The Right Stuff

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So, just what makes a good jump pilot? The truth is, there’s no real set answer to that question. As you can imagine, there are as many factors that go into a good jump pilot (some more important than others) as there are factors for a good skydiver, so let’s do it backward and list a few things that make a really shit jump pilot.

While on the road and flying for a really nice Midwest drop zone, I had the opportunity—or misfortune, if you will—to fly alongside a Caravan flown by the worst jump pilot I have ever met, seen or heard of. The DZ got stuck with this guy we’ll call “Tool,” after their two very accomplished jump pilots had moved on to bluer skies as it were, leaving them in a tight spot.

Tool had interviewed with the DZOs of this unfortunate operation and told them that outside of what I’m sure he explained was an amazing corporate career, he’d been quite the successful jump pilot as well. He told of his 500+ hours flying jumpers back when you had to spot with your eye, not the GPS, and that with everything available to him in their beautiful aircraft, the job would be as easy as could be. So, as any DZO would, they checked him out in the Caravan, ensured that he knew how to go up and back while keeping the rubber side down, and strapped him in the cockpit with very simple instructions: Go up and down, fast.

Cut to just under two weeks later, and my arrival. I’d had the chance to fly for this particular DZ the year before in the Chicagoland Otter, and knew the operation pretty well. It’s a drop zone full of great people, very accomplished jumpers, an airport willing to bend over backward to please them and an all around great vibe.

Perhaps it was because they recognized me from the previous year, perhaps it was because more than a few of them had read my articles in Blue Skies Mag or perhaps it was just my considerable charm and devilish good looks, but for whatever reason, I ended up getting an earful about Tool right away. They all said it in slightly different ways, but in a nutshell, Tool was an asshole that couldn’t spot for shit. I decided that I’d try to have an open mind, keep an eye out, and see for myself throughout the day. It didn’t take long to form my own opinion.

Strike One: While chatting with Tool on the ground before load one was even manifested, I tried to discuss a discrete radio frequency for us to be on so we could talk between ourselves. His question, without even a hint of sarcasm, was, “Why do we need to talk?” I thought about trying to explain to him that while running a multiple aircraft operation, it’s imperative for the pilots involved to be in constant contact to avoid dropping jumpers on top of each other, aircraft collisions, spotting corrections, jump-run separation, checking out the blonde tandem student with the amazing rack, etc.—but he walked away before I even had the chance to get the dumbass look off my face.

Strike Two: I was taxiing out for load five and getting ready to depart off runway 23. I heard the Caravan make a two-mile, 3,000’ final approach call for the same runway, so I made my call. “Middletown traffic, 2ST rolling for an intersection departure off 23.” I instantly got an almost panicked response from the Caravan with Tool yelling into the mic, “But I’m coming in HOT, I’M COMING IN HOT!” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud into the mic and respond “You’re in a Caravan that’s two miles away Tool, you’re NOT coming in hot!” Then, just for my own personal satisfaction, after he landed and once he called clear of the runway I announced, “Middletown traffic, 2ST climbing thru three thousand five hundred and WELL CLEAR of inbound HOT traffic”.

Strike Two and a Half: This strike was for the dozen jumpers that Tool put off the field on a light-wind day with mild jump-run speeds, having done so AFTER the jumpers on board asked him for multiple corrections and after I’d told him what direction jump run was, the distance prior to the field he should turn on the green, and how far he could let the last one exit at. It turns out that his favorite word every time a jumper asked him for anything was “WHY??” Jumpers land off, it’s a fact. Many factors can go into an off landing, but when you have all the information Tool had at his disposal it just shouldn’t happen.

Strike Two and Three Quarters: This one I didn’t get to see in person because I never flew in the Caravan with him. It turns out that on every single load he was on, he would go out of his way to announce that he’d give extra altitude if any of the girls on board would show him their tits. That’s actually how he did it as well … “I’ll give you more if you show me your tits!” He also attempted to institute a rule that only women were allowed to sit in the co-pilot seat; that way the tits were more accessible. Now don’t get me wrong, BIG fan of tits here, but in my opinion, asking for them is a lot like paying for sex. If you have to do that, you’ve got real problems!

