Embattled Berkshire Skydiving owner leaves Harriman and West Airport

Kelly's criminal history also was center of public debate

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NORTH ADAMS — Alex Kelly has walked away from his skydiving and scenic flight business at Harriman and West Airport amid an investigation into the safety of his operations there.

The embattled owner of Berkshire Skydiving fought tooth and nail to win a lease to office space at the city's airport less than a year ago. Now, without specifying a reason to city officials, Kelly leaves amid inquiries into his business practices.

It's unclear if Kelly was aware of the inquiry into the safety of his skydiving business in North Adams or if it directly led to his departure.

The investigation into Berkshire Skydiving began after its sister location, Green Mountain Skydiving, had its lease at the William H. Morse State Airport in Bennington, Vt., terminated by the state of Vermont.

Vermont allegedly discovered multiple safety violations in Kelly's Vermont operations, including a failure to have people accompanied by trained escorts on the airfield during skydiving operations.

Videos posted by the business to YouTube allegedly demonstrated the violations taking place, Vermont officials told The Bennington Banner in October. Kelly had operated in Bennington since 2017.

In their initial investigation, North Adams officials found evidence of similar infractions, according to City Administrative Officer Michael Canales, who announced Kelly's departure at Tuesday's meeting of the Airport Commission.

Canales said he did not inform Kelly of the investigation.

The company allegedly failed to follow United States Parachute Association guidelines by allowing customers and spectators on restricted areas of the airport without an escort from trained staff — which was depicted in videos posted online.

The videos have since been deleted. According to the Berkshire Skydiving website, customers could order have their jump recorded on video for $99, including a "YouTube link with your video emailed directly to you."

"We employ only the most experienced, safety conscious, experts each with thousands of skydives and a passion to share their love of our sport," Berkshire Skydiving's website states.

But before any official action was taken, Kelly abruptly notified the city in a two-sentence email last week that he was withdrawing from his lease of administrative office space at the airport.

"I'm writing to inform you that we'll be giving up the office at the North Adams Airport. I can either mail or drop off the keys at your convenience whichever you prefer," Kelly wrote in a Nov. 12 email to Canales that was obtained by The Berkshire Eagle.

Canales replied to Kelly to seek confirmation that he was was also "no longer seeking permission to operate a flight school, scenic flight, aircraft rents, and towing services at the Harriman and West Airport and in addition you no longer seek permission to conduct parachute jumps at [the airport]," and gave Kelly one week to correct that summary if it was incorrect.

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Kelly never replied, but did return the office key, leading city officials to conclude he no longer has any permissions to operate his businesses at the airport.

Kelly's withdrawal from his lease caps off a deeply tumultuous year at the airport that featured a bitter rivalry between the local aviation community and the controversial incoming businessman.

In December 2017, Kelly purchased the assets of former airport business Teamflys, a scenic flight and flight instruction company. Already the owner of a similar company in Taconic Aviation in Bennington, Kelly hoped to fill Teamflys' role at the North Adams airport and add a skydiving operation.

But Kelly quickly hit obstacles and learned that he would need to apply to the city's Airport Commission in order to lease the office space formerly occupied by Teamflys.

The application process spanned several months and multiple Airport Commission meetings.

In a last ditch effort to prevent the city-owned space from being awarded to Kelly, a group of local pilots formed in May to apply for the lease. Though the group quickly gained traction and privately raised funding, the Airport Commission opted to award it to Kelly, an existing business owner.

Kelly's criminal history also came to the center of public debate.

He raped a 16-year-old girl and then a 17-year old girl within a week in 1986, but fled to Europe before he could be prosecuted.

Kelly eventually returned to the United States and was convicted of the two rapes in 1997. He ultimately served 10 years of a 16-year sentence in prison until his release in 2007.

Amid the controversy surrounding the airport, Turboprop East owner Harry S. Patten withdrew a $200,000 pledge in June to help fund the construction of a new airport administration building, specifically citing the city's involvement with an "individual of dubious character."

Kelly was ultimately granted a lease to the airport office space in June, despite opposition from some members of the public and much of the airport community. He did not pay rent, but agreed to maintain the small office space.

"As a federally funded airport with no parachuting operation there... we were basically obligated to allow this operation because it is an aviation use and no one else does it," Canales said.

Kelly did not immediately return a request for comment via email on Tuesday. The phone number listed for Taconic Aviation, Berkshire Skydiving and Green Mountain Skydiving is no longer in service.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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