A Quarter Century of Service—USPA Says Farewell to Executive Director Ed Scott
Features | Dec 01, 2020
A Quarter Century of Service—USPA Says Farewell to Executive Director Ed Scott

Nancy Koreen

Twenty-five years is no small amount of anyone’s lifetime. A quarter of a century. Roughly one-third of the lifespan of an average American male. And the number of years Ed Scott has dedicated to the U.S. Parachute Association, the sport of skydiving and skydivers across the United States and around the world.

On September 30, 1996, his first day on the job as USPA’s Director of Government Relations, Ed Scott received his first assignment from then-Executive Director Chris Needels: Get the Internal Revenue Service off the backs of drop zone owners.

With that daunting task, so began Scott’s nearly 25-year career at USPA.

Needels had spent two months recruiting Scott to join the USPA staff, during which time the two developed an easy rapport. As the new USPA Director of Government Relations, Scott began to represent skydiving and drop zone interests before Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies. He spent the next 11 years in this role fighting for the rights of skydivers and DZs. When Needels retired in December 2007, the USPA Board of Directors selected Scott to fill the big shoes Needels left vacant. Since then, Scott has served as USPA’s Executive Director, overseeing the organization through challenging times for the last 13 years.

At the end of this year, Scott will retire from his 25-year tenure at USPA, but the successes he has achieved for the sport and the association will last long into the future.

Aviation Roots

Scott wasn’t the first skydiver to have the title of USPA Director of Government Relations, but he was the first to bring both government relations and lobbying experience to the job. The path leading Scott to USPA was neither straight nor easy.

Scott began skydiving in college in 1975 with the Tennessee Tech University skydiving club, which used military-surplus equipment. He later transferred to Middle Tennessee State University for an aviation program, and he started a skydiving club there. After graduating in the midst of a recession in 1980 with a B.S. in Aviation Administration, Scott found himself living in a hangar at Chambersburg Skydiving Center in Pennsylvania. There he jumpmastered static-line students and packed their rigs, feeling grateful for the support he received from DZOs George and Betty Kabeller (who later moved to Florida and became Betty Hill).

In 1982, Scott began six years serving the nearly 400,000 members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, working in the Government & Technical Affairs division, where he liaised with various FAA officials on airport, airspace and air-traffic-control issues. While there, he earned his commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating, learned how to fly jumpers from the renowned skydiver and DZO Jimmy Godwin and began spending many weekends flying a Cessna 182 jump plane. He then spent eight years with the National Association of State Aviation Officials—the last four as executive director—where he focused on lobbying Congress on airport planning and funding issues.

Then in 1996, Needels approached Scott with a new and enticing opportunity, gradually luring him to work for the sport he loved.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The First of Many Wins

With his belongings barely unpacked in his brand-new workspace at 1440 Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia, Scott spent his first day on the job at USPA Headquarters preparing to face one of the most formidable organizations in the U.S. government—the IRS.

In a surprise ruling in 1993, the IRS had declared that DZOs should be collecting a 10% tax on jump tickets and remitting those tax revenues to the federal government. Ten percent was the federal tax on every airline ticket sold, which passengers paid to the airlines when they purchased their tickets and the airlines then remitted to the federal government. Now, the IRS expected DZOs to do the same. Jump prices would go from $20 to $22 per jump, and DZOs would have a new quarterly filing burden.

USPA immediately began pushing back, budgeting $20,000 annually for the next two years to hire a lobbying firm to either change the mind of the IRS or change the law. In a reprieve during which the IRS acknowledged that jump operators were paying the federal tax on aviation fuels, the IRS agreed to hold off on enforcing the ticket tax ruling but warned that collection could start at any time. Lobbying Congress for relief became Scott’s first task, and he wasted no time getting to work.

Having spent the past few years lobbying in Washington, D.C., on aviation matters, Scott knew that a major new tax bill was in the works. Scott recalls, “I took the Metro to Capitol Hill one day and wandered the halls of the Senate office building, looking for the Senate staffer tax expert who wrote the Senate’s tax bills. I found him down a dark corridor in a cramped, windowless office. I introduced myself and asked for seven minutes of his time. I explained the IRS ruling, how jump operators were already paying the fuel tax and the irony of a 10% ‘transportation tax’ on skydivers who weren’t going anywhere when they took off except right back onto the airport.”

