FROM INSIDE HER HOUSE on Chatham’s Lovers Lake, Margaret Tompsett heard the propeller plane sputter toward the airport. Living near the busy municipal airfield for seven years, the psychiatrist had grown accustomed to the sound of aircraft taking off and landing. But this day in May 2012 was different. This plane sounded too close.
Her husband, Michael, a British-born physicist, was outside on their back porch when he heard an enormous splash. “I turned around,” he says, “and there was the plane in the water.”
The Cessna had come to a stop no more than 200 feet behind the Tompsetts’ home. The tail section and right wing jutted from the water. Michael ran toward it, ready to dive in and help anyone on board. As he approached the plane, he saw two people surface and swim to shore. The two pilots, who worked for a company named Skydive Cape Cod, were uninjured.
More than three years later, the Cessna is long gone from Lovers Lake, where surrounding property values range from around $600,000 to $1.6 million. But not everything has returned to normal. The incident plunged Skydive Cape Cod, Chatham Municipal Airport, and the people who live nearby into a nasty feud with no end in sight. For all involved, it is consuming countless hours and spoiling the high season in the idyllic Cape town.
“There’s people that can live next to a barking dog all day long and not hear it, and then there’s people that are just about gonna go mad,” says David Bixby, a retired research analyst for the New York State Department of Transportation. “In this town, with the sky-diving, there’s people that it just doesn’t bother. But there’s a lot of people that are going crazy with this stuff.”
Bixby, who has summered in Chatham for 14 years, belongs to a group of residents that wants sky-diving gone from the town’s airport, citing concerns about noise, safety, and property values. That plane in Lovers Lake focused the group’s energies, pushing safety issues to the fore.
Jimmy Mendonca, the owner of Skydive Cape Cod, vigorously objects to accusations that he runs an unsafe operation. Nevertheless, in October 2013, the Chatham Board of Selectmen decided not to renew his company’s contract with the airport. Ever since, the town’s leaders and airport commission have tried to sort out the mess of federal, state, and local laws that apply.
“This is a person running a business on property owned by the town,” says Sean Summers, who led the Board of Selectmen until earlier this year, “and I believe everybody in a community has a right to weigh in on how a town’s property should be used.”
But Mendonca, whose company has been grounded for two summers, isn’t convinced such a review should take this long. Instead, he sees a familiar Cape story: well-to-do summer visitors and year-round residents versus everyone else just trying to make a living.
“A few residents complain about the aircraft noise, and they’re rich and they’re retired and they have plenty of time and connections,” Mendonca says. “They built their house near the airport, knew the airport was there. And somehow they don’t want to hear a pin drop in the summertime.”
With the feud spiraling out of control, both sides have dug in and lawyered up. This is not how a lazy summer is supposed to unfold on Cape Cod.
RACKING UP 13,000 SKY-DIVING JUMPS around the Americas over 30 years, Jimmy Mendonca has seen it all. And few locations dazzle in free fall the way Cape Cod does. “No place compares,” he says. “Maybe only Rio.”
Mendonca, who is 45, grew up in Rio de Janeiro and learned to sky-dive where its lush mountains meet the sea. He ran a sky-diving operation in Brazil and decided he would open another after moving to the United States. He knew he wanted a place with spectacular scenery that attracted plenty of visitors. Cape Cod seemed perfect.
In May 2007, Mendonca launched Skydive Cape Cod from the small Cape Cod Airfield in Marstons Mills. When President Obama vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009, leading the Federal Aviation Administration to issue temporary flight restrictions, Mendonca moved his operation 30 miles away to Chatham for 10 days. He liked it there and added a full-time schedule in 2011. The complaints began to pile up soon after.
Unlike regular air traffic that either takes off or lands, sky-diving planes — typically loud, propeller-driven Cessnas — loop around airports doing both. In Chatham, the planes would climb to 10,000 feet, drop their human cargo, and return to the runway for another pickup. During the summer, this buzz of activity continued from 8 a.m. until dusk. “It’s like Chinese water torture,” says Bixby. “It’s drip, drip, drip, drip, until you go out of your mind.”
Making the noise problem worse, residents say, sky divers screamed and swore as they fell to earth. Joe Tischler, a Newton-based investment manager, says he could hear them clearly from his vacation house 800 yards east of the airport.
Like his neighbors, Tischler worried about a sky diver crashing onto his property. Sky divers with Mendonca’s company touched down outside the airport’s designated landing zone three times in 2012 — twice in nearby residential neighborhoods and once on a golf course more than 2 miles away from the airport. Tischler figured it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt, or worse.
Along with other concerned neighbors, Tischler started researching sky-diving regulations and relaying concerns to town leaders. Then he organized a group called Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport Inc. to give sky-diving opponents a unified voice. The group hired an aviation consultant and a lawyer. Recently, they mailed out thousands of postcards making their case to other Chatham residents.
