The Way of the Jump Pilot

Online Reprint

Originally printed in issue #59 (Nov. 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.


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.

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.

Dean Ricci

Monthly Columnist

About the author: Dean “Princess” Ricci has more than 6,000 hours of flight time; 5,000 of those have been piloting jump ships for skydiving. He calls Skydive Dubai home now after a grueling stint in the Caribbean flying for The Man.

N00bs Assemble!

N00bs Assemble! by Sydney Owen Williams | i59: Blue Skies Mag May 2014

Online Reprint

Originally printed in issue #54 (May 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.

Boogies, skills camps, competitions, OH MY! As event coordinators at drop zones around the country get their calendars populated, you will be privy to all of the dates for all of the amazing events at your disposal. Whether it’s an event at your home DZ or you’re planning to scoot across the country to one of the bigger events, as a n00b there are a few things to think about as you start planning.

Allow me to help you navigate the road that is BOOGIE SEASON 2014.

1. What are your goals?
There are a lot of different events out there, young Jedis. Are you trying to improve your skills in a learning-focused environment? Do you want to jump with the hottest, most popular organizers on the planet? Are you looking for novelty (hula hoops, inflatables/raft, space balls, etc.) jumps? Do you want to party all night? Relax in an exotic locale? Different events cater to different groups of people. Some are newbie-friendly, some are for more advanced flyers.

PRO-TIP: Check out the event descriptions. If you have questions about whether that particular event would be a good one for you, ask the event coordinator or see if any of your skydiving friends have been to that event.

2. How comfortable are you with canopy traffic?
If you normally jump at a Cessna drop zone and have never been on an Otter (the big twin-engine planes carrying up to 23 jumpers), you definitely want to think about that for a minute. At some of the bigger events (CarolinaFest at Skydive Carolina, Summerfest at Skydive Chicago, Chicks Rock at Skydive Elsinore, Sebastian Invasion at Skydive Sebastian, or the Holiday Boogie at Skydive Arizona, for example), there are multiple aircraft in the air at any given time. Each drop zone does it a bit differently, but with multiple otters or skyvans (and other bigger-than-Cessna aircraft) in the rotation, there can be a lot of canopies up there.

PRO-TIP: If you haven’t been in this kind of environment before, take some time on the first day after you’ve gotten the DZ/boogie briefing to watch the landing area, observe canopy patterns, and get a feel for the flow. And if you aren’t comfortable, don’t worry! Some of my best memories from boogies were created on the ground. You can still meet A LOT of awesome people, even if you aren’t comfortable jumping.

N00bs Assemble! by Sydney Owen Williams | i59: Blue Skies Mag May 2014

N00bs Assemble! by Sydney Owen Williams | i59: Blue Skies Mag May 2014

3. Boogie fees.
Some boogies are free, some cost $20-100 for registration, some are even higher if the fee includes jump tickets or is a specialized event. Find out what you get for this price. A T-shirt? Food? Drinks? Party pass? Access to amazing organizers? Coaching? Specialty aircraft? Nightly entertainment? Is it a charity event? Don’t stress about boogie fees too much though—believe me, they’re (usually) totally worth it.

PRO-TIP: Boogie fees are necessary to ensure the event is everything you dream it will be; they help cover additional expenses that come with putting on the most epic weekend of your life. If you don’t want the T-shirt, you don’t care about the organizers, you don’t party, you don’t want to eat dinner at the DZ, and you still can’t find value in the fee, you can pretty safely scratch that boogie off your itinerary.

4. Organizers.
Organizers make the event magical. As a newbie, don’t be afraid to approach an organizer and ask to join their group. If the dive they planned is advanced and they don’t feel comfortable adding you to the group, don’t take it personally. As an organizer, it is their job to make sure the jump is as successful and as safe as possible for all of the participants. If you find yourself constantly getting turned down, find the event coordinator (or someone who looks like they’re running the show) and ask them if there is an organizer specifically for new jumpers.

PRO-TIP: If the event description doesn’t say “all skill levels welcome” or “we’ll have an organizer specifically for newbies,” ask ahead of time to make sure you’re going to have people to jump with. The more you know beforehand, the better off you’ll be.

5. Vendors.
If you’re at an event and there are vendor tents, go say hi! Introduce yourself, ask them about the gear, and if you’re still in the market for your first rig, ask if you can demo something. If you already have your own gear, and there is a vendor representing the company you’ve chosen to save your life each and every jump, pop by and thank them. If you have questions about what you’re jumping, or you really love your gear, let them know.