When Congress passed the bill in August 1997, the front page of the Washington Post boldly pronounced, “Small Interests Targeted for Big Tax Breaks,” and the article described the relevant sentence for skydiving: “No tax shall be imposed by this section … on any air transportation exclusively for the purpose of skydiving.’’ President Clinton signed the Taxpayer Relief Act a week later, and the IRS subsequently acknowledged that jump operators were no longer subject to the federal ticket tax.

This marked Scott’s first big win on behalf of USPA skydivers—the first of many that would follow over the next two-plus decades.

"It was a joy to be on the headquarters team under Ed's leadership. Skydiving, and the USPA members, will benefit from his accomplishments for many years.—Randy Ottinger, USPA Director of Government Relations"

Continuing Cooperation

As Director of Government Relations and then as Executive Director, Scott led many efforts to secure the rights of our sport, taking on the FAA and other government agencies.

Alongside tackling the IRS, Scott also spent his first year on the job dealing with FAA issues. In 1996, the FAA introduced the Part 16 formal complaint process—its new mechanism for resolving complaints about airports discriminating among types of aviation activity, including skydiving. Scott led USPA in jumping right in when the FAA unveiled the process, assisting two members whose DZs were forced to close by their airports. One case was a clear win for skydiving. In the other, the FAA ruled that the airport could not exclude skydiving activity, although it could refuse that particular member for a history of questionable actions. Since then, USPA has gone on to assist in eight Part 16 complaints, winning six of them and getting two dismissed.

As airport-access battles ramped up throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, one problem became clear. Often, the FAA would task a local Flight Standards District Office inspector with assessing whether an airport could safety accommodate skydiving. The problem: Inspector assessments were entirely subjective, which was understandable since the FAA gave inspectors no guidance on how to determine whether skydiving could safely take place on an airport. So in 2006, Scott and USPA stepped in and worked with FAA Headquarters to create a new airport safety audit process, which listed the factors for inspectors to review at an airport. More importantly, it also outlined ways to mitigate perceived problems and lower the overall risk to an acceptable level. So instead of simply rejecting skydiving activity at an airport, inspectors could provide specific steps for hopeful DZs to take to be able to safely set up shop at an airport.

Another major effort for Scott and USPA was working with the FAA to revise Part 105 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Part 105 is the section of the FARs that addresses skydiving operations, and it had last been revised in 1962, long before the advent of tandem skydiving. So in 1997, Scott and USPA petitioned the FAA to revise Part 105 to include tandem skydiving, as well as make a number of other changes to modernize the regulation.

The FAA agreed, beginning a four-year process that included issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in April 1999 and resulting in a final rule that took effect in July 2001. USPA and Scott were intimately involved every step of the way, guarding against the FAA overstepping its authority and increasing regulation of skydiving. Not surprisingly, the airlines used the opportunity to push the FAA to increase restrictions on where skydiving could occur, but the new rule included no changes to air-traffic-control notification requirements for skydiving operations. The new rule also finally removed tandem skydiving from exempted status, where it had been for some 18 years, making it officially recognized by the FAA.

The Day the World Changed

The morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned with a clear, bright-blue sky over USPA’s Alexandria, Virginia, townhouse headquarters. It wasn’t long before black smoke smudged the sky and an acrid smell blew south from the burning Pentagon six miles away. Before day’s end, all U.S. aviation—from airlines to agriculture planes and skydiving aircraft—was grounded.

So began a nine-day odyssey of uncertainty about when, and even whether, the government might allow skydiving flights to resume. On September 12, Scott sent the first of more than two dozen emails to DZOs across the U.S., apprising them of USPA staff conversations with FAA officials on behalf of skydiving. Executive Director Needels, formerly on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council, still had contacts in the security world, and he used them. Among his many FAA contacts, Scott had a key one. When he was with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Scott had worked for Steve Brown, who was now the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Air Traffic, one of the top decisionmakers for reopening U.S. airspace. Scott and Brown spoke multiple times that week about the secure nature of skydiving operations.

Early on September 13, the FAA issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) saying that general aviation flights could resume at 11 a.m. Eastern but then cancelled it just four minutes before the release time, saying “[General aviation] not to enter ATC system until further notice.” Airline flights did resume that day.

By Friday, September 14, the FAA announced that general aviation instrument flight rules (IFR) would be allowed but continued to prohibit visual flight rules (VFR) operations until further notice. Skydiving would still be grounded for the weekend.

It wasn’t until Wednesday evening, September 19, that the FAA announced a phased reopening for general aviation, with skydiving flights among the first operations to resume on Thursday, September 20, while others, like flight schools, stayed grounded for days to come. Skydiving lost nine days and one weekend, a trivial sacrifice compared to all we lost in September 2001.

