So, You Want to Open a DZ?

So, you love skydiving and spend most of your spare time at your home drop zone. Perhaps you even make decent money working at the DZ, and life is good. Or you have an uninspiring job that pays the bills but keeps you away from your favorite pastime. For one reason or another, it may occur to you: Why not leverage all the knowledge, experience and connections and turn them into a cool lifestyle others only dream about? Of course, opening a DZ is not simple, but with the right attitude, perseverance and a little help, it can be a rewarding experience.

Location, Location, Location
The criteria for a quality DZ fall into two categories: “must haves” and “nice to haves.” It seems obvious that the number-one metric is an airport with an acceptable landing area. However, on closer inspection, an airport that seems to have a great landing area can have complications that are not immediately noticeable, such as busy airways that are over top, unfavorable prevailing winds or hazards including nearby power lines, towers, buildings, bodies of water, highways and trees. If your plans include an accelerated freefall program, the landing area has to be safe for jumpers of all abilities.

“I’ve organized boogies in tropical locations including Nicaragua and Belize and wanted a similar feel for my DZ. I was interested in a Southern California location and scoured up and down the coast,” recalls Rich Grimm, who recently opened Tsunami Skydivers in Oceanside, California. “Los Angeles is a major metropolitan area with a lot of potential customers. But skydiving does not integrate well with a lot of existing airports. There are several airports in greater L.A., but none have good landing areas. In addition, I wanted an airport with an ocean view and the option to land on the beach. The City of Oceanside had tried to close its airport for years. I had followed the progress, and when the FAA ruled the airport had to stay, I made the decision to be based there, as it has a nice landing area and is only two miles from the beach.”

For Greg Upper, who opened Triangle Skydiving Center in Louisburg, North Carolina, the decision to open a DZ was not one he wanted to make; it was pushed upon him. His home DZ was Carolina Sky Sports, which Paul and Nancy Fayard ran for many years. When the airport was purchased and essentially closed to skydiving, the Fayards decided to retire. Therefore, Upper had to make a choice: drive two and a half to three hours one way to the closest DZ or open another one in his neighborhood. Having run businesses all his life, including a pizza parlor and a private investigator service, it was a no-brainer. He talked about the idea with his jump buddies, who wanted to be partners, and a dozen of them jumped in their cars and looked at their two obvious choices. Raleigh East is a private airport outside of Knightdale, North Carolina, with an asphalt runway in fair condition and a marginal landing area but great facilities for drinking, eating and partying. The other, Triangle North Executive Airport, is a big airport with a great landing area but limited food and party facilities. The group liked Raleigh East the best. Upper just stood there with his mouth open, shaking his head. He commented, ”You guys want to party or skydive?” The members of the group soon went their separate ways. To Upper’s knowledge, the others never did get a DZ off the ground, but he now has a successful business at Triangle North.

License and Registration, Please
Upper says, “Without a clue of where to start, I went to the Franklin County Economic Development Commission, and they pointed me to the airport manager. Luck had it he was new to the job. A young energetic guy named Rob Sutherland. After a lengthy conversation about my skydiving plans, he welcomed me with open arms, and his first memo on the job was a request to open a DZ and provide another service at an already growing airport. I was put on the agenda for the next board meeting. Nancy Fayard was a big help in providing all the information regarding the last few years of their operation and what to expect going forward. Based on her numbers, I prepared a 28-page business plan and PowerPoint presentation that did not talk about the virtues of skydiving as much as why it is good for the community and the airport. They were lukewarm at first, and my next stop was at the county offices. Always worried about liability, they were not swayed, and it looked like this could be the end of my quest.

“I contacted USPA, and they referred me to Randy Ottinger, director of government relations, who listened to my plans and came to the rescue. The original resistance by the airport was countered by open dialogue and education about skydiving as a normal aeronautical activity. He contacted the county attorney and provided the Federal Airport Compliance Manual, the [USPA Skydiver’s Information Manual and Basic Safety Requirements], a ton of other information and kept the issue focused. Lo and behold, it worked. We updated the standard waiver to include their specific concerns about who can sue who for what until the county attorney said it was iron clad and gave it a thumbs up.”

