Skydiving for Pilots: Becoming a Good Jump Pilot

As a pilot, you may have skydived before or even considered becoming a skydive pilot. This article is for you!

In it, we will discuss the basics of skydiving from the point of view of the skydiver. We’ll help you understand what makes a good skydive pilot and what safety considerations need to be taken into account. If you’re interested in becoming a good jump pilot, keep reading!

Introduction to sky diving

The basic premise of skydiving is simple. You jump out of an airplane at a high altitude, enjoy hurtling through the sky toward the ground for a bit and then deploy your parachute to slow your rate of descent down so that you can eventually flare and land on the ground (or water) without injury or death.

Skydiving is a highly technical sport with many different types of skydiving, from standard free fall, to high-performance chutes with high forward drives (think of them as portable fabric gliders!) right through to death-defying wing suiters who fly around like birds through canyons and put their helmet go pro footage on youtube.

Skydivers exiting a light aircraft

What makes a good skydiving pilot?

There are many things that make a good skydiving pilot. In this article, we’ll just focus on the basics. This means;

  • Flying the correct speeds
  • Using the correct power settings
  • Flying the correct run in tracks (which means using a correct wind correction crab angle!)
  • Appropriate use your rudders for balance, and
  • The communication jumpers are looking for (words and hand signals).

But the most important thing is…

Safety first!

The number one priority for any skydiver is safety. This means having the correct separation requirements, jump durations, and understanding skydiving terminology for deconfliction (i.e. avoiding mid-air collisions and keeping your ‘chicks’ safe). You have to be able to safely operate and stay ahead of aircraft which means having a decent amount of flight experience.

Flying the correct speeds

Skydiving is a speed-sensitive sport. The skydiver needs to exit the aircraft at a predictable and safe speed to ensure safe separation from the aircraft.

Allowing the speed to vary rapidly, or to creep up excessively will definitely upset your jumpers, or at worst cause an accident.

You should always double-check your Indicated Air Speed is within 3 knots of the target jump speed before calling green light or signaling for your jumpers to exit. Your target jump speed is found in your company standard operating procedures, and your aircraft manual or the modification release.

Releasing jumpers too fast can cause air-blast injuries, or even damage static line equipment, and releasing jumpers too slow can result in flying with too high of an angle of attack (tail low) limiting separation clearance and potentially risking stalling the aircraft. In either situation, the airflow characteristics is not what the jumpers are expecting, or what was certified during clearance trials.

To ensure you fly the correct speed, ensure the aircraft is in the correct configuration (flaps and doors) and use the correct power settings for the weight.

skydive pilot release
Flying the correct configuration, power and speed greatly improves release safety.

Using the correct power settings

Each skydiving load typically has a set of power settings for takeoff, climb and cruise. These are found in the skydive company’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) or jump plan. For most aircraft, this is pretty close to maximum power to ensure the quickest turnarounds.

However, at the point of release, the power setting is often reduced so as to release jumpers at a safe airspeed for separation. Correct power and attitude settings must be flown in order to achieve this airspeed.

Flying with higher power settings than prescribed can alter the slip stream around the aircraft, and cause the aircraft to accelerate. Throttle bashing, or constantly chasing the airspeed with power is also not recommended, as it constantly shifts the balance and pitch of the aircraft, making it difficult for skydivers who may be trying to stand up and ready themselves for exit

Flying the correct tracks

Skydivers have very little control over their flight path whilst ballistic. For skydiving, the aircraft is pretty much their only way of steering and maneuvering. Therefore it is vital that skydiving pilots fly predictable run in tracks and heights so jumpers can get where they want to go, without resorting to emergency procedures such as cutting away or tracking away.

For lower altitude static line jumps, flying a correct wind adjusted run-in heading to ensure correct tracking is vital to ensuring the skydiver safely makes the DZ (drop zone). Landing off DZ can be extremely dangerous and skydivers have died before going into trees, wires, and traffic.

Higher performance skydiving chutes when opened at altitude can compensate for poor pilot tracking through the use of forward drive, some can even reach up to 1 nm per 1000ft, but this should not detract from your attention to detail to reach the correct wind adjusted release gate.

skydive pilot static line
low altitude static line jumps using circular chutes like this gives jumpers very little control over their flightpath

Appropriate use of rudder for balance

The use of rudder in skydiving is often misunderstood and can be the difference between a good jump pilot and an excellent one. Rudder should only ever be used to maintain balance in the aircraft- it should never be used to try and ‘steer’ the aircraft.

Some advanced techniques call for pilots to deliberately sideslip the aircraft during emergencies such as a hung up skydiver, which allows clearance between the hung up skydiver and the aircraft whilst a jumpmaster either cuts them away or tries to winch them back into the aircraft.

Pilots who overuse or abuse their rudder will quickly find that their jumpers will be unhappy and be all over the aircraft – it becomes difficult for them to maintain any semblance of balance. Additionally, incorrect use of rudder can cause an increase in drag on the aircraft, slowing you down and making it more difficult to reach your target airspeed.

Correctly using the rudder is a delicate balancing act! (pun intended)

skydive pilot military free fall paratroopers
Ensuring you fly in balance is crucial for parachutists to safely exit the ramp without falling over on their way out. Military pilots train long and hard to ensure safe and effective Military Free Fall Paratrooper operations.

Communication jumpers are looking for

As a skydiving jump pilot, you are the eyes and ears and situational awareness of the jumpers in your aircraft. They rely on you to keep them safe and informed during the skydive.

One of the most important things for a jumper is knowing when they will be exiting the aircraft. This allows them to get into position and prepare themselves for exit.