Passing the Torch

In December 2007, Scott took over the reins of the association as USPA’s new Executive Director. One of his first actions in his new role was hiring Randy Ottinger as the new USPA Director of Government Relations. Together, they formed a 13-year partnership to take on skydiving’s regulatory challenges and preserve skydiving’s rightful place in the national airspace system. Little did they know that skydiving’s greatest challenge yet was just months away.

In 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board, the government organization that investigates aircraft accidents, released a 64-page Special Investigation Report on the Safety of Parachute Jump Operations. It painted quite an ugly picture of jump-plane accidents.

The report reached back to 1980 to compile a 28-year history of 32 fatal jump-plane accidents that killed 173 skydivers and jump pilots, as well as another 16 non-participating individuals. The NTSB used the report as the basis to make eight safety recommendations to the FAA and four recommendations to USPA.

Among the recommendations to the FAA was one that would have required jump-plane operators to meet engine manufacturer overhaul limits. If enacted, the requirement would cost a Cessna 182 operator thousands of dollars a year in added maintenance; an operator of a twin turbine jump plane would pay tens of thousands of additional dollars per year. USPA pointed out that the NTSB report unfairly reached back to a period when skydiving used less-reliable radial-engine airplanes, when skydivers rarely wore seat belts and when jump pilots received lax training. Nonetheless, USPA realized that the sport could do more to improve the safety of jump-plane operations.

The FAA regulations addressing aircraft inspection and maintenance are complex, difficult to understand and challenging to comply with. Even FAA inspectors at the time were often unclear on the regs. So, the FAA and USPA worked together to take steps to inform and educate jump-aircraft operators about inspection and maintenance requirements. Separately and on its own, USPA revised its Group Member DZ affiliate program and took steps to have every Group Member DZ verify that its jump aircraft comply with inspection regulations. USPA also gathered and posted jump-pilot training manuals. These steps persuaded the FAA that new engine overhaul regulations weren’t necessary, though the NTSB will undoubtedly make a future push.

USPA’s actions earned two “acceptable actions” and two coveted “exceeded recommendations” from the NTSB on its report’s four recommendations to USPA. USPA actions also allowed the FAA to push back on the NTSB’s more burdensome recommendations that would have imposed stricter regulations on jump-plane operations. USPA’s efforts have resulted in a stunning 10-year improvement in the fatal jump-plane accident rate.

Continued Successes

Many of USPA’s battles on behalf of skydiving happened on the state rather than the national level. However, these fights were no less important, as they set precedents that applied nationwide.

In one notable case, in late 2010, USPA learned that the State of Washington was taxing the skydiving operations at two USPA Group Members DZs in the state. Upon investigation, USPA discovered that the state’s taxation methodology violated the federal Anti-Head Tax Act (AHTA). USPA quickly identified a January 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Transportation letter that exempted the gross receipts of hot-air balloon rides from state taxes and tried to apply this letter’s assertions to skydiving operations. The Washington Department of Revenue refused to accept the analogy that skydiving, like balloon rides, was an aeronautical activity that qualified as “air commerce,” per the AHTA.

So, Scott asked Director of Government Relations Ottinger to solicit a similar letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would directly address the question on the taxation of skydiving. Ottinger worked with the DOT for more than two years as drafts of the letter moved through the federal government bureaucracy. On December 30, 2013, USPA received the desired DOT letter: Question on the Taxation of Skydiving.

In April 2014, Scott and Ottinger traveled to Olympia, Washington, to meet with staffers at the state Department of Revenue. When Scott and Ottinger presented the DOT letter, the Department of Revenue conceded that the AHTA preemption applied to skydiving, which relieved the two Group Member DZs of the erroneous tax burden. Since then, the DOT letter has effectively stopped various states and political subdivisions from inappropriately taxing several different skydiving operations. Once again, USPA rescued skydiving operations from unnecessary and unjust expenses that would have placed added burdens on DZs and, ultimately, skydivers.

Another Big Battle—And Win

Meanwhile, skydiving’s next huge battle was already underway. In early 2011, a highly placed FAA official noted that USPA was fighting a number of airports that were trying to deny access to skydiving. He thought the solution to the discord was to create an FAA standard for the size and shape of a parachute landing area that could be applied to every airport. The FAA even created a new acronym—PLA—as it commissioned engineering and safety studies to justify the initiative. It became the biggest government-initiated threat to skydiving in a generation.

