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Lessons from Lodi: The Perfect Storm

Written by James La Barrie

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Originally printed in issue #82 (October2016) of Blue Skies Magazine.
This article also appears at dropzone.marketing.
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If there’s one takeaway from the recent tandem fatality at Lodi, it’s this: our industry is vulnerable. How one skydiving center operates can affect the rest. We’ve got a blind spot, and few can agree how to fix it.

The Heart of the Matter

The U.S. Parachute Association is not the governing body of our sport. It is the perceived governing body. The general public believes that USPA oversees skydiving in America today. The reality is it’s the governing body for those skydiving centers who choose to become a USPA Group Member DZ.

Lodi brings this issue to the forefront. The blanket of regulations that the USPA covers doesn’t apply to Lodi or to others who choose not to be USPA Group Member DZs. This is the blind spot which adds scrutiny by the Federal Aviation Administration and forces manufacturers to play the role of regulator to protect themselves from legal fallout—a position that they’d prefer not to be in.

What’s the Fix?

There isn’t an easy fix to this problem. There’s a dirty word in the U.S. skydiving industry and that word is “regulation.” No one wants more of it. Many feel we have enough of it and few can agree on a solution because this problem needs regulation to solve it. The bottom line is that the behaviors exhibited at Lodi cannot be repeated, anywhere. But how do we ensure it doesn’t happen again? It’s the million dollar question and one we can’t afford to have the FAA answer. All can agree that it would be better for us as an industry to solve this problem before the Feds decide to, as the consequences could be massive.

Why Things Must Change

Lodi was the perfect media storm and what I would term as the kind of click-rate gold which fuels the media. The combination of Bill Dause giving interviews with little empathy, an angry family of the victim, photographs of the deceased student praying before boarding the aircraft and then the discovery that the instructor didn’t have manufacturer ratings blows the roof off, allowing everyone to peer in.

We are left with a general public asking a question that someone will be forced to answer: How Can This Happen? The scary answer is: a little too easily.

We’ve all known it, but it hasn’t been much of an issue in the past because we’ve never had media scrutiny like we have now. Through time, there has always been the existence of Fandango-type DZs that haven’t done the right thing but have skated under the radar. Those days are over. Our customers can broadcast to the world what they see, and it’s time to get our act together. Perception is a reality in the media, even if what is presented isn’t close to being correct.

What Happens Next?

DZs are already seeing an increase in scrutiny by the FAA. An expected response. No DZO should be surprised by a very thorough ramp check coming soon.

The USPA has suspended the examiners responsible for signing off on tandem instructors who haven’t done things by the book and are forcing those who have received their ratings from the offending examiners to be retested to ensure proficiency.

All of these actions are good in an attempt to restore public confidence, but does it solve the ultimate blind spot? Once the dust settles, do we resume as we were until the next Lodi-type offense reenters the public forum in a year, five years or 10 years from now when we are forced to look at this problem once again?

Three Options

I believe the U.S. skydiving industry has three choices:

  1. Standardization across the board for all operating DZs.
    In other words, all DZs are required to operate under the regulations of the USPA. To me, this would be the best step as we are in need of standardization as seen with the Australian Parachute Federation and the British Parachute Association. This has its own set of consequences, but betters the position we’re in now.
  2. The FAA takes matters into their hands.
    The death knell for the sport would be moving to operation under FAR Part 135, “Commuter and On Demand Operations,” which would be a massive blow to the industry. If incidents like Lodi continue to happen, we make this choice for the FAA a little easier, as any Tom, Dick or Harry can open a skydiving center today.
  3. Self-Policing.
    It may be too little, too late, but we may need to have more whistle-blowing against operators who choose not to follow USPA’s Basic Safety Requirements (BSRs). Hardly a good option as the politics involved (especially between market competitors) could make this even uglier. This option is essentially where we are today.

We are at a crossroads, and I’m not sure if our industry can come together and agree on the next step to solve our problems. My biggest fear is that the FAA decides to solve our issues for us. For years, industry professionals have known that Lodi is the wild west of skydiving, and Bill Dause is its sheriff. How many others are out there who operate like Lodi, and will we let it continue?

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