said the city needs to find another solution.

“Smith Park is the jewel of Middletown and we should be trying to improve it,” he said. “Council needs to make it clear to staff that Smith Park is off limits” as a drop zone.

ExploreMORE: Changes coming to Middletown airport as city takes over operations

Ernest Streifthau of Germantown has been flying out of the airport for more than 50 years and is a former Armco Steel pilot. He said the skydivers should be operating south of the runway. He agreed with student pilot Todd Bailey of Cincinnati that having an active drop zone is “extremely distracting” with skydivers landing to both sides of the runway.

Another pilot, Tom Anderson of Mason, noted progress the city has made with the airport improvements and said moving the drop zone to the Smith Park area would help with the proper development of the airport and highly recommended the move.

Ted Tracy, a pilot from West Chester, told council, “the trick is to make everyone happy in a complex environment.”

While most of the pilots who spoke at the council meeting were not city residents, they are hangar tenants who pay rent at the airport to house their aircraft.

John Hart II, a founder and co-owner of Start Skydiving, defended his company, spoke strongly in opposition to the proposed move.

“What you are looking at doing is disrupting 12 years of safety that we’ve had in Middletown,” Hart II said.

He said with the help of an FAA parachute operations expert, the drop zones were identified to keep a separation of skydiving traffic. Hart referenced a Monday accident in Florida that claimed the life of Christian Stevens, a team member of the Middletown-based Team Fastrax. He said it involved student, experienced and professional skydivers all converging on the same landing area.

ExploreMORE: Skydiver for Middletown team killed in jump accident remembered as friend, father

“We’re on the safest place on this airport,” Hart said. “I’ve got a two-hour presentation. I think there needs to be a town hall where we bring in the United States Parachute Association, AOPA (Association of Private Pilots) and the FAA and you get the facts.”

ExploreMORE: Company withdraws Ohio Challenge sponsorship due to airport dispute

Hart said his business is committed to Middletown and cited the positive economic impact his business brings annually to the city. He said Start Skydiving isn’t trying to take Smith Park away from residents but is being blamed for that in the community.

“We’re an aviation activity and we need to be treated fairly,” he said. “We’re here to work with the community.”

Airport Manager Dan Dickten said that “the current drop zones are unsafe and could be moved to a safer location away from the center of the airport and away from the runway, taxi-way and other object free zones.

ExploreMORE: Middletown planning two safety improvements for its airport runways

“The FAA said if there is a better place for drop zones, that’s where they should go.

Acting City Manager Susan Cohen asked Hart to acknowledge she reached out to him to seek written feedback on the proposals. Hart acknowledged the city’s request for feedback but said he wanted to present that feedback in person.

As part of their comments, Council members Ami Vitori, Talbott Moon and Monica Nenni said they are not interested in taking Smith Park away from the community.

Vitori said none of the options will remove the park, adding “there’s no way we’d take this away” and that the park was the city’s greatest asset.