The dangers of the idea became apparent when the FAA presented its completed proposal to USPA for comment. The proposal applied USPA’s landing area sizing, but the FAA insisted that no PLA could overlap a runway, taxiway or ramp area—ever. Furthermore, PLA edges had to be set distances from the edges of runways, taxiways and ramps. It quickly became clear that many airport configurations that already had DZs wouldn’t be able to accommodate the new PLA standard. These DZs would be forced to move to another airport.

But at that point, USPA’s vehement arguments weren’t working; the FAA continued to advance the effort. How could USPA turn the tide? USPA hired a consultant, but not just any consultant. Robert Matthews, Ph.D., had served 39 years with the U.S. Department of Transportation, with his last 16 years as the FAA’s Senior Safety Analyst. USPA tasked Matthews to review the FAA’s safety study that justified its PLA proposal. His 15-page report concluded, “… the FAA must establish that a significant problem has at least a meaningful likelihood of developing and that the proposed action has a meaningful chance of mitigating the problem. FAA has badly failed to do so in this case. The [proposal] would restrict access without providing any documented benefit … [and] … should be withdrawn.”

The FAA finally caved and withdrew the proposal. This landmark victory for the sport took lots of USPA staff time and resources, and some well-placed consultants, to ultimately have the FAA withdraw the whole initiative—but not before a two-year fight. Now, skydiving continues safely without FAA-defined parachute landing areas.

A New Threat Emerges: ATC Privatization

In early 2017, word came that the new Trump administration would push to privatize air traffic control, meaning that a private for-profit corporation would take over ATC, which had always been a government function under the FAA. Proponents cited efficiency and cost savings. Opponents pointed out that the FAA’s air-traffic-control system was already efficient and highly touted as the largest, busiest and safest ATC system in the world. And would a corporation maintain the FAA’s policy of first-come, first-served? Probably not. This possibility posed a serious threat to skydiving, because if the new ATC lowered the priority of skydiving flights in the air-traffic system, jump planes could be forced to stay at lower altitudes, circle indefinitely or be grounded altogether for specific time periods.

As for cost savings, the devil was in the details, and Satan soon emerged in the form of potential user fees to access the ATC system. General aviation’s supporters gave early notice that they would fight the concept of user fees. The proposal that emerged exempted general aviation from a user fee but drew the dividing line for what qualified as general aviation between piston-engine aircraft and turbine aircraft. Pistons would be exempted, but turbines would pay $100 per takeoff to use the ATC system. General aviation groups still fought back, since they had no guarantee that ATC wouldn’t eventually impose a user fee on piston operators nor increase it for all. It took all of 10 seconds for USPA to do the math for turbine jump planes. The operator of any turbine jump plane that flew 24 loads a day would pay $2,400 per day to operate; faster turbine jump planes that flew 36 loads a day would pay $3,600 per day. Jump tickets would increase by 20 percent.

In early March 2017, as USPA’s executive director, Scott reached out to the leaders of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aviation Association and suggested the formation of a coalition of general aviation groups to battle the concept. Soon, USPA’s letterhead joined that of 15 other groups in letters to Congress opposing privatization. Eventually the GA coalition grew to more than 150 organizations. USPA also initiated a grassroots campaign for skydivers, DZOs and jump-plane operators to contact members of Congress in opposition. By October, the concept went down in defeat. General aviation and skydivers were safe again, for now.

USPA’s Many Other Functions

In addition to Scott’s profound impact on skydiving in the government relations arena, his tenure as executive director included many significant improvements in other areas of the sport.

One stark measure of skydiving safety has always been the annual fatality count. Scott has always prefaced a discussion of fatality numbers by remembering that the loss of each of those individuals profoundly affected their friends and family. Because the count can fluctuate wildly from year to year, USPA looks at 10-year averages. In the decade when Scott started jumping (1969-1978), the sport averaged 42.5 fatalities per year. (Scott vividly recalls the years 1979 and 1981 when 55 and 56 skydivers died.)

Fortunately, and to the credit of many DZOs, Safety and Training Advisors, instructors, coaches, the USPA Board and staff and others, fatalities have dropped substantially, even in the face of more jumps by more skydivers in the ensuing years. The 10-year fatality average fell to 34.1 from 1979-1988, then to 32.3 from 1989-1998, then to 25.8 from 1999-2008 and finally to 20.7 from 2009-2018 even as jump numbers increased exponentially. Clearly, USPA’s safety mission and initiatives have had a positive effect.