Strike Three: While flying through about 4,000’, I heard the Caravan call two minutes to jumpers away. About four minutes later, as I was calling my two minutes to jumpers, it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard Tool call jumpers away, nor had I heard him communicate with approach that he was dropping. I hopped on the discrete frequency I’d finally gotten him to go on and asked where he was. By the time he answered, I was under one minute and about to give the door light. He explained to me that he was about one minute to the green light and was too busy to talk. The worst of many problems with this situation was that Tool was dropping fun jumpers from 13.5, and I was dropping tandems from 10.5, a fact that both he and I were aware of. When I leaned forward and craned my neck to look up, I’ll be damned if I didn’t get a great look at the belly of the Caravan about three thousand feet directly above me, totally ready to drop right on my head. Even worse than this was the fact that when I explained the whole thing to him later, he didn’t seem to really grasp what the problem was.

Even if you take the different jump altitudes out of the equation this is still a big deal. Two aircraft dropping at the same time and not talking could potentially put jumpers from different aircraft jumping into each other without even knowing. Imagine a tracking dive out of one aircraft, inadvertently blasting straight toward a tandem from the other aircraft … There are just too many possibilities for death and destruction to list.

In my personal opinion, and that of many other people I know, the best damn jump pilots out there start out their careers as jumpers. As a skydiver, you should already have a damn good grasp on issues like spotting, jump runs, group separation, wingsuits versus tandems or big ways, etc. The things that jumpers take as basic knowledge, your average general aviation pilot is completely clueless about. I honestly believe that it would be easier to take a non-pilot skydiver and turn them into a jump pilot, than to take an accomplished pilot and do the same thing.

What makes a good jump pilot? A little skill, a little luck, and the realization that your responsibility starts the moment you fire up the engine, and ends when the last jumpers are on the ground, and the aircraft is all tied down. It’s taking and giving corrections when needed, communicating both with other aircraft and air traffic control and with the jumpers. It’s knowing your responsibility not only to the jumpers, but to the operation as well. It’s about protecting the jumpers by giving them the best spots and the most information possible. It’s also about trying your hardest, every damn day, on every damn load to keep from being a complete and total fucking TOOL.

Lastly, if you’re a Midwest Skydiver wondering how to make sure you don’t end up in Tool’s aircraft, you need not worry. He got canned a few days after my weekend with them! (I’d like to think I was part of the reason why he got tossed.) So take yourself a drive down to Start Skydiving in Middletown, Ohio, and tell ‘em “The Fuckin’ Pilot” said to say hey!

The Fuckin' Pilot

Monthly Columnist

About the author: The Fuckin’ Pilot has more than 8,500 hours of flight time; 5,000 of those have been piloting jump ships for skydiving.

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Fatal Flaws

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With the current rash of fatalities, isn’t it about time we took a step back and started asking ourselves, “What the fuck is going on?”

In my fifteen years in the sport, I’ve had a chance to see some of the fatality trends in our sport. Not only have I read about them in one of the few remaining worthwhile parts of Parachutist, the incident reports, but I’ve been able to witness them firsthand in the loss of friends and acquaintances over those years. It’s not a pleasant way to learn lessons, but it’s a hell of a lot better than learning them firsthand.

The first real big trend I remember being told about, although it was quite a bit before my time, was what they used to call the “low pull” contest back in the ‘70s. I’m sure you’ve heard some version of it, and it’s not exactly a hard one to figure out. Two jumpers face off in freefall and continue on until one of them chickens out and pulls. The last one to pull is the winner. The problem was that there were a few too many jumpers hell bent on taking first prize, and they ended up receiving their awards posthumously (for our non-English-speaking readers, that means dead).

The first trend I was around for came shortly after the high-performance canopies of the time came out. When the Stiletto from Performance Designs hit the market, it was billed as the most hardcore canopy ever made. Square-1 in Perris, and every other gear store that carried it, would only sell it to those jumpers who could show 500 jumps or more logged. This of course was a bit of a joke, considering the canopy could be ordered straight from PD, Para-Gear or any other online or mail order company without showing anyone any logbook at all, let alone a set number of jumps. Canopies like the Batwing and a few others did their fair share of damage as well.

