ASHLAND - Skydiving company AerOhio is looking to the Ashland County Airport as a potential new home.
The business currently operates out of Hilty Field near Rittman in Wayne County, but that airport will be closing within the next year, Ashland County Airport Authority Ken Van Duyne said. Ashland appeals to the company because it is close to I-71 and its airport is small, according to Van Duyne.
Along with other airport leaders, Van Duyne held a public meeting Tuesday to discuss the matter with airport stakeholders, including pilots, hangar owners and neighbors. The airport leaders also invited aviation attorney Jerry Eichenberger to speak and answer legal questions.
As a public airport accepting federal grant money, Eichenberger said, Ashland County Airport is required to keep its airport open on a non-discriminatory basis for all recognized aeronautical uses. The only way for airport leaders to prohibit an activity is to demonstrate that the activity is unsafe.
Two of the meeting attendees-- Mike Albers and Ray Stienhauser-- were particularly vocal in their disapproval of the idea of skydiving being allowed at the airport.
Albers, a pilot and hangar owner, said if the airport authority will not pursue litigation to stop the skydiving company, he will.
"I've got a group of people that are going to start an association and block this because of dangerous activity at the airport," he said.
Eichenberger responded by saying a court is unlikely to consider skydiving unsafe at a small, low-traffic airport such as Ashland County's.
"What some of you may think is unsafe and what the FAA may think is unsafe will probably be different," he said. "Unfortunately, they're the 800-pound gorilla. They make the rules."
Albers said he has invested a lot of money at the airport and feels blocking AerOhio would help protect his investment.
Stienhauser, another hangar owner and an aviation medical examiner, expressed concern that allowing a skydiving operation would stifle future the airport's future development, which he said could otherwise include corporate jets.
"What's the future of the Ashland County Airport?" he said. "Is it skydiving forever?"
All three airport authority board members expressed support for working with, rather than fighting, AerOhio. Several other meeting attendees also were open to the idea of sharing the airport, given that the airport authority established certain regulations to ensure safety.
The airport authority is working to come up with a plan that would keep the skydivers out of the airport's normal traffic pattern, Van Duyne said. The existing runway and taxiway would be a no fly zone for AerOhio, and the company would have its own parking lot and operate out of its own hangar.
Van Duyne said the board is considering offering AerOhio a portion of a piece of land that the airport recently purchased. The L-shaped piece of land includes a section just south of the airport runway and north of U.S. 42 as well as an arm to the east of the airport. The 7-acre arm may be a suitable place for the skydiving operation, Van Duyne said.
AerOhio has a single plane and typically flies caravans of 12 to 14 jumpers but has capacity for 16 jumpers at a time, up to three times an hour, Van Duyne said. Flights are weather-dependent but generally run throughout the day Saturdays and Sundays as well as weekday evenings.
AerOhio would purchase approximately 20,000 gallons of fuel from the airport authority each year and would also help pay for the upgrades to accommodate the company as well as ongoing facility maintenance costs.
Airport manager Denny Baum said he believes AerOhio is a relatively safe and well-run company. While he does have concerns about safety issues, Baum said he thinks having AerOhio at the airport would be a good thing for the county.
"Yeah, there are safety issues, but less than one tenth of one percent of the aircraft that come in here are even going to see these guys because of the amount of traffic we have," Baum said.
The airport has about five takeoffs per day, according to airport authority board member Mehrdad Tavallaee.
Baum continued outlining the reasons for his support.
"I have always wanted to see this airport go for niche businesses... The skydivers would be a niche business that can use the airport," Baum said. "I look at the funding that would help the airport out and allow us to do more things. I look at the restaurants and hotels in the county that would benefit. I'm for it."
Airport authority board members emphasized bringing AerOhio to Ashland is not a done deal. Logistical issues still need to be worked out, a safety study needs to be completed, and AerOhio would need to purchase a hangar.
All three county commissioners were present at the meeting but did not speak.