Two men looking to open a skydiving business at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton agreed to withdraw their application for a long-term lease following a heated exchange Tuesday afternoon with members of a review board regarding details of their proposal.
Partners Robert Jayne and Andrew Palermo said they will instead resubmit an application that seeks a shorter lease while making their case for the business, called Skydive the Hamptons, in front of the Gabreski Airport Conservation and Assessment Panel. But panel members, who must sign off on the agreement before it is eventually forwarded to the Suffolk County Legislature for final approval, had many questions about the proposed business, and concerns about safety, noise and potential environmental impacts.
Both sides agreed that it would be best for Mr. Jayne and Mr. Palermo to withdraw their request for a 15-year lease and reapply in the coming weeks for a lease that will last for one or two years. Anthony Ceglio, the manager of the Suffolk County-owned airport, said the partners should apply for the shorter lease that would allow the business to operate on the airport’s least busiest days—Tuesdays and Wednesdays—as part of a trial run.
Mr. Jayne and Mr. Palermo, who said they hope to eventually offer skydiving runs more days each week, agreed that a test run of their business is the best route to take to ensure that it won’t interfere with the airport’s other operations, namely the activities of New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing, and smaller, privately owned aircraft that take off and land at the airport.
“It’s a trial,” Mr. Palermo said, “to make sure everybody feels comfortable.”
But the business partners and members of the assessment panel disagreed at times, sometimes interrupting each other and raising their voices, on whether or not a skydiving operation would interfere with other airport traffic. They also argued over potential noise and environmental issues.
Mr. Palermo, Mr. Jayne and their lawyer, Kenneth Auerbach, an attorney with Cartier, Bernstein, Auerbach & Dazzo, P.C. in Patchogue, insisted that their business would not interfere with airport traffic.
They pointed out that the space they want to lease—4 acres in the southeast corner of the airport—offers more than enough room on which skydivers can land after exiting their planes at altitudes ranging from 3,000 and 5,000 feet. Mr. Palermo explained that there is a “cone of convergence” that skydivers follow when making their way toward the ground, adding that they will not drift to other areas of the airport.
“We can land a parachute and hit that water bottle on the table,” said Mr. Jayne, pointing to a bottle in the airport’s meeting room.
But Air National Guard representative Major Scott Stenger, citing his experience with training pararescue jumpers at the 106th Rescue Wing, said that strong winds and other factors can push skydivers out of the landing zone.
“I’ll been dumbfounded if people don’t end up in the trees,” he said.
The 106th Rescue Wing sent a letter to Mr. Ceglio in May stating that it opposes the application.
Mr. Jayne insisted that skydivers would not interfere with other aircraft. But Vince Moscatello, an air traffic controller, pointed out that the skydivers will be passing through active airspace, and their presence could inconvenience recreation pilots and ANG officials.
Dennis McCue, the manager of the air traffic control tower at Gabreski, agreed with his colleague’s assessment of the application. “We look at it as an unsafe operation,” he said.
The airport’s air traffic controllers also outlined their opposition in a letter that was sent to Mr. Ceglio in June.
Panel member Beecher Halsey pointed out that the 4 acres that the partners want to lease are located in the pine barrens, and should not be developed. He said that fact “alone invalidates the application.”
Mr. Auerbach explained that his clients have no plans to clear trees, or build a hangar or any other structure on the land. He also disagreed with Mr. Halsey’s opinion that the property would be developed.
“By definition, you are incorrect,” Mr. Auerbach said.
Potential noise was also an issue. Mr. Halsey asked if neighbors of the airport would be able to hear the skydivers if they started screaming while descending. Both Mr. Palermo and Mr. Jayne said neighbors would not hear the skydivers. Mr. Jayne also stated that the company’s single-engine planes would be traveling at high altitudes, so engine noise would not be an issue.
Last month, Mr. Ceglio said Mr. Jayne and Mr. Palermo could secure a temporary permit that would allow them to open a skydiving business at Gabreski for a few months, as part of a trial run. But on Tuesday, Mr. Ceglio said they cannot receive that permit until they re-apply to the county and the Federal Aviation Administration conducts a safety assessment. Also, the airport’s air traffic control tower, the terminal radar approach control, and the New York and Boston air route traffic control centers all have to sign on the temporary permit.