Gearing Up - September 2016
A cloudless blue sky enveloped the entire Eastern Seaboard that early Tuesday morning 15 years ago. Shortly after 9 a.m., it would be scarred by dark, acrid smoke rising from New York City; Arlington, Virginia; and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. A northerly wind blew smoke from the burning Pentagon over the townhouse offices of USPA in nearby Alexandria. The streets and highways were clogged with federal workers sent home for the day, so USPA staff members stayed in place and tried to work but more often were pulled to the TV news or searched the web for updates.
Soon, the government grounded all aircraft in the U.S., with no one saying when or how the order would be relaxed or lifted. Jump planes and airliners alike were idle. By Thursday, the airlines were allowed to fly since the country had to get back to work. But there was no word about general aviation, including skydiving flights. By Friday evening, the Federal Aviation Administration phased in general aviation flights on IFR (instrument flight rules) flight plans. Skydiving flights and other VFR (visual flight rules) activity remained grounded for the weekend.
On Monday, September 17, USPA ramped up efforts to ensure that DZs and skydivers weren’t grounded for a second weekend. Then-USPA Executive Director Chris Needels still had high-level contacts from his days on the National Security Council. I was USPA Director of Government Relations and had contacts throughout the FAA, including with Associate Administrator for Air Traffic Steve Brown, with whom I had worked at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Brown was given a USPA-generated fact sheet to use in his daily meetings with security officials, describing how jump operations must always give ATC (air traffic control) notification and how jump planes must always be in radio contact with ATC and are limited (by regulation and by fuel loads) to local flight. The information helped the agency understand that jump flights were not uncontrolled general aviation flights (their fear after the attacks), and skydiving was allowed back up on September 20—nine days after the attacks. Other uncontrolled general aviation segments, like flight schools, still awaited release.
Skydiving wasn’t off the hook, though. There were seven DZs within Class B terminal airspace surrounding the nation’s 32 busiest airports, and the FAA had quickly changed the rules to prevent VFR flights, including skydiving flights, within the outer boundaries of Class B. It would be another two weeks before those DZs reopened. The FAA also disallowed demonstration jumps over any crowd for several weeks. The government also enacted new security laws and regulations that put airspace restrictions over major stadiums and the two Disney theme parks in the U.S. Eventually, demo jumps were allowed into those venues. But like all aviation activity, demand for skydiving plummeted. Uncharacteristically, USPA membership dropped that September and continued declining for the next five years.
Fifteen years later, that day’s memories have not dimmed. In the weeks that followed the attacks, skydivers and DZ owners learned the importance of having a well-connected association. USPA staff learned how vital professional relationships can be. And all Americans learned how to unite to respond, recover and rebound while never forgetting.
The full story of USPA’s response to aviation’s grounding after the September 11 attacks, the 9/11 Aftermath Report, is available under the Miscellaneous heading at downloads.uspa.org.