Sharing the Air With Skydivers

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As the weather warms, skydiving operations are cranking up. Here's how to co-exist peacefully with parachute jumpers and avoid encounters of the too-close-for-comfort kind.

ATIS

They all know you'd rather not jump out of a perfectly good airplane. But here's how to avoid an encounter between skydivers and your perfectly good airplane.

If you fly much, you've certainly heard this radio call: "One minute to skydivers away over Zephyrhills ... use caution, 13,500 feet and below ... one minute to skydivers away." The very same call is made thousands of times a day across the U.S. at hundreds of commercial drop zones (DZs).

It's not just a courtesy, either. Pilots of skydiving aircraft are required by FAR 105 to warn nearby pilots and to advise ATC of pending skydiving operations. Of all the FARs, this aspect of 105 may be the one that's most strictly adhered to, for both skydiving operations and the skydivers themselves have much at stake.

Regulations aside, pilots of all ilks have to co-exist with other users of the airspace and skydivers are just another group, albeit a small one. The last thing you want is a skydiver coming through your windshield and believe me, as a skydiver, I'm just as motivated to not become a hood ornament on your Cessna.

Find the Zone

Fortunately, it's easy to avoid DZs without going much out of your way. And with GPS widely available, the proximity of an airport that may be the site of a commercial skydiving operation is readily at hand. Looking out for skydiving operations has never been more critical than it is this week, as thousands of pilots fly into Lakeland, Fla., for the annual Sun 'n Fun fly-in and airshow. Concurrent with Sun 'n Fun is a large skydiving event at nearby Zephyrhills, Fla., an airport which lies directly on the route into Lakeland from the north. (Given Florida's geography, everything lies north of Florida.)

Avoiding any conflict with skydivers is relatively easy. First, where are the drop zones? Many -- but not all -- are marked on sectional charts with a small parachute symbol. If the DZ's activities aren't frequent enough to merit the symbol, the Airport/Facility Directory will mention skydiving in its general description of the airport, and each DZ is required to initiate a standing NOTAM describing the jump operation. Further, the United States Parachute Association Web site has a comprehensive listing of skydiving operations by state, although not all are listed. (There are 15 in Florida, for example.)

If the DZ isn't marked on the chart and you haven't reviewed the A/FD -- and really, how many of us cart around that bit of esoterica? -- the best way to become aware of a pending skydiving drop is to monitor both the ATC and the appropriate Unicom or CTAF frequency. Jump pilots make one- or two-minute calls on both frequencies. Since CTAFs are often a squall of unreadable noise, the better choice here is the ATC frequency.

Although skydiving aircraft don't need a specific "clearance" to release skydivers, they are required to be in constant radio contact with the ATC facility that owns the airspace over the DZ. FAR 105 requires a five-minute notification but in practice, there may be two or three notifications, one at five minutes, one at two and the last at one minute. The jump pilot is also required to notify ATC when the last jumper has exited.

When safety dictates, ATC can direct the jump pilot to delay the drop and if this is done, it's usually because of conflicting traffic. Jump pilots are no different than any of the rest of us; they have to follow an ATC directive. Release delays aren't an everyday event but they do happen. You could cause one by flying through a DZ's airspace during jump operations.

If you know or suspect that jump operations are in progress, it's easy to avoid the potential hazard. Jumpers always -- well, almost always -- exit from generally overhead the airport to a point no more than a mile or two on the upwind side of the airport reference point or center. A line drawn from the center of the parachute landing area along the windline terminates at the "spot" where jumpers exit. When the winds aloft -- jumpers call them "uppers" -- are strong, this distance may be a bit more, but that's rare.

So the place to be when navigating around a DZ airport is two or three miles on the downwind side. If circumstances place you on the upwind side, fly no closer than three miles and you'll have plenty of separation margin from the skydivers. The place not to be is within a mile on the upwind side, at any altitude above 1000 feet.

How High?

Speaking of altitudes, which are best and worst? In the U.S., DZs using turbine aircraft typically release skydivers from 13,500 feet MSL or lower, depending on the type of jumps being made and weather conditions. When large formation skydives are being made, as they are at Zephyrhills the week of April 13-18, 2004 -- release altitudes are as high as 17,500 feet. With a freefall time of up to 90 seconds, skydivers typically deploy parachutes between 2000 and 3000 feet. Some -- tandem parachutes, for example -- deploy higher. Canopy relative workers -- the guys who fly formations with their canopies -- operate as high as 8000 feet.

Obviously, no area between the release altitude and 1000 feet directly beneath the release point or "spot" is safe to fly through. The absolute worst place to be is motoring directly overhead the airport at 2500 feet from the upwind side to the downwind side. That's precisely where skydivers will be separating from their freefall formation and deploying canopies. Having a windshield suddenly fill with deploying parachutes is no one's idea of a good time.

When approaching to land at an airport that you know has skydiving operations in progress, plan to descend to pattern altitude well out from the airport. Again, three or four miles is a good place to be down to 1000 feet AGL or whatever the pattern altitude is. Skydivers generally don't know about airport traffic patterns, unless they're also pilots, as many are. Even if they did, however, a parachute is too slow and has such limited glide ratio that skydivers can only fly a very tight pattern within a mile of the point they'll have to land. Usually, the pattern is much smaller than that.

Most DZs advise skydivers not to fly the length of a runway right over it or to cross runways below a minimum specified altitude. Although that still happens occasionally, skydivers usually avoid the low-altitude runway swoop. They don't want to get bagged by an airplane any more than you want to play chicken with a parachute.

Fly your normal traffic pattern at the proper altitude but don't make the pattern too tight, otherwise you could encounter canopies close-in to the runway. A slightly wider pattern won't hurt because skydivers know the wider they fly, the less likely they'll make it back to the landing area, forcing an "out" landing, which no one wants. When landing, scan ahead for any canopies that may be near the runway.

Landing Separation

At most DZs, landing areas are segregated from the runway complex and often placed on one side of the airport; thus the airplanes have one side of the airport, and the skydivers the other side. If a skydiving landing area is protected from overhead traffic by left traffic on one runway, right traffic on the opposite runway, flying left traffic when the opposite direction is called for can obviously present safety hazards for both jumpers and airplanes. Check the A/FD or other airport directories for information on traffic pattern altitudes and directions.

When departing an airport with skydiving in progress, the best time to take off is right after a jump plane has either landed or taken off. You'll be long gone before jumpers are in the air. At airports with multiple jump aircraft, skydivers may be in the air almost constantly. In this circumstance, pick the appropriate runway and takeoff normally. Be wary of any skydivers crossing a runway at low altitude -- and it would have to be very low to affect a takeoff roll and climb out since you can't climb straight up -- and fly a straight-out departure or a wider than normal pattern to the crosswind or downwind. Terrain permitting, delay your climb above 1000 feet until you're two or three miles from the airport and you'll have few worries about encountering skydivers.

As far as right-of-way-rules go, skydivers under canopy trump a powered airplane and thus have the right of way. If you see someone under canopy and can avoid a close encounter, by all means do so. At my home DZ -- the very same Zephyrhills, Fla., you'll be flying near (we hope not over) on your way to Sun 'n Fun this year -- we also have an active glider operation that co-exists nicely with the skydivers. With just scant attention to the basics described here, you can do the same.

As we say in skydiving, blue skies. And have a safe trip.