Jump Pilot's Notebook

by Don Yahrling

For some time, the United States Parachute Association (USPA) has been collecting material from "skydiver drivers" with the intention of creating a jump pilot's handbook. A few drop zones (DZ's) around the country already use something similar with their own flying staff, and USPA hopes the information presented here is just the first wave of a flood of responses from DZ's and jump pilots everywhere. If you're thinking about building some time and experience as a jump pilot, read on.-Editor This article is not intended to teach you how to fly; if you're an FAA-certificated pilot, you should already know how. Rather it is intended to inform the non- or aspiring jump pilot about the added challenges and techniques of flying jumpers. It also gives jumpers and DZ operators some appreciation for what pilots must go through to meet the needs of skydiving and the safety requirements. 

This article is written with the Cessna 182 Skylane in mind as the basic aircraft, since it is now, and will probably continue to be for years, the most widely used launch platform for skydiving. A pilot should read the operator's manual for the particular aircraft he or she will be flying. This might seem like a really bizarre thing to mention, but you can be sure that some jump pilots are reading this and convulsing with laughter because they've accumulated quite a few hours flying jumpers and still haven't seen one--the manual, that is.

If there is anything that you do not clearly understand in the operator's manual, ask the aircraft owner or the chief pilot to explain it. Always keep in mind that DZ operators want you to do things a certain way because, of course, you may not own the aircraft and these procedures have been proven to work safely with a minimum of wear and tear over the long haul. If you don't use them and get caught doing something unique, you might just be out of a job-or worse if what you attempted fails to work. The intention is not to scare you, but rather to assure that you fly in a manner that has been found to promote safe and efficient skydiving operations.

Now it's time to get down to business. We've printed in checklist form what jump pilots need to consider on every load. It's by no means everything that it takes to fly jumpers, but it's a sound start. Remember, what you read here is not the only way to do things, but it is one approach.

General Notes

1. All pilots should provide the DZ operator with a copy of his or her pilot's certificate and current Class I or II aviation medical certificate.

 2. Assuming you are already checked out in a Cessna 182, you should still take a check ride with the DZ's chief pilot so he or she can explain first hand and in real time what takes place from pre-flight to landing (for you and your jumpers).

 3. Every effort needs to be made to fly according to accepted standards of procedure and conduct. For example, the Kay Larkin Municipal, in Palatka, Florida, recognizes the normal left traffic pattern with 1,000 feet AGL as the appropriate altitude for light aircraft. So downwind takeoffs, right traffic, and high or low patterns are not really popular with the airport management, nor are aerobatics or stunting by pilots close to the airport.

 4. Keep in mind these two thoughts:

   "If you fly like a fool, expect to be treated as one."


   "When everything else is falling apart around you, fly the aircraft first!"


If the chief pilot completed the dual check ride thoroughly, you will quickly gain the confidence of your skydivers (and the DZ operator). Here's how the standard procedures go, in sequential order.

     -Before Loading: Make sure a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) is filed and activated and that you check the weather with your closest Flight Service Station.

     -Weather: You are the one who needs to know what the current and projected weather is supposed to be for the day (or evening, if you're doing night loads); it's your responsibility to call the closest Flight Service Station and find out. PBS's "A.M. Weather" (although very well done), The Weather Channel, and the like, don't normally satisfy FAA personnel or NTSB investigators as meeting the requirements of an "approved source." Also, learn the peculiarities of the geographic area you are flying in. Things like mountain waves and lenticular cloud forms are just pictures in a book to a jump pilot who has only flown in Florida. And don't forget "density altitude" if you've got a heavy load.