This trend of course is one that still plagues the sport today, and it’s that of the low-altitude hook turn. I don’t know the exact numbers, and am quite frankly too lazy to look them up, but dying under a perfectly good, flying canopy became the number one way to meet our infamous Black Death. Front risers weren’t used much for hook turns back then, and the now-old-timer toggle whippers started slamming themselves into the ground at an alarming rate. The trend has thankfully slowed down dramatically now, as knowledge of our canopies grows, and courses like Brian Germain’s canopy skills help not only those up-and-coming young canopy pilots to keep from making it into the wrong record books, but also keeps the seasoned up on the little nuances that save lives. Yet as our confidence in our canopy skills grows, our basic safety skills, learned all the way back in AFF, seem to go right out the window.

Why is it that with all our skill and knowledge, canopy collisions are claiming so damn many lives? It’s not as if staying out of someone else’s canopy while it’s in flight is a new fucking concept. This is the shit we learned back when we were wearing Pro-tec helmets, worn-out student jumpsuits and cracked Kroops goggles. It’s understood that while flying under the new generations of high-performance canopies, things happen pretty damn fast. It’s something that prompted rules, ranging from what degree turn can be made when swooping to complete separation of high-performance from regular landing areas, yet people continue to die yet again at an alarming rate.

I personally lost someone quite close to me in a canopy collision; in 2005, my good friend Sara turned her Velocity on final, right into the path of her boyfriend Ron while he performed a high-performance turn above her, putting him through her lines at 300’. It’s not much different than the situation that just took Pat McGowan and his fellow staff member from us in Perris last month and then two more Perris jumpers only two weeks later! Six years and many many deaths in between these incidents says something pretty terrible to me. It says we aren’t figuring this shit out! Is it management’s fault? Fuck no! There isn’t a person in the world who is going to believe that someone sitting in manifest at Perris could have done anything to save those lives, or that any “rule” they institute isn’t going to simply be ignored by someone who tells themselves “never gonna happen to me.”

Do I have an answer? I’m afraid not. I, like everyone else, only have a few suggestions and ideas that may help out. Do we banish high-performance turns? How about we just go back to using rounds—that way if you fly into someone else’s canopy, you just bounce off. Do we just stop jumping altogether? These sound more like jokes to me than ideas, but I’ve heard many people say those exact things. The truth is, those actions would drop the number of dead in our sport, but would also take away a lot of what our sport is about.

How about WE, each jumper, each drop zone, each separate community of skydivers figure out what works to keep our jumpers safe. Safe from low hook turns, safe from canopy collisions, safe from the avoidable bullshit that’s taking people from us. That’ll be the new skydiver contest. No low pull crap, but … Whoever figures out how to stop needlessly killing skydivers not only WINS, but gets to be around to receive the prize.

The Fuckin' Pilot

Monthly Columnist

About the author: The Fuckin’ Pilot has more than 8,500 hours of flight time; 5,000 of those have been piloting jump ships for skydiving.

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drug drəɡ/ noun
a. A substance used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease or as a component of a medication.
b. A chemical substance, such as a narcotic or hallucinogen, that affects the central nervous system, causing changes in behavior and often addiction.

Well, did I ever tell you about the time I got hit by a bus in London while high as a kite and dressed as an Indian?

I wasn’t actually sure I’d heard the question correctly, so, like any normal person I just replied, “Huh?”

As I was to find out, while driving down one of London’s city streets under the influence of copious amounts of narcotic entertainment, my friend—whom for obvious reasons we will call “Chief”—was T-boned by a bus that came out of nowhere from a street that hadn’t existed only moments before. The bus driver, so distraught over the late-night accident and an Indian with less-than-perfect driving skills, was forced to drag poor Chief from his vehicle through the broken window and point out his shortcomings with numerous right hooks to the face.

The telling of the story was made all the more entertaining by the fact that both Chief and I were currently under the influence of the contents of the DZ’s “Naughty Bottle” which just happened to hold lots and lots of liquid LSD. I could practically see the feathers flying as the bus driver’s fist made contact with the spot Chief was pointing out. The energy of the storytelling was off the charts and the whole thing was quite the experience!

Let’s face it kids, drugs aren’t just part of the world at large, or even our society, but very specifically our sport. Like it or not, that’s just the way it is.

Raise your hands if you’re a skydiver who hasn’t done any type of drug … Alright, I see 23 hands, but 18 of you are fucking lying!

If you’re a jumper who hasn’t done any experimenting, I applaud you for your strength in the face of immense peer pressure. I also think you probably need to get out a bit more.