As Tischler and other airport neighbors searched for information about Skydive Cape Cod, they discovered that the Marstons Mills airport ended its relationship with Mendonca in September 2011. The reason, according to Cape Cod Airfield manager Chris Siderwicz: failure to follow standard safety procedures.
On Skydive Cape Cod’s first day of operation in Marstons Mills in 2007, one of its planes crashed into a home, injuring the pilot. The probable cause for the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded, was “the pilot’s improper preflight planning and preparation resulting in an in-flight loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion.”
Siderwicz told Mendonca he needed to operate Skydive Cape Cod more responsibly, but he also wanted to give the sky-diving outfit another chance. Over time, he came to regret that decision. Siderwicz says Mendonca appeared unconcerned about the noise his planes created and unwilling to listen to the issues Siderwicz brought to his attention.
When flying out of Marstons Mills, Mendonca frequently argued with Siderwicz about a rule that allowed only one sky-diving plane in the air at a time. Mendonca had enough bookings to fill two, which would have been good for his growing company’s bottom line. But Siderwicz wouldn’t budge. Then, Siderwicz recalls, came the deal breaker. “I witnessed an unsafe operation of the airplane with jumpers on a foggy day,” he says. “That was basically the nail in the coffin for me. I was done.”
For his part, Mendonca claims he left Marstons Mills in 2011 on his own terms. Chatham simply provided a better location for his customers, even if Boston-area clients had to drive a bit farther to get to him.
Mendonca insists he was running a safe business in Chatham, saying that unpredictable conditions in the air can sometimes force sky divers to land outside the designated drop zone. A couple of years ago, an FAA administrator said at a public hearing that he believed Skydive Cape Cod was safe, and four surprise inspections before October 2013 revealed nothing unusual. In fact, the FAA is now pushing for skydiving to be restored in Chatham.
Mendonca also believes his company is being unfairly singled out. Again and again, he brings up a somber subject: Last September, Skydive Barnstable had two fatalities during a tandem jump. And yet that company is still allowed to operate out of Marstons Mills.
The FAA and Massachusetts State Police prepared reports on the accidental deaths. According to those documents, the 48-year-old Skydive Barnstable instructor did not realize his parachute equipment had snagged on a seatbelt in the plane, causing the main canopy to deploy incorrectly during the jump. The mistake was compounded when the instructor deployed the reserve chute before cutting away the main one. He and the 29-year-old client both died of their injuries.
Siderwicz says that the fatalities were an unfortunate accident for an operator with a previously perfect track record. He let Skydive Barnstable resume operation after gathering all the facts and consulting with aviation authorities.
After Mendonca left Marstons Mills, Siderwicz passed along some advice to Tim Howard, the Chatham airport manager: keep Skydive Cape Cod under “tight control” or there would be problems.
Today, Siderwicz regularly receives calls from Chatham residents asking how he managed to get rid of Skydive Cape Cod. Given what he’s heard about the situation, Siderwicz thinks Mendonca and the airfield management are to blame for the fight. “It’s not poor Skydive Cape Cod being picked on by the neighbors,” Siderwicz says. “It’s an airport being mismanaged, and it’s an operator that was allowed to run wild. It’s a situation that is controllable, and it got out of control.” He says that small airports in small towns can’t act as if they’re Logan; they have to build relationships with the neighbors. “If you don’t have that connection with your community, you’re going to end up where they’re at.”
Howard recognizes that small airports need to cooperate with their communities, but he also has to contend with certain regulations that don’t apply to Siderwicz in Marstons Mills. The FAA grant money Chatham receives comes with conditions that give small aviation companies such as Skydive Cape Cod the right to operate at the airport. “You have to make the facility open to all,” Howard says. “You can’t just willy-nilly restrict things for no reason.” He believes the real problem is that the two sides — Skydive Cape Cod and its opponents — are so firmly entrenched that they won’t compromise. Not even a little.
For his part, Mendonca believes he was a good neighbor. To address concerns about noise, he says he started flying at reduced power and followed flight paths that took him farther over the ocean, away from houses.
Ask Mendonca about the Lovers Lake debacle that intensified the feud and he bristles. His opponents cite an FAA report that describes “fuel depletion” as the primary factor in the incident, but he denies the assertion made by residents that Skydive Cape Cod was negligent — his attorney once threatened lawsuits against residents who publicly claimed as much. Instead, Mendonca and his lawyer maintain that “carb ice,” a form of engine trouble, forced the pilot to do exactly what he was trained to: ditch on the beach or in water.
Ask residents living near the airport if Skydive Cape Cod follows proper safety precautions and they offer photographs they say show jumpers parachuting through clouds in violation of federal regulations. They also note that the FAA deemed sky-diving unsafe at a Laconia, New Hampshire, airport that has characteristics similar to Chatham Municipal, including no control tower. The FAA decision in Laconia cited concerns about the potential for “sky-diver/aircraft conflict,” as well as the added distraction of pilots looking out for sky divers when taking off and landing. In Chatham, residents claim they have seen close calls between sky divers and planes using the airport.