In the Golden State, the story was quite a bit different. Grimm’s meetings with the city and airport management officials revealed that they had a preconceived notion about skydiving. “It was obvious from the start that for them, it’s always easier to just say no. It was a lengthy process to convince them skydiving is not something evil like crack or hookers but just another aeronautical activity,” recalls Grimm. “After meeting multiple times, presenting an extensive business plan, handing out FAA and USPA material and pointing out that a previous drop zone was there in the late ’90s, it was clear I still had an uphill battle. In order to make me go away, they insisted on a commercial entertainment conditional-use permit, requiring a public hearing, environmental-impact study, planning commission approval, etc., which would have taken years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Instead of throwing up his hands and walking away, Grimm contacted USPA, and again, Ottinger stepped up to the plate. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. After hundreds of hours on the phone and in meetings, Grimm was forced to hire a land-use attorney and an aviation attorney. Grimm was willing to accept some major concessions to improve safety, including allowing only C- and D-license holders to skydive due to the placement of the landing area. But after a two-year process, Grimm’s land-use attorney was still butting heads with the city. Then one sunny morning, the Oceanside city attorney called for a closed-door session with city council, and within three days Grimm had a business license and access to the airport. It took another few months to pull together all the necessary skydiving equipment, but the doors to a brand-new DZ finally opened.

Show Me the Money
About opening his North Carolina DZ, Upper remarked, “Just taking the business license and airport access into account, I could have opened up the DZ within three months. But I had to take it slow because I needed a plane, parachuting equipment and office help to set up shop, etc. So, start to finish it took about seven months. One tenant had all the space I needed but wanted $75,000 to move out. After looking around, I learned it would cost about twice that to start from scratch, so we negotiated a deal, and he moved out. The city voted for a three-year permit, but I had a five-year business loan. With a little more negotiating, they agreed to five years.”

Triangle Skydiving Center looks professional and draws on its target audience of 25- to 45-year-old working professionals. They get the word out through Facebook, Groupon promotions, same-day specials and sales of merchandise. With good office help, Upper is able to concentrate on instructing and student operations and is still able to personally make about 700 jumps a year. Also, the city benefitted economically from the deal from items such as fuel sales (it has sold the skydiving center $200,000 worth of fuel) and rent.

Grimm sums up his more complicated experience by saying, “Once the city officials finally gave their yes vote, I still had to negotiate with the airport management company. At first they wanted a landing fee of $5 per fun jumper and $20 per tandem. My aviation lawyer was able to make that go away. The dealings with the city and airport in the end cost a fortune, and I could have bought a Twin Otter with the legal fees. Nonetheless, I should have hired an attorney sooner, which would have shaved time and money from the two-and-a-half-year process. Since then, the city has been real positive. The mayor and city council have stopped by the DZ and taken an active interest. The chamber of commerce advertises Oceanside as an action-adventure town and wants to help develop us into a destination skydiving center. Tsunami Skydivers tries to be a real asset to the community and show goodwill. We’ve jumped into El Camino High School to crown its homecoming queen. Skydiving became part of the Oceanside Harbor Days, and we’ve been part of the Salvation Army Christmas drive. In the end, it was worth the effort. We’re still in the start-up phase, and I have an excellent staff. Although daily operations keep me busy, I’m able to do over 100 jumps a year.” Grimm still speaks with Ottinger on occasion to help guide him through the many daily issues a drop zone owner encounters.

A Tale of Two Cities
It’s certainly nice to choose an airport that is not too resistant to the idea of opening up a DZ and community leaders who are interested in bringing new adventure opportunities and economic activity to the area. Regardless, prospective DZ owners should contact USPA early in the process, since it has the experience and connections to offer invaluable assistance. USPA Group Membership is also an asset. Airport managers are ordinarily pleased to learn that the prospective skydiving business will affiliate with USPA in its Group Member program, because those DZs require all non-student skydivers to hold USPA memberships (which include third-party liability insurance) and agree to enhanced safety and training requirements.