If you, like the majority of the jumpers I’ve met in the last 15 years, have had a “taste,” then you have just as many stories as I do about their effects on, and place in, our sport.

So, how about a little quid pro quo. Good, bad, good, etc. …

1. Marley and the Peanut Butter (Good, kind of)
If you were there and you’re reading this, then you’re either cringing or laughing your ass off. You also know every word is true.

I know people who have said they’ve seen video. I know people who say they’ve known people who saw it. I, on the other hand, can name more than a dozen people with video cameras and still cameras who were there with me.

It was the morning after my birthday. Lots of drugs had been done. Lots of alcohol (a drug) had been consumed. Mr. Craig Kusky had elected to take my place as the most fucked-up person after the night’s festivities and was currently reaping the rewards.

First, pictures of him passed out on the back deck of the DZ were taken. Then pictures of him surrounded with beer bottles. Then Chief decided cutting his shorts off, only after nicking his smokes, was a good idea. Then of course, painted toe and finger nails, etc. … When none of this did anything to rouse poor Mr. Kusky, the ante was upped to a level none of us was totally prepared for.

As we watched Marley (the oldest and nastiest DZ dog you’ve ever seen) follow the container of melted peanut butter, none of us really believed it was actually going to happen. Yet the next thing we knew, we were face-to-face with the image of Craig drunkenly laughing as Marley hungrily licked every bit of Peter Pan creamy peanut butter from his junk. Holy shit. Let me say that again … Holy SHIT!

It was one of the craziest, funniest experiences of my life and one I will never forget.

2. Basketball Hoop (Bad)
It was Cross Keys’ work-ups to the PST tour stop in Wildwood, NJ. I hadn’t seen Kevin Love in years, and was enjoying catching up with him and everyone else who had been training that day. With what I can only call really bad timing on my part, I turned from Kevin to look down Dahlia Ave. just in time to see Craig rolling over from a back track at about treetop level. The sound I heard didn’t really sink in to my reality, because I had to turn to a DZ employee named Damo and ask, “What the hell was that noise???” With an expression that displayed as much confusion as I felt, his one-word reply was, “Kusky.”

Good old Craig had spent the whole day on the piss, drinking anything and everything he wanted and for whatever reason, decided a great way to end the day would be to make a skydive on a rig with no AAD.

I had spent the day jumping, hanging out and refusing Craig’s request to take an alcohol swab test for him. Then, just for shits and giggles, I decided to end the day with chest compressions in some kid’s driveway while Craig’s buddy Toast did mouth-to-mouth. Evidently someone else thought taking the swab for him was a good idea.

It was one of the worst experiences of my life and one I will never forget.

3. The Secret of the Pea Pit (Good)
Ecstasy. Really, do I need to say anything else? I don’t know about you, but this was my personal drug of choice back in the day. It was also what I happened to be under the influence of when I was taught the secret of the pea pit.

Hand in hand, arm in arm, we departed the back deck and ventured out into the deep dark unknown. The walk out to the pea gravel seemed to take ages, and was kept beyond entertaining by the feel of wet grass beneath our feet, a breeze across our faces, stars above our heads and pure chemical joy pulsing through us with each and every step.

Once we arrived at the pit, and with a ridiculous amount of pomp and circumstance, our tour guide for the evening showed us the secret …

Reaching hand first and deep into the pea gravel, he scooped a healthy handful away from its resting place, stretched his arm back like a major league pitcher in the ninth of the World Series, and let the gravel loose back towards the pit with incredible velocity. As the handful of gravel reached the pea pit, it let loose a shower of sparks that, in our ecstasy-soaked minds, rivaled a Vegas New Year’s display! Perhaps you had to be there or perhaps you need to go out and try it for yourself, but believe me, that shit was amazing!

It was one of the best experiences of my life, and one I will never forget.

4. The Tree (Bad)
It was a great skydiver wedding. The bride was as beautiful as everyone expected, the groom just as charming. The party, well the party was fucking EPIC! It was also fueled with ridiculous amounts of ecstasy.

As the party progressed the participants split into their groups, as they tend to do. Some stood around the kitchen telling stories that made everyone laugh, gasp and grin wildly. Some danced their asses off to the music that burst almost physically from the speakers. Some broke off in twos to make out, grope and or fuck their brains out. Some went for nature walks and talked about deep things, and others … well, others decided to climb trees.