The accepted industry standard is a firm call of “GREEN LIGHT” whilst simultaneously pressing the ‘Jump’ Button to cause the jump light to illuminate. Conversely, a call of “RED LIGHT” and pressing the ‘Stop’ button indicates to cease jumping.

It is important your jump master and skydivers understand this terminology and signals

Hand signals whilst skydiving are important because you can’t hear each other in freefall, but they can also be just as useful in the aircraft before exiting as cargo bays can be loud from engine noise, vibrations and open doors or ramps.

Common signals between the pilot, jump master and the jumpers include;

  • Crossed index and pointer (crossed ‘wish’ fingers) = 30 SEC TO DROP
  • Hand up vertical open palm with 5 digits out = 5 SECONDS TO DROP (some pilots then choose to close fingers to count down the seconds
  • Hand up vertical chopping motion up and down = “GREEN LIGHT”
  • Horizontal palm cutting motion near neck = “RED LIGHT”
  • Nodding = YES
  • Shaking head sideways = NO
skydive pilot communication
communication is very important for parachute operations. What do you think this jumper is saying?

To reduce fatigue and improve communication, consider using a noise cancelling headphone like the Bose A20

Legal aspects of skydiving operations

There are some legal aspects of skydiving operations – the pilot in command of an aircraft engaged in parachuting operations must take all reasonable measures to ensure that parachutists exit the aircraft only if:

  • there is no risk of any part of the aircraft being fouled by parachutists or their equipment when they exit
  • the operation does not impose adverse stress on any part of the aircraft structure
  • the descent is able to be made in meteorological conditions where the target is clearly visible and the parachutist does not enter cloud, unless CASA specifies otherwise in writing
  • loose objects that, if dropped, could create a hazard to people or property on the ground or the water, are not carried by parachutists when exiting the aircraft.

The skydiving pilot must take all reasonable measures to ensure the skydivers reach the intended target (that is, following all of the steps above to be a good skydiving pilot), and must make a broadcast at least two minutes prior to skydivers exiting the aircraft. The broadcast must include

  • Exit location (assumed by Air Traffic Control as within 1nm of the Drop Zone – if not you must inform otherwise, for example, cross country skydiving competitions)
  • Position of drop zone
  • Exit altitude (jump altitude)
  • Number of parachute canopies to be dropped

For example “All stations Sydney Harbour, Alpha-Bravo-Charlie IFR Fletcher is 2 minutes to drop over Bondi beach Drop Zone at 15,000ft, 6 canopies, All stations Sydney Harbour”

Pilots must also ensure they and the skydivers have clearance to transit any airspace they transit in their descent, for example controlled airspace.

Finally, sky dive pilots in unpressurised must use supplemental oxygen if the aircraft operates above FL120, or above 10,000 ft AMSL for more than 15 minutes, at night or in IMC

For more information, you should consult your civil aviation authority. In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority provides this information.

Safe separation standards as a skydiving pilot

The skydiving pilot should maintain a separation distance of at least 500 feet vertically between the aircraft and skydivers, and 600m horizontally between each skydiver descending under a canopy. This requires a very good lookout for visual seperation. If skydivers are intending to use the airport as their DZ, good airmanship would dictate that you wait for the last canopy to safely land before making your final approach to land.

How to become a skydiving pilot

If you’re interested in becoming a skydiving pilot, there are a few things you need to do. You will need to have a commercial pilots licence to be a paid jump pilot, and rated to fly the skydiving aircraft in use (such as a Cessna 182, Fletcher turbine aircraft or even larger multi engine aircraft like a Casair). An instrument rating or multi engine rating aren’t necessary, but are an advantage.

First, talk to experienced jump pilots, and go ahead and make an appointment to go and do a tandem jump. This will be invaluable at giving you an insight into the jump pilot world and help you understand the skydiving community a bit better and whether this is actually something you want to do, rather than just be a step on the career ladder to build up flight hours.

Then, if it is for you, start studying skydiving theory. You can do this by reading the CASA Parachuting Operations Manual, or taking an online course such as the one offered by the Australian Parachute Federation (APF) or the United States Parachute Association (USPA).

Once you’ve completed your skydiving theory, it’s time to put it into practice. The best way to do this is to find a skydiving school and do some more skydives with an instructor. This will help you network and build credibility as a pilot.

skydive pilot tandem
Tandem jumps are the first steps to becoming a skydiver and a good skydive pilot

ou don’t need to get rated (earn your solo skydiving license), but having some more experience jumping is invaluable, and will earn you more respect as a skydiving pilot. This will make it much easier to earn a skydiving pilot rating as you have connections and can speak to the pilots who flew your jump, but it will also give you an advantage over other pilots. It also gives you the confidence to know if anything goes wrong, you can safely jump ship.

To get a jump rating as a pilot is fairly straightforward, jump pilot training involves learning from a certified flight instructor how to operate flying skydivers. This means being able to safely coordinate a pre-flight jump brief, fill out a drop card for wind conditions, flight plan, make correct radio calls and call outs / hand signals to the jumpers, and fly the aircraft safely and smoothly and deal with basic jump emergencies.

commercial certificate Licencing requirements are subtly different across countries, but most often a licensed pilot examiner can sign you off for a jump rating – check with your aviation regulator what is specifically required to be submitted.

Summary of becoming a good jump pilot

If skydiving is something you’re interested in, following the tips above should help ensure you become a great skydiving pilot. Making sure you fly the numbers smoothly and in balance is sure to make skydivers happy to jump with you, stick after stick after stick.

Becoming a jump pilot is a great achievement and after training it is a lot of fun flying the plane. Over time of course, you will build hours, gain experience in commercial aviation and have a lot of fun learning to safely operate as a commercial pilot and fly jumpers.

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Ken

Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 17 years of flight experience across hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way. Find out more.

Ken has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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