Jump-plane accidents are another important measure of the sport’s safety. “I came to work for USPA in late 1996,” said Scott. “The first fatal jump-plane crash I was involved in occurred in May 1997. I’ll never forget it.” Six, including the DZO, died when a new jump pilot stalled the Cessna 206 on jump run and the airplane spun in with only one jumper making it out. Few would have guessed that 1997 would end with 11 killed in three jump-plane crashes. And the worst was yet to come. In 1999, 26 died in five jump-plane accidents.

Like skydiving fatalities, fatal jump-plane accidents fluctuate substantially each year, so it’s helpful to view the history of jump-plane accidents in 10-year increments. Recent years have seen great improvement. We lost 89 people in the decade 1989-1998, 50 from 1999-2008 and 19 in the decade 2009-2018. (Since then, there has been one fatal crash—a King Air crashed on takeoff in Hawaii in June 2019, killing 11.) USPA’s efforts in two areas have been a driving force behind this improvement—getting DZOs to understand and comply with FAA-required aircraft inspections and maintenance and providing training materials for each season’s batch of new jump pilots.

USPA Membership and Beyond

When Scott took the reins as executive director in December 2007, he also adopted the financial challenges that had plagued USPA—indeed all of aviation—since the attacks of September 2001 had significantly reduced flying and skydiving. In August 2001, USPA had hit a then-record-high membership of 34,583; after the 9/11 attacks, membership totals began plummeting, month after month, year after year, until hitting a new low of 30,488 in October 2006. By December 2007, membership had slowly climbed again to 31,264. Still, membership growth was not guaranteed; by December 2008 membership had climbed only to 31,534.

Declining membership and skydiver activity brought dire financial challenges. In fact, in the eight years from 2001 through 2008, USPA ended only two years with a positive balance sheet, losing more than $2.3 million in those eight years. The association ended 2008 with an operational loss (not counting investments) of $306,000. The value of the association’s net worth dropped, too, to $1.3 million. As the association’s new executive director, Scott faced the daunting task of returning USPA to solid financial ground.

While USPA membership continued to increase, climbing to 32,346 in 2009, it became clear that the association needed to raise membership dues. It had been six years since the last increase, and inflation had done its damage. In April 2009, USPA raised membership renewal dues from $49 to $55, with similar percentage increases in license and rating fees. Membership continued to rise each year, starting in 2010 with 33,050 and ending in 2019 with 41,271.

With the dues increase and a rising membership, USPA finally ended 2009 with a financial gain—a mere $1,840. From there, it was generally smooth sailing, with USPA ending every year but one from 2010 through 2019 with a financial gain (with the help of another dues increase in 2018). USPA’s net worth increased from just over $2 million at the end of 2010 to $5.1 million by mid-2020.

As the new executive director, Scott also revived USPA’s sport-promotion efforts. He created a full-time Director of Sport Promotion position with the goal of getting the media to publish good-news skydiving stories to help improve the sport’s image among the general public. And the good news was plentiful. At the conclusion of each USPA Nationals and Collegiates competition, as well as many national and state skydiving records, dozens of medal-winning and record-setting skydivers’ hometown news outlets were eager to feature stories, photos and videos of the local skydiving star. Soon, the news was full of feel-good stories about skydiving, helping the news-consuming public think more favorably of skydiving and perhaps even try it for themselves. Now, following an in-depth social media audit and strategic plan, USPA is engaging its members and the public with more targeted social media content.

During his tenure as executive director, Scott also oversaw the creation of USPA’s Sisters in Skydiving program in 2011. Over the past decade, SIS has become one of USPA’s most popular and successful programs, bringing together women in the sport and encouraging them to continue jumping.

A Quarter Century

Twenty-five years is no small amount of anyone’s lifetime. And when a dedicated individual devotes that portion of a lifetime to a passionate pursuit, countless successes result. A list of accomplishments on the pages of this magazine can’t do justice to the commitment Ed Scott has shown to the sport and association he loves over the past quarter century. Skydivers past, present and future across the U.S. and abroad have and will continue to enjoy the fruits of his labor for many years to come. USPA will miss his leadership, insight, humor, knowledge, quirkiness and unrelenting dedication. Both the association and skydivers everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude, and we wish him nothing but blue skies ahead.

About the Author

Nancy Koreen, D-18240, worked with Ed Scott at USPA for many years, including stints as Parachutist’s managing editor and as director of sport promotion.

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