HOLLYWOOD -- The man who fell to Earth in a magenta jump suit dropped 10,000 feet in a minute, sailed 4,500 feet more under parachute and hit the grassy field running.
"Boy, that felt good," said Cary Morgan, walking across the grass, parachute in arms, toward the hangar. The Prince Frederick insurance broker would jump six more times on this perfect afternoon at St. Mary's County Airport, pumping adrenalin and burning it up while falling through blue sky. Weather permitting, he'll be back for more in a few days.
But if the county Airport Commission has its way, he and his fellow sky divers will eventually have to get their thrills elsewhere.
For months the commission has been trying to stop the Sky Diving Center of Greater Washington from dropping jumpers over the little airfield, saying the place is not safe for sky diving. In response to a March order to cease jumping, the center countered with a suit in U.S. District Court, claiming breach of contract and of Federal Aviation Administration rules.
The court has allowed jumping to continue pending the outcome of the case.
The commission "didn't seem to want to hear anything we wanted to say," said Cindy Gibson, who runs the center with her husband, Kevin. "They just wanted to tell us what to do."
A 38-year-old veteran of more than 3,000 jumps, Ms. Gibson works full-time at the center, which opened in June 1990. Mr. Gibson is director of publications for the United States 'u Parachute Association, which claims 23,500 members. Between the two of them, the Gibsons have 25 years of sky diving experience.
Airport Commission Chairman George Haliscak, a private pilot himself, is not impressed. He says Mr. Gibson is a "Mr. know-it-all" who needs lessons in airport safety.
Mr. Haliscak said he filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration after a near miss last month with a sky diving plane. As he made a landing approach in a four-seat Cessna, Mr. Haliscak said, the plane "popped up over my nose" about 150 feet ahead.
His chief complaint, though, is that sky divers too often miss their target: a grassy field 500 feet wide and nearly a half-mile long just southwest of the runway. The commission wants the jumpers dropped far from the airport.
Yes, the Gibsons say, off-target drops happen. On four occasions, jumpers have landed in a farmer's field about a half-mile from the end of the runway. That riled the farmer, who brought heat on the commission, which in turn brought heat on the center. Then there was the jumper who landed on a paved taxi way in front of a plane. The plane had plenty of time to stop more than 100 feet away from the jumper, Ms. Gibson said. She acknowledged that a jumper has drifted from the drop zone, grazed a hangar and slightly damaged the building. The jumper was not hurt, she said.
In a letter written last April to the FAA, Mr. Gibson said complaints of off-target landings are "insignificant" in terms of overall airport safety.
In February, the FAA apparently agreed. After inspecting the sky diving center on Feb. 22, the agency found no violations of FAA rules, FAA supervisor Carole DiLodovico wrote in a letter to the county. She urged the county to rescind its jumping ban "rather than risk the strong possibility" of losing FAA grants for airport improvements.
Now pending before the FAA is a county request for $158,000 to expand the 3,200-foot runway to 4,100 feet.
The agency has inspected the center several more times since February and is expected to issue a more thorough report in "a couple of weeks," said Robert Fulton, spokesman at FAA Eastern Regional headquarters at Kennedy International Airport on Long Island.
Asked what the county will do if the FAA again gives the center a passing grade, Mr. Haliscak said, "That's a good question."
In the meantime, jumping continues.
Mr. Morgan, who passed 160 jumps with his seven this week, said that if the center is shut down, he'd have to travel about 90 minutes to the next nearest jump site in Virginia.
"I think it's extremely unfair," said Mr. Morgan, 28, who started jumping a year ago. "That drop zone is run to a tee; it's about the safest one I know."
Joe Withers, a 61-year-old former Marine from southern Anne Arundel County, said, "I've had more injuries on motorcycles," than jumping. He first jumped in the military and took it up as a sport on his birthday last year. That was 130 jumps ago.
Here at St. Mary's Airport, Mr. Withers said, he has learned why birds sing.
"I know why," he said. "Because they can fly."