The experiences of Grimm and Upper represent the two extremes of possible directions this process can take, and most others will typically fall somewhere in between. In the North Carolina case, the airport and city officials were on board in a matter of three short months. In California, which has more than 200 regulatory agencies, it took almost three years and lots of hours on the phone with lawyers and regulatory officials until Grimm finally convinced the city it was a good thing. Every potential DZ is unique and will have its own set of local, state and federal problems and issues. There’s no magazine article that could possibly cover all the requirements and procedures for opening a DZ in every place. But these two examples convey the flavor of the process. In any event, the end result is that each DZ owner gives skydivers one more place to jump out of a plane.

About the Author
FEATURE20133-10Hal Streckert, C-35945, is from Rancho Santa Fe, California, and is a frequent contributor to Parachutist. As a weekend fun jumper, he has logged nearly 500 jumps in the U.S. and five other countries: Australia, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand and Uruguay.

 

 

 

 

 

Helpful Hints from USPA

  • Before proposing a DZ at an airport, learn how many aircraft are based there and the number of daily flight operations it has. The Google Earth ruler tool can verify that the size of a possible parachute landing area would meet current USPA DZ and possible future Federal Aviation Administration requirements. Also, learn how pilots and air traffic control use the airspace overlying the airport.
  • Understand the FAA regulations that apply to general aviation flight and, especially, to parachute operations. Those regulations, applicable FAA advisory circulars and airport access guidance are available on the USPA website.
  • Submit a comprehensive written business plan to the airport manager. Describe how often your proposed business will operate, including the type of aircraft and its projected fuel needs, the number of staff you plan to employ and the size of the hangar or office space you’d like to lease from the airport.
  • Be prepared to discuss the participant waiver of liability to be used by your business and the fact that the airport sponsor (owner) can be indemnified. Know what insurance is available to your proposed business and what insurance is not available.
  • Demonstrate to the airport sponsor that your business will economically benefit the airport and the surrounding community. USPA recommends that all correspondence, dialogue and negotiations with an airport sponsor be documented in writing.
  • The USPA Airport Access Defense Fund serves to preserve and defend the rights of skydivers to use airports. In select circumstances and issues of national significance, the fund will provide assistance in litigation or lobbying. Neither Rich Grimm nor Greg Upper applied for assistance from the USPA AAD Fund.

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Ryan Slotto
Tue, 09/13/2016 - 01:03

I'm looking into starting a DZ on a patch of land in SE Minnesota about halfway between Minnesotas 3 largest cities. I've already got a pilot who owns 2 Cessna 182 and is interested in removing the seats and modifying the right side door to open gull-wing style for easy exits. I've got a tandem instructor and all of us are on the same page as far as our goal. Open a non-profit DZ and run our own business. I will be contacting the USPA shortly but I figured I should get some advice on size.

Question: How many acres is acceptable to open a DZ? The land I've got is 130 acres, Agricultural land at the moment but the soil is too sandy for great crops so we are looking at repurposing it. It is pretty flat naturally but I would have someone come in and really make it clean and flat.

There are some trees on the edges of the 2 fields that can easily be removed to add space and there is a river running along the south side of the 130 acres.

Is that too small of a patch of dirt to drop people near an obstacle such as a small river or does that kill the idea?

The river is probaby .5 mile away from where we would set up. I like this location because there is also a campground across the river with tube and kayak rental so it already has some attration to the area.

I would need a loan for student rigs and a pole shed for a hangar and meeting area but I'm not too worried about that at this point.

Christie Reji
Sat, 05/20/2017 - 01:39

Hello Hal and others,

I'm looking into setting up a skydiving business in India. Would you or others be interested in helping me set up and run the business.

Cheers
Christie

Ramesh Khade
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 00:08

Hi Christie Reji,
I am also interested in setting up a DZ in India.

Kindly contact me at rameshkhade@mediprobe.co.in

Ramesh

Post new comment

Please provide your full name. We will not post responses from anonymous sources.
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.