     -Weight and Balance: Seasoned jump pilots are really good at estimating sizes and weights of a load, coupled with fuel load, temperature, elevation, and so on. But they got to be that way through time and experience. There should be a sample weight and balance for various loads with the aircraft paperwork that can help here. As for the legendary five- or six-jumper Cessna 182, it's really a matter of whether or not the weight and balance works. But there had better be enough seat belts, done with the proper approvals. Not all FAA Airworthiness Inspectors are easily hoodwinked. And although a strong C-182 can carry five jumpers without difficulty, it may be hard to try to explain away that extra person without approved paperwork during a mishap investigation.

    -Seatbelts: Skydivers, as a rule in times past, had a generalized aversion to wearing seat belts, even when they were provided. A great deal of that came from the days of the open-door Cessnas. Most 182's used for jumping these days have in-flight doors, so the odds of a canopy going out the door are greatly reduced. Crashes of jump aircraft in recent years seem to be modifying the obsolete attitude of not using seat belts. And the FAR now say that the pilot will ensure they are donned prior to taxiing. No snivels allowed here.

 [Note: The following procedures are specific to the Cessna 182; for jump aircraft of a different make and model, please consult the operating handbook for the aircraft and the chief pilot's or DZ procedures.-Editor]

   Before Takeoff:
    -Controls FREE
    -Fuel selector on BOTH
    -Check mixture FULL RICH
    -Prop IN
    -Trim SET
    -Cowl flaps OPEN
    -Jump door SECURE
    -Transponder SQUAWK 1200 or dedicated code.

    -Announce intentions on UNICOM (ground or tower as appropriate)
    -Center aircraft on runway
    -Advance throttle smoothly to FULL IN
    -Lift nosewheel at 60 mph IAS
    -Rotate at 75-80
    -Accelerate to 105 mph for climb after out of ground effect.

    -Reduce throttle to 24 inches manifold pressure
    -Reduce prop to 2,400 rpm, or it may require 23 inches and 2,350 rpm when O.A.T. exceeds 85 degrees F. to maintain oil temperature (205 degrees C., or lower)
    -Use 80-110 mph IAS for climb.
    -Set fuel selector as required.
    -Find out where the climb-out area is to avoid other traffic.

   At Altitude:
    -Close cowl flaps
        -Reduce power to 15 inches manifold pressure, or as required to maintain altitude
    -Prop to 2,200-2,300 rpm
    -Stabilize airspeed at 80-85 mph for jump run.
    -For formations, the lead aircraft should make the altitude on the base leg and maintain 90 mph for climbout and jump run.
    -Don't forget to advise your air traffic control facility that you are about to drop jumpers (usually one minute prior). Also, announce on UNICOM that you are about to drop and declare "jumpers away." Check with the DZ operator on arrangements with local ATC for coordinating jump operations.
    -After the Exit: Close the door, but the job's not over just yet. Most places want you to count canopies after the load opens and also keep an eye out for malfunctions and reserves. One drop zone even requires its pilots to put a clock on the jumpers after opening. That one seems a bit extreme and would more properly be the job of the management. Besides, you've got lots to do as it is-things like flying the airplane, watching for other traffic, wishing you had checked the fuel before you took off, and so on. Remember, you are required to advise air traffic control when all jumpers land unless other arrangements have been made.

    -Flaps UP
    -Jump door closed and bolted
    -Cowl flaps CLOSED
    -Initially, set throttle at 15 inches and the prop at 2,200 rpm.
    -Use racetrack patterns with gentle banks. It's okay to let the airspeed build up to the top of the green arc (160 mph IAS) with no bank in smooth air; when turbulence is encountered, drop speed to 120-130 mph IAS and reduce manifold pressure as required (keep the oil warm and don't drop below 10 inches if at all possible!).
    -Descend away from the jumpers' opening area if other aircraft are dropping.
    -Reduce manifold pressure gradually to no less than 12 inches, keeping oil temperature above 150 degrees C.
    -Keep your eyes open for traffic and announce your intentions over Unicom.

