Aviation’s Elevator Operator: Flying Skydivers

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With sport parachuting continuing to grow in popularity, there's an increasing demand for pilots to carry skydivers aloft. Here's what's involved in being a jump pilot.

There has been one light quietly continuing to burn despite the dark news of declining general aviation activity—that’s sport parachuting, you know, skydiving. While the number of pilots has dropped, airports are closing and new aircraft sales just struggle along, skydiving activity has been consistently growing. Canny airport managers looking at red ink in their ledgers, where hangars go unrented and fuel sales slump, are seeking out skydiving operations for their airports. Often, skydiving proves to be the key that revitalizes an airport, bringing people out to experience a new adventure in aviation. Fuel sales go up and some of those who came out to skydive decide to learn to fly.

The door to skydiving adventure lies in the jump pilot. Someone has got to safely and efficiently fly skydivers to altitude and then hustle back down so to the ground so they can load up and do it again. Many professional pilots started their aviation careers as jump pilots—and discovered the combination of required stick and rudder skills, ATC communication needs and significant level of responsibility as pilot in command in a challenging environment served to prepare them well for the airline world. More than a few who went on to corporate and airline positions are still jump pilots on their days off.

So, what does it take? You’ll need a commercial certificate, a high performance sign off and about 500 hours total time. While many pilots use the job to build time towards other piloting employment, don’t think of it as just an entry-level position. It will challenge your skill set and decision-making abilities. It’s not a kick the tires and light the fire kind of job.

Training

Before you start, you’re going to go through training in the airplane you’ll be flying, the specialized demands of flying jumpers and the FARs that apply to jump operations and you as the PIC of a jump airplane. You’re not just responsible for complying with the regs yourself—you are responsible for the jumpers doing so as well. That extended responsibility is a new experience for most pilots and excellent preparation for other aviation positions where the pilot may be held responsible for the behavior of others on his or her airplane—such as in the airline world.

Your training experience will cover more than just how to set mixture and throttle for repeated climbs and descents. You’ll need to know the applicable sections of FAR Parts 61, 91, 105 and Advisory Circular 105-2E, Sport Parachuting. For example, you’re aware of the cloud clearances you’ve got to comply with when flying VFR—under Part 105, the jumpers leaving your airplane also have cloud clearances they must comply with for the entirety of their jumps. Get this: You are responsible to see that they do so. If they don’t, you’re on the hook. That can be especially challenging if you are hauling skydivers using wing suits, which allow them to travel a significant horizontal distance once they leave the airplane. You’ve got to make sure that they can’t get near enough to a cloud to violate the cloud-clearance regs or your certificate can be on the line.

A jump pilot preflighting a Cessna 182. The jump door is open, up against the underside of the wing.

You’ll need to know the Pilot Operating Handbook/Owner’s Manual/Aircraft Flight Manual for your airplane cold. When emergencies happen with skydivers on board, a whole new dynamic exists—they can leave. Several resources for flying skydivers can be found at DiverDriver.com and at USPA.org.

Let’s look at a typical day in the life of a jump pilot. It begins early with an involved weather briefing. While skydiving is a VFR operation, you are probably going to be climbing high—as much as to 13,500 feet—on every flight you make. That means you need to be able to effectively visualize the weather in three dimensions. Weather trending towards cloud cover or high winds can, and will, ground an operation for safety concerns and the need for the pilot and skydivers to remain in visual conditions. A detailed look at the winds aloft is important, as skydivers generally freefall for a minute prior to opening their parachutes. High winds can cause drift and jumpers should open their parachutes upwind of the landing area so they can fly a traffic pattern to a safe touchdown. Skydiving is mostly a daytime activity, and many jump pilots fly from very early in the day until very late.  

A by-the-book normal preflight of the jump plane is a must. The airplanes get a lot of hard use, so make sure you’re satisfied it isn’t going to let you down when you least expect it. A unique aspect of flying skydivers in many jump airplanes is that the main cabin door will be opened in flight, so the door-operating mechanism must be inspected for condition and security. You want it to do what it’s supposed to do, when it’s supposed to do it.

The Airplanes

As a jump pilot, you may be assigned to fly anything from a light piston single up through a twin-engine turboprop. Most skydiving businesses (know as drop zones) have at least one Cessna 182. New jump pilots almost always begin on the Cessna family of aircraft such as the 182, 205 and 206. The 182 is a rugged and docile aircraft with a very long production history and a good rate of climb. Most of the ones used for skydiving have a naturally-aspirated O-470 engine—a reliable, sturdy and fairly easy to operate powerplant. Cessna started selling 182s 60 years ago—and some from that vintage are flying jumpers today—it’s been the right airplane for skydiving. Because it is in such wide use, I’ll use it as the example for the rest of this article.

