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The Way of the Jump Pilot

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Originally printed in issue #59 (November 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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F*ckin’ Jump Pilot. It’s not exactly the job title most pilots look for when entering aviation. Indeed, most pilots who find themselves spending any time dropping jumpers usually only do so on their way to bigger things. But for some, it’s not only the most exciting, challenging and rewarding flying they’ve done, it’s the top of the pyramid.

Working as a pilot in skydiving offers a number of unique challenges that not everyone in aviation has had experience with, and as such it tends to attract a rather small percentage of commercial pilots. As a six-thousand-hour airline transport pilot, with almost five thousand of those flying skydiving operations, jump aircraft have been my home almost since the beginning of my career. Flying skydivers helped me refine stick and rudder skills, learn to fly an aircraft at its maximum performance, and deal with unique and challenging conditions not found anywhere else in aviation.

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Nowhere else in flying does a pilot have to learn to deal with a shifting load of crazy jumpers, but passengers who leave halfway through the trip—all while making sure passengers exit in exactly the right spot, at exactly the right altitude and at the perfect speed every single time. Add to that the need to read and understand the effect of winds for jumpers both in freefall and under canopy, then toss in having to land an aircraft literally thousands of times a year, and you end up with a skill set unique to jump pilots. It’s a type of precision flying that isn’t easily understood or mastered. Yet like most pilots, I was lead to believe that flying jumpers was not a goal, but rather a steppingstone to a more fulfilling career, and so I moved on to bigger and better things.

… it became glaringly obvious that the dream job I was after was the one I had walked away from …

Having spent two years flying for a regional airline in the United States, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the side of flying that most people envision when they think “pilot.” What I discovered may surprise you. Bottom line: IT F*CKING SUCKED! Not only did I spend drastically less time actually flying an aircraft, but while flying, I spent much of my time simply monitoring systems and meeting paperwork requirements rather than actually piloting the craft. Add to that having to play stewardess for the passengers because an Otter is too small to have a true cabin crew, you can imagine what a fucking dream that can be. The whole experience turned out to be much less than I had expected or hoped for, and it became glaringly obvious that the dream job I was after was the one I had walked away from. So when the opportunity to come back to the sport I enjoy and the aircraft I love arose, I jumped at the chance! As it turns out, I’m not the only one.

Paul started out like many in aviation. Having started working as United States Federal Aviation Administration instructor pilot in Southern New Jersey, he eventually transitioned to jump pilot for a number of reasons.

“I needed a way to build time flying, and realized pretty quickly that as an instructor I was not only not building a lot of time, but wasn’t even flying the aircraft! When the chance to start flying skydivers in a Cessna 206 came up, it was a pretty simple decision to make. The more I flew jumpers, the more I enjoyed the challenge, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the larger aircraft the DZ had for their operation. And when I started flying the Otter … I was hooked.”

The de Havilland Twin Otter is widely considered the overall best aircraft in skydiving, and there are a whole lot of reasons why. Originally built for passenger operations and short haul cargo, its reputation as a short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) monster grew quite quickly. Because of the Otter’s short-field and rough-terrain capabilities, skydiving operators quickly recognized how wonderful a fit the aircraft was. Its popularity and reputation in the sport grew to such a degree that a special variant was designed specifically for the United States Air Force Academy, and the 400 Series specifically for the United States Army Parachute Team.

“The Otter simply does things you would never imagine an aircraft of its size could,” says Paul. “It’s probably the most incredible aircraft I’ll ever fly, and I came back to the sport when I realized that the only real flying I’d ever done was for jumpers. There just isn’t anything more incredible than flying a formation of four or five Otters while jumpers stream out into the sky!”

Like me, Paul left a career in what most would consider the sought after path in aviation to return to the jump-pilot life on the East Coast of the United States, and the larger-than-life Twin Otter.

Yet bigger isn’t always better, and doesn’t always fit. Probably the most well-known aircraft type used in skydiving is one that’s been around for ages, and is the daily workhorse for skydiving operations around the world: the venerable Cessna.

It also happens to be one of Chris’s favorite aircraft. Chris, a U.S. commercial pilot flying just outside of Austin, Texas, has been enjoying his flying career immensely. “I love the challenge of having to eyeball the spot without a GPS. I love having the jumpers right there next to me, and I have to admit that every time the door right next to me opens up, I get one heck of a rush!”

Cessna Aircraft currently manufactures 10 different models; the C-172, C-182, the C-206, and the larger, widely popular Turbine C-208 Caravan and Grand Caravan have arguably taken more jumpers aloft than any other type of jump ship in existence. Nicknamed “Time Machine” by jump pilots, it’s usually the first aircraft most will fly, and with an average load time of 30-plus minutes, a pilot’s logbook can quickly fill up with the hours needed to tackle the larger and more complex aircraft most desire. It’s the same route Brent took. Flying out of Northern California with Skydive Sacramento, Brent knows the sport from both sides, being a tandem instructor as well.

Having made the transition out of Cessnas, Brent was at one point one of the highest time jump pilots in the aircraft that became his favorite jump ship. Standing out in skydiving as the only aircraft specifically designed from the ground up for parachute operations is the PAC-750XSTOL. Developed from the Cresco, a New Zealand crop dusting aircraft, the PAC took its roots from a heavy hauling yet nimble ship. Its light weight and high lift wing has made it one of the most efficient aircraft in the sport. Its very high power-to-weight ratio makes it possible to reach 12,000’ and return in just over 10 minutes.

“The fact that it has a stick control instead of a yoke control in the cockpit, lots of power and a responsive feel makes it a blast to fly. It’s got all the bells and whistles—including top-of-the-line GPS, which makes spotting a piece of cake—but when you’re flying it, she feels like a dive bomber, she comes down so fast! Watching jumpers that just exited your plane landing while you’re loading the next group is just cool.”

Yet there is no denying that sometimes the most popular aircraft has nothing to do with speed, efficiency or even comfort. Sometimes you simply want unique and cool! Take Perris Valley Skydiving in Southern California. When their fleet of two Twin Otters, a Skyvan and a few Cessnas didn’t seem to be enough, they added a big brother to the family. Delta Airlines first introduced the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 into passenger airline operations in 1965. Primarily used for passenger and cargo operations, the idea of using such a large jet-powered aircraft for skydiving was an idea that didn’t take shape until Ben Conaster, owner of Perris Valley, took a closer look. After years of research and planning, in 2008 the FAA made it the only airline transport-class jet certified for skydiving operations. It is by far the world’s largest and fastest tailgate jump ship, and the crews that fly her are unique in their field.

Not all popular and efficient aircraft used in skydiving come with wings though. For many years now, Skydive Cross Keys has operated the very popular Aérospatiale Alouette II helicopter. This ship provides a strong enough platform for jumpers to leap from at over 9,000’ while hovering, essentially allowing a zero-airspeed exit. Using the Alouette for everything from lower-altitude fun-jumper operations to tandem skydives, Cross Keys has thrilled jumpers and non-jumpers for years.

“For as much of a challenge as flying jumpers in a fixed wing aircraft can be, holding a hover over 2,000 meters up while jumpers hang from the skids is intense!” says Tom, a long-time rotor jump pilot. “It’s the most exciting passenger flying I’ve ever done.”

Toss into this wonderful aviation mix a wide variety of both fixed wing, rotorcraft and lighter than air, along with all the different pilots that fly them and you’ll find an incredible variety of ways to take to the skies and make a jump. As skydiving and aviation both continue to progress, we can only wonder what ships will be taking jumpers aloft in the future, and what pilots will decide that skydiving is where it’s at.

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