  Before Landing:
    -Do not exceed 120 mph for pattern entry.
    -Fuel selector on BOTH
    -Mixture FULL RICH
    -Prop FULL IN
    -Carb heat as required.
    -If you're below 100 mph IAS, use flaps as needed.
    -Trim for 80-90 mph IAS for downwind and base, 70-80 for final. Slips with full flaps are prohibited by the aircraft handbook and should not be attempted.
    -At flare time, maintain a level attitude until airspeed deteriorates to approximately 50 mph IAS; Hold the nosewheel off as long as possible; easy on the brakes. Let it roll!

   After Landing:
    -Cowl flaps OPEN
    -Flaps UP
    -Transponder OFF
    -Taxi slowly, watching for errant jumpers under canopy and other traffic.

Emergency Procedures

If you experience engine failure while still on the ground, stop! Don't push it. If you should run into problems after you're airborne, here's what to do.

   Engine failure after takeoff:
    -Check fuel selector on BOTH
    -Mixture at FULL RICH.
    -Maintain straight and level if below 400 feet AGL and make a power-off landing.
    -Prior to landing, turn the fuel selector to OFF, mixture to FULL LEAN, mags and master to OFF, and unlatch the doors.
    -Land as slowly as possible, with full flaps, and clear the aircraft after impact.

 Engine failure aloft:
    -Above 1,000 feet AGL, jumpers should be given the option of jumping.
    -From 1,000 feet, you should always be in a position to return to land, if not, you've screwed up.

   Engine fire:
    -Fuel selector OFF
    -Mixture FULL LEAN
    -Mags and master OFF
-Jumpers should exit.
    -Attempt to extinguish fire by gaining airspeed, but use the fire extinguisher to save your bacon; if you have no luck, point it to an open area and BAIL OUT. As for jump pilot bail out techniques, ask a pilot who is also a jumper, usually the chief pilot. The bottom line is, "If ya gotta go, ya gotta go."

 Specialized Procedures
Skydivers ask a lot of a jump pilot, often to a point which the pilot doesn't regard as important. With a little information about how we do what we do as skydivers, the well-informed jump pilot will be able to comply with and understand those rather unusual requests.

   Spotting and Corrections: Skydivers generally like to exit the aircraft upwind of the target (the pea gravel or other landing area is normally used as a reference), with the distance upwind dependent on the wind velocity from opening altitude (2,000-3,000 feet AGL for experienced jumpers, 3,000-5,000 for students, and 4,000-5,500 feet or higher for tandems and canopy formations) to the ground.

 Upper winds in many areas really only affect skydiving a few days a year, as most of the jump is spent in freefall with only negligible drift. Normally it pays to get the winds at altitude from the FSS before takeoff or at least en route to drop altitude, especially in some locations with historically strong uppers.

 Often, the jump pilot is asked to fly a wind drift indicator (WDI or "streamer") pass, especially before student operations. Fly into the wind, over the target, just as you would a normal jump run. You'll be given corrections by verbal or hand signals to correct left or right, usually in increments of five degrees. Once the jumper throws the WDI, close the door, do a quick 90-degree turn (watch the G's, as the jumpmaster is kneeling; it doesn't amuse your other "occupants" either), level off, and look for the WDI. Make sure the spotter sees it, too, then scan for traffic regularly, beginning a climb to your next altitude but making an effort to position the aircraft so that the jumper sees the WDI until it lands. He or she should then give you a jump run to use.

 On jump run, attempt to keep the wings level and airspeed at 80-85 mph since many spotters use the plane as a reference. If you've made the ticket altitude when they climb out, that's all one can ask for. The aircraft is going to descend if you maintain the same airspeed during the climbout; adding power in an attempt to hold the altitude is frequently done with experienced loads, but it can cause difficulties when students are trying to climb outside. Use the aileron to keep the wings level, and try to keep the ball centered. Careful! The left rudder closes the jump door, which is not nice to do with four outside on the step trying to launch a formation, a static line student hanging from the strut, three or four people on a Level I AFF jump, or a tandem pair with video exiting as the door slams down on them.