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Tandem skydiving pair exits a Cessna 182.

Once you’re satisfied with the weather and the airplane, you’ll start your first of many conversations with the individual or individuals who handle assigning jumpers to each flight. “Manifest,” means the list of jumpers on a particular flight as well as the part of the operation that creates the manifest. Members of that part of the operation are usually called manifesters. You and the manifester will have a continual dialogue throughout the jumping day. You’ll tell the manifester the timing of each drop, when you’re going to need fuel, when you’ve got to take a break and what’s happening with wind and weather—because you’re the one right there in it.

Jump planes typically depart at max gross takeoff weight. Most Cessna 182s carry four skydivers in addition to the pilot, which will not allow for full fuel tanks. You must calculate mission fuel plus VFR reserve fuel, all while remaining within weight and balance limits. Seating position of the skydivers will also be important to keep center of gravity within limits, because skydivers don’t use seats. FAR Part 91.107 allows skydivers to sit on the floor as long as approved restraints are installed and utilized during taxi, takeoff and landing. Those restraints work; part of your job is to assure they are used. While landing with jumpers is rare, it does happen on occasion, usually because of weather conditions.

After takeoff it’s all about best rate of climb for the next 15-20 minutes to jump altitude. Smooth and coordinated operation of the controls will produce the best possible climb rate. Letting the ball wander from the center of the race will knock more than 100 FPM off the rate of climb.

The direction of intended drop is called the jump run. You will need to keep an eye on rate of climb and your position over the ground to time the level off with reaching jump altitude at the appropriate point to begin the jump run. The aim is to have minimal level flight time before opening the door.

As you level off on the jump run, the skydivers will be preparing for their exit. As you open the jump door and the jumpers start to move into position to exit, you’ll need to be on guard to ensure that there is no inadvertent bumping of flight controls, fuel selectors or power controls. You’ll be doing that while maneuvering the aircraft to align with the winds for the slowest ground speed. That gives the most amount of time to make a good drop and minimize the chances of flying past the intended exit point.

A Cessna 206 set up for skydiving with the cargo doors removed and a spoiler installed in front of the door opening.

While you are doing all of the above, you are also required by the regs to be in contact with the Air Traffic Control facility assigned to your airspace and make a number of specified radio calls. You may also be making calls on the CTAF for the airport where the jumpers will be landing. By issuing traffic advisories, ATC will also give you an idea of surrounding traffic.

Changing Conditions

As you make the jump run the jumpers will be moving into position so the center of gravity will be shifting forward or aft depending on the type of aircraft used—forward in a Cessna 182. In the Cessna 182, the first jumpers will also be stepping out of the cabin onto the step and hanging onto the right wing strut to get in position to jump. That means not only increased drag but also reduced airflow over the elevator. You’re going to be working to keep the aircraft flying at a constant pitch attitude, or perhaps in a slight descent to maintain airspeed. The weight and drag of the skydivers on the step over the right landing gear causes the aircraft to turn right and this needs to be compensated for with coordinated control inputs. As the jumpers leave into freefall, all control inputs are relaxed—until the next jumper gets into position to go. This continues until all jumpers have exited.

Now all your friends have jumped out of the airplane—was it something you said? No matter why, your workload doesn’t ease up. It’s time to set up and manage the descent to get back on the ground, efficiently and safely. First, close the jump door by using left rudder to enter a skid. This changes the relative wind and causes the door that had been free-floating under the right wing to come down within reach. Grab the door handle, pull the door into place and lock it closed while maintaining flying speed and directional control. Now for power management—you can’t just go to idle on a piston engine and make a rapid descent. Set the power called for by the company, typically bottom of the green for manifold pressure and top of the green for the prop. Close the cowl flaps. The descent is made at the top of the airspeed green arc with frequent turns to look for traffic and make the airplane as visible as possible. The descent is made above maneuvering speed so care must be taken not to over stress the aircraft.

The next step is to check off with ATC, call manifest to say you’re descending and then make a call on CTAF for pattern entry and check for other traffic.

A de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter set up for carrying skydivers.

Once in the pattern it’s like any other arrival. Watch for traffic that may not be talking on the radio or on the correct frequency. Plan to stay within gliding distance of the runway in case the engine fails. And one other thing—your aircraft is empty. After having taken off at or near max gross takeoff weight with three or four jumpers you are now alone. The CG is now far forward and elevator authority will be different. Constantly changing conditions—I said this was a challenging job.

Now, REPEAT! The next load wants to go.

The skydiving industry has a wide range of jump piloting jobs. From the Cessna 182s flying a few times a day to large turbine aircraft making flight after flight non-stop all day. Are you up to the challenge?

Chris Schindler is a CRJ captain with 14,000 hours and is a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He spent 3000 of those hours flying skydivers. His website is DiverDriver.com.