Ask Howard if he thinks Skydive Cape Cod is a safe operator, and the airport manager says, “I have no proof that says otherwise.”
LOOKING DOWN AT her scarred legs, paralegal Tricia Cahalane of Wellesley says she has all the evidence she needs to believe that Skydive Cape Cod is unsafe.
To celebrate her 32d birthday in 2012, Cahalane and a group of friends decided to go sky-diving. After researching companies online, they booked jumps with Skydive Cape Cod. The company’s website and Yelp reviews looked good, especially the emphasis on safety.
On a windy July 25, Cahalane and her friends climbed into the sky in a Cessna and, pair by pair, made tandem jumps with their instructors. As the ground approached, Cahalane lifted her legs in preparation for landing as she had been told to do. Then, she claims, her Skydive Cape Cod instructor executed a hook turn, a potentially dangerous maneuver banned in many drop zones. Cahalane came out of the turn, hit the ground hard, and heard bones snap. Lying on dirt near the Chatham runway in excruciating pain, Cahalane says she was “pretty sure I’d never walk again.”
After she was airlifted to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, her doctors told her she had fractured both her femurs. Cahalane says her trauma surgeon, surprised she had no internal injuries, took to calling her “my miracle sky diver.”
Cahalane is pursuing a lawsuit against Skydive Cape Cod and her instructor. “We’re suing them because the hook turn is so risky at such a low altitude that [what happened to me] is almost more likely to happen than not,” she says. “I’d say it was gross negligence. The worst negligence. And I think wind was definitely a factor, too. It’s my understanding that the other sky-diving instructors had reservations about the conditions that day.”
Jimmy Mendonca says the ongoing litigation bars him from discussing the incident but that the bad landing was Cahalane’s fault for not properly following directions. A summary of the incident prepared by the FAA says she “may have inadvertinently [sic] extended her legs which resulted in her breaking her legs.”
Mendonca sees himself as the victim in the feud — a naturalized US citizen who came here with hopes of starting his own small business, only to see them ruined by NIMBY retirees with a grudge. He recalls one Chatham resident at a Town Meeting telling him, “Go back where you came from.”
“I’m very proud of being an American citizen by choice, and I’m not going to give up on my dream,” Mendonca says. “This is the country of dreamers and people who dream, and they work hard and they accomplish their goals. And I’m one of them.”
Mendonca has lodged a complaint with the FAA and is considering taking legal action against Chatham for revenue lost during the two summers he’s been barred from operating (he’s now working as chief instructor at a sky-diving outfit in Texas). Even if he can resume operations in Chatham next year, he estimates it will take four years to rebuild his business volume. “Look at Google,” he says. “We’re not even the first page. And if you’re not the first page of Google, you do not exist.” Even worse, searches for Skydive Cape Cod often bring up the feud and claims that the company is unsafe.
Tim Howard also feels the heat at Chatham Municipal Airport. In August 2013, he wrote an e-mail addressed to airport patrons and employees that someone then posted in area storefronts. “CQX is under attack!” his message began, using Chatham’s airport code. He wrote that a small number of residents opposed to sky-diving were harassing the airport, the town’s Airport Commission chairman, and town manager with complaints. He concluded the e-mail: “Please help us defend our freedom to fly!! Remember, it’s your ability to fly your aircraft &/or your job that could be affected!”
After a recent independent safety audit determined that sky diving in Chatham would be safe, the legal and bureaucratic maneuverings ratcheted up.
There is talk of another sky-diving company coming to town and finding a way to fly by agreeing to stricter rules about hours of operation, number of flights, and flight paths. But Howard wonders if any business owner could make a living under such tight restrictions. So does the FAA. A proposal for limiting sky-diving to five flights a day was rejected by the agency in April, which said it would be an impossible restriction on operators.
Where does this leave Chatham and Skydive Cape Cod? If all involved agree on anything, it’s that they still find themselves in one big, complicated mess. As summer turns to fall, both sides expect more Town Meetings and legal proceedings. Neighbors are pushing for the FAA to do a safety study of the airport, while the FAA is pushing to get sky-diving going again. And a noisy commercial biplane recently started flights from the airfield, getting everyone more worked up.
But fatigue seems to be setting in, too. Everyone wants to get back to their lives and livelihoods. “If sky-diving never came back, it wouldn’t break my heart,” Howard says. “We don’t want to deal with these complaints anymore. We’re tired of being the target of all this negative press in town. We just want to be the airport and do what we do and not be this red sore on the town’s collective rump.”
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Shira Springer is a Boston Globe staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter@shiraspringer.