     -Flight Planning: Think about what positions over the ground you want to be in at specific altitudes. The military refers to this sort of thing as "backwards planning." Where do you want to be when the load exits? The answer: Over the exit point (or spot) at the altitude on the ticket. Where do you want to be when you turn onto jump run? You should be a couple of hundred yards short of the pea gravel or other target, at ticket altitude, flying over the peas, into the wind, toward the spot.

     -Flat Turns: Jumpers definitely do not want a coordinated check ride-style turn. Corrections while a jumper is spotting are made with the rudder, not the yoke. You'll only get about 15-20 degrees out of the rudder before you eventually have to use an aileron, but that should tell you that the jumper's idea of where the run should be doesn't coincide with your own.

     -Jump Door: You--the jump pilot--should be the one to operate it, unless you trust the jumper who is opening it and are sure he or she knows how. The Feds say the pilot has to do it, though. Open the door at approximately 90 mph or less; try not to open it above 120 mph or you may buy an airplane and possibly get to make your first freefall. Close it by briskly pushing on the left rudder pedal. Make sure a jumper, static line or seat belt isn't in the way.

     -Students (Static line, freefall, AFF, and Tandem): All students should exit no lower than 3,000 feet or above. At the Palatka Parachute Center, static line jumps are from 3,500 feet AGL, student freefalls are from 3,500-9,500 feet, tandems from 10,500, and AFF jumps all from 11,500 or better with Cessnas. With students, it also helps to get the airspeed down to 70-80 for the actual climbout, then allow the nose to drop slightly and accelerate to 80-90 mph or so as they go.

 On instructional jumps, make right-hand orbits for static line and freefall students, allowing the jumpmaster (JM) to observe the student during exit and freefall before closing the door. At higher altitudes (7,500 feet), the jumpmaster will normally follow the student out.

 Always check to see that a student jumper's static line is connected prior to opening the door on jump run. The JM shouldn't mind your backing him/her up.

 AFF jumps leave as a group, one or two JM's, the student, and possibly a video person. Tandem pairs are attached to each other, though there may be video or still camera folks or a qualified jumper going along to observe.

 CRW stands for canopy relative work. These folks get out of the airplane and open their canopies immediately, then maneuver their canopies in order to hook up with each other. They may want no "cut" (or power reduction) for exit but rather a higher airspeed. CRW jumpers may also ask for a downwind or crosswind jump run. Okay, fine, no sweat. You might wish to orbit them at a safe distance until they are down below 3,000 feet to watch out for other aircraft (or to locate them when they inadvertently land off the airport).

     -Demos: Timing is everything during an exhibition skydive. You're normally doing a paid demonstration jump within a specific time frame, so get wherever you need to be early; allow for a slower climb if you've got more fuel on board than usual.

 Because many demos are in high-traffic areas, a little extra vigilance is often the hot tip. You may wish to circle the drop area until all jumpers are on the ground. You'll sometimes have an abnormally high amount of radio traffic and have to switch frequencies a lot more, so the workload is usually greater in a demo situation than on an average load at the DZ.

Just the Basics

There's lots to disagree with in this article, and we'll probably hear about it quickly enough. But this information represents just one method of jump flying that has proven itself to be moderately successful for the last eighteen years. However, the author is certainly neither old enough nor bold enough to ignore good advice -- especially about flying. Thanks for tunin' in!

USPA National Director Don Yahrling, D-4077, is an FAA commercial pilot, with ASMEL, Instrument, CFI and DC-3 type ratings. He's been skydiving since 1967, flying jumpers since 1976, and is also a Master parachute rigger. Yahrling holds USPA's conventional and AFF Instructor/ Examiner ratings, working since 1989 as Director of the AFF Jumpmaster and Instructor Certification Course and has served on USPA's board as a member of the Safety and Training Committee. This article originally appeared in the April 1995 issue of Parachutist.

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