PRO-TIP: Make sure you swing by and ask for demos early; they can go quickly. And make sure you return them at the time specified by the vendors (usually at X:00 before sunset). They’ve been working in the tent all day and need to get everything packed up before they leave. It’s a lot easier to do that when all of the gear is back and there is still light so they can see what they’re doing.

BONUS: How current are you?
Not just jump-wise, but gear-wise? If you’re looking to make a trip, consider all of the tips above, and then think about some of the safety stuff. Are you from a low-elevation DZ and the event you’re looking at will be held at a DZ with a higher elevation? If so, your canopy flight will be different. Did you recently (in relation to how often you’re jumping) downsize? Did you spend all winter in a wind tunnel? If so, you have probably progressed significantly. Have you tried your new skills in the sky yet? These questions aren’t meant to scare you away from attending the event you’re targeting, but to make you think.

Go forth, n00bs, and get your boogie on. This here magazine has a solid list of upcoming events (blueskiesmag.com/calendar), and you can always check the websites and Facebook pages of the drop zones you love (or want to love) for more details. Make plans, make friends, get there, ask for a DZ briefing, watch the sky for a few loads, find an organizer and get on the plane!

And one last thing: This column is for you. If you have n00b-ish stuff you’re worried about, struggling with or can’t find answers to, hit me up. If I don’t know the answer, there are a lot of badasses around here who do, and we’ll make it happen for you.

Sydney Owen Williams

Monthly Columnist

About the author: Sydney Owen Williams is obsessed with putting on the best events in the whole wide world. Current unicorn lover, former n00b, she knows what you’re going through and she’s here to help. 

i59: Working the Dream

Blue Skies Magazine November 2014 cover

It’s alive! Our November issue is mailing out now to current subscribers. If you are not a current subscriber, you can change that right here, right now.

Please give it until December 1 for the postal service to get your mag to you. If you still don’t have it by then, let us know by emailing Kolla at kolla@blueskiemag.com and she’ll get you sorted.

Blue Skies Magazine November 2014 cover

i59: November 2014 | Marco Waltenspiel competing in the accuracy event during Skydive PINK Klatovy’s Pink Canopy Piloting Open 2014. Photo by Wolfgang Lienbacher, lienbacher.com.

On the Cover

Wolfgang Lienbacher catches Marco Waltenspiel touching down in the touchiest round of CP competition, accuracy. Sydney Owen Williams discusses one of the favored topics for all newbies: quitting your job to skydive full-time.

N00bs, the industry needs more young energy and fresh ideas to keep it progressing. If you want to be an instructor and aren’t totally scared off by the reasons not to work in the sport, then start talking to instructors and jumpers you trust. Get some sound advice about the path you should take to getting your ratings, then go forward with enthusiasm!

Featured Photo

Saying goodbye to warm temperatures in the northern hemisphere. Julie Kleinwort and Shaggy Isaacson over Chicagoland Skydiving Center. Photo by Javier “Buzz” Ortiz.

The FlyBy

  • Reader Question: What are you most thankful for?
  • Comic Relief: Take It DZ by Nadene Beyerbachadventurecreative.ca
  • Monthly tit4tat, tit4tatcanda.com
  • Skydive Chicago’s Rookiefest by Hillary Hmura
  • Skydive Temple’s Deadman Boogie by Wendy Faulkner
  • BSBD, Eldon Burrier: A tribute by Dennis Swift

Pictorial

Skydive Pink Klatovy’s Pink Canopy Piloting Open 2014 Photo Essay by Wolfgang Lienbacher, lienbacher.com. Wolfgang captures the agony, the ecstasy and the pink at Klatovy.

Get the Shot by Randy Swallows

Super cool new feature alert! Photographers will tell you, in detail, how they “got the shot” so you can go out, recreate and develop your own style and technique. This month, Randy Swallows, randyswallows.com, talks about the fish-eye lens.

Fish-eye lenses can be used for so much more than just fitting everything in the shot.

Girls Just Wanna Get Flying by Annette O’Neil

The cleverest ginger interviews Paloma Granero, one of the best tunnel flyers in the world. Why *are* there so few female tunnel instructors, anyway?

The “girls-can’t-instruct-safely-in-the-tunnel” myth is one that cries out for busting, and one of the best arguments against it is Paloma Granero.

Blue Skies Mag i59, Super Sky SleuthSuper Sky Sleuth

Original by the fucking legend that is Maccawww.MaccaDigital.com. If you didn’t find all 10, answers can be found here:Super Sky Sleuth Solved! Let me know what you think of this, too – love it and want more? Hate it and want less?