Three of them lay perched in the branches a good fifty feet above the ground. They lay staring at the stars that were no longer blocked from the branches below. They were enjoying the feeling of the night air, enjoying each other’s company and enjoying the amazing chemicals coursing through their veins. They even enjoyed the unexpected feeling of freefall, right up until the ground came up to meet them.

Cameron might have walked away from the fall after the branch broke if it hadn’t been for his friend landing just after him, and unfortunately for Cameron, on his neck.

When we arrived the next evening at the hospital, we were told it was important that we had an “upbeat” attitude when we talked to him. We were also told he’d be lucky if he were able to ever move anything below the neck again. Seeing him with the halo around his head and the look of sheer terror in his eyes was horrible.

It was one of the worst experiences of my life, and one I will never forget.

The fact of the matter is, you don’t have to be a skydiver to tell these stories. Everyone from every walk of life can tell a story not too far off these. I’ve got so many more of these that I could take up the entire issue telling you about tits on a Ferris wheel, driving on the moon, abnormally large big toes, etc. …

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, I don’t get to take part in this kind of entertainment anymore. It seems that the FAA doesn’t like pilots who do drugs, so I’ve been on the wagon since before I got my license. But listen, I don’t for one second say that drugs are wrong. I believe that to do, or not to do, drugs is one’s personal choice, and no person or government should interfere. I do, on the other hand, believe that we all have the responsibility to make sure that we, or those that we know who choose to partake, do so in a way that won’t risk their, or anyone else’s, life.

If I had it to do over again, I would have dragged Craig to the manifest office and told them he was shitty-ass drunk and shouldn’t be manifested. If I had it to do over again, I’d make sure they hadn’t climbed that tree … Would I take back the pea pit, the peanut butter or any of the other experiences that I consider life changing in a good way if it meant I wouldn’t have to have those bad ones to re-live? That’s a good fucking question. Would you?

The Fuckin' Pilot

Monthly Columnist

About the author: The Fuckin’ Pilot has more than 8,500 hours of flight time; 5,000 of those have been piloting jump ships for skydiving.

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i67: July!

The July issue of Blue Skies Mag is in the mail now to current subscribers!

Please wait until August 1 for your mag to arrive. If you don’t have it by then, please email and we’ll get you sorted!

We have a new cover style! What do you think?

Blue Skies Magazine i67: July 2015 | Seth Claytor over Skydive Lake Wales, Florida. Photo by Randy Swallows

Seth Claytor over Skydive Lake Wales, Florida. Photo by Randy Swallows •

In This Issue

  • Photo Interview: Katie Hansen by Zach Lewis
  • Write Your Own Boogie Article by You
  • Wisdom from the Masters: Norman Kent
  • Raven One Tracking Suit Review by Owen Tomkins
  • Welcome, Juniors by Kurt Gaebel, NSL
  • All for a Good Night’s Sleep by the F*ckin’ Pilot
  • Jim by Melanie Curtis
  • and more …


If you’re in the market for stuff of any kind, buying from these guys (and letting them know you saw them in Blue Skies Mag) will help keep the mags coming to your door.

Bee Realty Corp
Bev Suits
Fluid Wings
In Flight Dubai
Larsen & Brusgaard
Melanie Curtis
Opening Shock
Performance Designs
Skydive Arizona
Skydive Radio
SSK, Inc
Sun Path Products
Sunrise Rigging
Tony Suits
United Parachute Technologies
Vigil America
Velocity Sports Equipment
Wicked Wingsuits
Handsome Dave DeWolf’s Rigger Courses

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Reader question: What comes easy to you? What doesn’t?

This month’s reader question is a two part-er! We all have things we have to work at in skydiving and BASE jumping and paragliding and life and what-have-you. But then there are some things that just came naturally and we didn’t even have to think twice about doing them.

For me, landing a canopy has never really been an issue; I can generally fly a pattern, flare at the right height and stand up (when appropriate). Body flight though, hoo boy. There is a disconnect between my brain and my body parts that I have to work really hard on. “Okay, so I want to side-slide to the right, that means I have to dip my left … no, right … no wait, left? Knee? Elbow? Hair? Shit!”

What is 1) your natural talent and 2) your “I will have to work on this until my dying day” non-talent?

Selected responses will be printed in the August 2015 issue of Blue Skies Magazine. Comment here with your name exactly as you would like it printed in the mag.