Eyes on the Sky: Civilians training Army parachuters in land dispute

Originally published in the Northwest Florida Daily News Sunday edition  on June 15th, 2012

PAXTON – Muscular arm outstretched toward his farm, Jim Nipper tells of the week in April when dozens of Navy EOD jumpers floated to the ground just behind his house.

Clear of trees and air traffic, the jumpers had ample room to land safely on Jim and Melanie Nipper’s property in north Walton County about 10 miles from the Alabama line.

The EOD techs had found themselves in immediate need of recertification and without the time to coordinate jumps on Eglin Air Force Base’s reservation.

Jim and Melanie Nipper heard of their quandary. They knew that between all the weapons testing at Eglin  and the organizing needed to schedule a jump, it could be six months before they would get a chance.

So the Nippers volunteered their land. Within 30 days, EOD techs were landing planes at their landing strip approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Officially, it’s Melanie’s Airport. But the couple wonders if they can keep  it that way.

 

From the ground up

It was not the first time the Nippers had volunteered. Jim is a retired Army sergeant first class and a 20-year member of the Golden Knights parachute team. Melanie is an Army reservist and does civilian contract piloting every two months in Afghanistan. She’ll be leaving later this week.

The Nippers are no strangers to separation. Jim retired in 1996, and in 2005 they moved to their property near Paxton. Melanie soon departed on an 18-month tour in Afghanistan.

Jim spent the time repurposing the property as and air strip, land- ing zone for jumpers, a farm and a home.

The Nippers are businesslike and efficient. Jim speaks of the logistics of hosting jumpers from the EOD school  and Melanie describes tours in Afghanistan the way someone may speak of a long car ride.

“I mean, it’s like getting into a car as a teenager,” Jim says of skydiving. “At first, you know, there’s that thrill of freedom. But I did it every day for so many years. It becomes routine.”

 

“It’s a good life doing what you love”

Deep in the massive barn the Nippers built, farm equipment and an assortment of tools lie scattered about. A restored 1956 Cessna 182 sits beside a pile of what appears to be scrap metal, but which they say is the remains of another plane they plan to make flight-worthy soon.

Both Nippers are certified pilots, mechanics and skydivers. Jim has an IA certification — Inspection Authorization — which means that he can make the final decision on whether or not an aircraft is ready to fly.

Standing between the propeller blades of their plane “Alphy,” Jim says they looked for two years for a property to drop skydivers.

“We never thought of running an actual business here, though,” he said. “We just didn’t think we had

the demographics.’

Then one day in 2008, Jim met a skydiver while in town. The man happened to be connected to a net- work of skydivers, and spread the Nippers’ contact information. Immediately, their phone was ringing off the hook.

Thus was born Zerotime Aviation. The Nippers had proper certification, a plane custom-built with four seats for skydivers and a landing zone so optimal that even the military sought to use it.

The Nippers farmed during the week. On the weekends they launched, landed and recovered skydivers. They even began training pilots. As Melanie says, their business has the potential to give the region a significant economic boost.

“We can better train people for higher paying jobs in desolate areas,” she says. “One skydiving pilot we trained really had no experience before he came to us. We had a farmhand who started working on aircraft. It’s an opportunity to develop new skills.”

“It’s a good life doing what you love,” Jim says.

Then one day, a neighbor complained.

 

The Nippers vs. Walton County

The way Walton County agricultural codes and ordinances work, in reality, is that anyone can do pretty much anything until somebody complains.

“We’re a complaint-based department,” the Nippers say a code enforcement of- ficer told them. “If we never had a complaint, we’d have no problem.”

The county allows agricultural areas to host businesses if they include outdoor recreation activities, which assumes will bring in tourism. The Nippers have been told not only that skydiving is not an outdoor recreational activity, but that the military can no longer use the farm.

“Some of America’s finest are out here training, and we’ve got a code enforcement officer in the barn trying to stop them,” Jim says.

He says he asked the officer if it was a noise problem. The officer said that that was part of it.

“Well, a plane just took off while we were talking,” Nip- per said.

“No, it couldn’t have,” the officer replied.

“Look.”

A plane full of EOD jump- ers was rising in the sky.

It can’t be the sound, the Nippers say. The nearest neighbors are more than a mile away.

“We don’t want to slam the county,” Jim says. “All they have to say is, ‘just go about your business.’ ”

They hope to have a hearing on the matter within the next two to three weeks, and that the powers that be will see what they see: Skydiving is a recreational activity that has the potential to boost the local economy.

Melanie mentions Gov. Rick Scott, Rep. Jeff Miller, and the tourism website visitflorida.org as all having declared the importance of alternative tourism in the wake of the BP oil spill in 2010.

“We’d like to be able to bid for military contracts,” says Melanie, explaining that contracting for land for training purposes is common elsewhere. “It would bring skilled labor to the area. We’re talking everything – mechanics, riggers, pilots, instructors.”

For now, they can still host skydivers, but they can’t accept money. In the meantime, they have their farm.

“This stuff is like gold,” Jim Nipper says, running a handful of Bahia hay grass seed through his fingers.

“We both feed and defend America,” he adds with a grin.

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