Centerfold

That Swallows guy again! He got another shot, of 8-way FS team Qatar Falcons at Nationals.

They were a guest team but would have taken second in intermediate with an 8-point average.

SkyCouples: Scott & Crystal by Eli Godwin

Did you miss SkyCouples? Eli Godwin is back with the cutest dual-aerial couple yet, Scott and Crystal. (That Crystal!)

I think a lot of my male skydiver friends wish that Scott was their boyfriend!

We’re Creating Quitters by James La Barrie

Seriously, if you run or manage a drop zone and haven’t subscribed to James La Barrie‘s newsletter and/or read his column and/or hired him to help you, well I just don’t know. This month he tackles the waiting game we make students go through. The game that’s so ingrained that I hadn’t even questioned it until reading his column.

If a student is riding the fence about whether to become a skydiver or not, they’ll probably fall on the wrong side nearly every time. It’s as if we test those entering the sport by saying, “How bad do you really want it?” Only the hardest of the diehards, the ones bitten so badly by the sport that they can’t live without it, make it through.

Go with the Flow by Fred Olsen

Fred Olsen learned something on a river in Maine that will help you be a better skydiver. True story.

There’s nothing more frustrating as a beginner than trying to stuff 240 square feet of nylon into what seems the smallest bag that someone was capable of making. The harder I try, the larger it gets. The Zen just escapes.

Turning Points: New FS World Order by Kurt Gaebel, NSL

You used to be able to predict with decent certainty who would win, but some countries are intent on throwing spanners into the works. Kurt Gaebel, National Skydiving League, discusses who stands where and why the cats are sleeping with the dogs.

Belgium is only the fifth country since 1985 that has won a gold medal in any formation-skydiving competition event.

Read the full article online at skyleague.com.

The Way of the Jump Pilot by the Fuckin’ Pilot

We Dean “Princess” Ricci. Lest you be distracted by the poop and sex and porn stories, he is an actual jump pilot. This month he rounds up a bunch of his fellow pilots to talk about why they keep taking us up to altitude.

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.

Coming Home by Melanie Curtis

As always, we save the best for last. Your monthly dose of sanity, mindfulness, LTD and Blue Steel is here! So we all know the roller-coaster adrenaline and excitement of life is the ish, but you know that feeling after, when it’s all over? That’s the “aaaaah” Melanie Curtis, melaniecurtis.com, is relishing this month.

Feeling the comfort of coming back to where you came from, connecting with your own story, your own values as an essential preparation before firing your own engines back up and forging ahead.

Dear SkyGod

Super Sky Sleuth

Blue Skies Mag i59, Super Sky Sleuth

If you got your November issue, did you notice our new little ‘find the difference’ game, featuring a photo by ‘the fucking legend that is Macca‘? Do you love it, hate it, don’t care, want more, never want to see it again? Let me know! Email lara@blueskiesmag.com or comment.

More importantly, did you find all the differences? (Clicky makes it full-screen)

Blue Skies Mag i59, Super Sky Sleuth

Did you find all 10 differences?

Reader question: What’s your dream life?

question

We wax damned poetically about Living The Dream. The elusive, beautiful, mystical LTD. We post amazing videos of people flying these unbelievable lines in European mountains and print stories about people who have cut away to live the dream.

Sometimes I get a little down on myself and wonder why I’m not out there LTD’ing it up, living in a tent at the base of an Italian mountain, hitchhiking to Kathmandu for a BASE documentary with a quick SCUBA excursion in the Caribbean before paragliding in outer Mongolia. When my idea of a good weekend is a few fun jumps and maybe some Bed Bath and Beyond, if there’s time – am I really living the dream? Does anyone else’s dream include naps and gardening?

So this month’s reader question is:

What is your LTD?

What would you really be doing if you won the jackpot?

My LTD is owning my own tiny, slightly shabby house in Florida, flying in the tunnel every now and then, putting out a smutty little magazine every month, being my own boss, making a high hop & pop every once in a while, reading in a kayak on a lake on a sunny day. If I won the lottery, I’d pay off all my debt, buy a few paragliding trips to Utah, and keep on keepin’ on. Shamefully bland dream life, but totally the one I’d pick. Thankfully, it’s also the life I live! LTD, yo.

Select responses will be printed in the upcoming issue of Blue Skies Mag. Comment here or email me at lara@blueskiesmag.com. Sign your comment or email with your name or nickname as you would like it printed. Responses might be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity or space.

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