Tandem Skydiving to be Offered at Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon visitors will have the opportunity to jump out of an airplane with an experienced skydiver beginning in March, as tandem skydiving begins to be offered in the national park’s air space. The skydiving operation will be run by an Arizona-registered skydiving company called Paragon, which has developed similar partnerships with various “drop-zone” establishments in many other countries. It is the first and only skydiving operation at the Grand Canyon.

In tandem skydiving, a student or an otherwise inexperienced jumper is connected with a harness to an experienced skydiver for the entire diving process. The experienced jumper is responsible for piloting the canopy and landing, while simultaneously verbally guiding the inexperienced individual through all the steps of the process, from plane exit through freefall.

Paragon co-owner Aoife Murphy said the company plans to offer tandem skydiving at the Grand Canyon every day of the year, from sunrise to sunset. She noted that weather conditions in the area are usually ideal for skydiving, with little wind or precipitation. However, considering the relatively few bad weather days that are likely to occur, she estimated that skydiving will probably be available about 280 days of the year.

FAA Permission

The company received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to perform its operations in the Grand Canyon’s air space, which is controlled by authorities at Grand Canyon Airport. Paragon’s front desk, where people sign up for the jumps, is located at the airport’s main terminal. Airport authorities said they expected no effects on flights, economics, or any other airport business from the skydiving activities.

Initially, Paragon’s skydiving program will be considered a pilot program while the FAA evaluates the company’s compliance with the terms of the agreement between Paragon and the FAA, as well as any safety or economic issues that might develop. If the FAA is satisfied with Paragon’s compliance, it could grant the company the right to move beyond the pilot program to a fully approved skydiving program.

Although National Park Service (NPS) approval was not required for the skydiving program—because the skydiving flights will be at much higher altitudes and different routes than Grand Canyon air tours—Paragon ran its plans past both the NPS and Kaibab National Forest to make them aware of the situation. Because laws prevent landing inside Grand Canyon National Park, the company’s jumps will land outside the park. The higher altitudes of the Paragon flights will allow Grand Canyon visitors to get much more comprehensive views of the entire canyon area than they would normally get in a lower-altitude helicopter or other NPS tour flight.

Safety Issues

Murphy said that Paragon’s plans were cleared by both the FAA and the United States Parachute Association. She explained why the inexperienced skydivers who the company expects to participate in the program should feel comfortable:

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“We reckon that with the clientele that come here there might be people that have never thought of doing skydiving before but, hey, they’re at the Grand Canyon, it’s once in a lifetime and amazing. You’re going to be at the Grand Canyon and skydiving, and a lot of the people who have never thought about skydiving want to feel comfortable. They want to know that we’re very professional and it is safe, so that’s something that we’re definitely working on. We think it’s very important.”

Murphy’s business partner, Jason Theuma, added, “Our pilot has 4,000 hours, he’s an F-15 Air Force Pilot. We like to go above and beyond to make sure people feel comfortable.”

Despite Paragon’s confidence in its procedures and the FAA’s approval, Tusayan Mayor Craig Sanderson expressed some concerns over the skydiving program, specifically in regard to available housing for Paragon employees and possible safety conflicts. He said:

“Anything we can do to help the town grow and bring in tax revenue. and it’s definitely a new clientele… We do have a housing need here. That hasn’t changed, and even Valle doesn’t have a whole lot of room. The FAA has been working on addressing [safety]. Some operators are concerned about parachuting activity at the airport—the close proximity of parachutists and airplanes and helicopters is a concern. The FAA thinks they have it figured out. I’m not convinced. It’s my experience as an aircraft operator that distance between the parachutists and an aircraft is pretty tight, so I am concerned about having those activities occur simultaneously. I’m not convinced we can do the two together.”

Company Readiness

Murphy and Theuma responded to these concerns by noting that Paragon planned to provide housing for its employees in Valle. They said that most employees will work on a rotating seasonal basis, and many will be hired from the local population. They added that safety and professionalism will be ensured by full training and full staffing for all flights and jumps. For each flight, the company will have about 10 employees on the ground to help with communications and parachute packing, in addition to the front desk and pilot personnel. Each flight will initially have as many as seven people on board the plane—three customers, three skydiving pilots, and the airplane pilot. A second plane to be incorporated into the operation when business gets very busy will be able to take as many as nine customers. Murphy and Theuma also noted that all the equipment used in the jumps will be brand new.

Murphy and Theuma both have many years of experience in the skydiving industry in several parts of the world, including Australia, Europe, and Central America.