Fun and games at 14,000 feet: reflections of a jump pilot
In the storybook we call life, I’ve encountered a few individuals that could honestly say beyond the shadow of a doubt they’ve found great enjoyment in their work. Yes indeed, those fortunate few occupy a rather narrow space in terms of the job satisfaction arena. During my working career I can say with the utmost of sincerity that I’ve most certainly seen the “dark side.” I’d be willing to bet that most folks reading this have been there too. The hour-long drive to work on a congested highway. The toxic office environment. The overbearing supervisor. I’ll stop there; I’m sure those terse lines conjure up some interesting memories—to say the least.
I’m a survivor, and after just about 40 years in the trenches, I bailed out (no pun intended) and made it to a better place. Now you might find it odd that a 62-year-old guy would seek out and subsequently find employment as a jump pilot, but believe it or not, I did.
I should probably start out by saying that while I was still employed in a well paying corporate career, I owned a 1959 Cessna 182B for just about 16 years. When my wife and I made the decision to “go West” (not the same West typically ascribed to our dearly departed aviator friends), we knew that in order to make an early retirement work, the airplane along with all of the associated expenses had to go. We were also fortunate enough to have leveraged the real estate market in a way that minimized our relocation costs.
Moving forward, I told myself that from now on I was going to fly other people’s airplanes and get paid to do it. I’m a CFI so I knew I could always fall back on that to supplement my retirement income; but the fact of the matter is that I really wanted something new and exciting to do. Working for a DZO (Drop Zone Operation) as a jump pilot fit that bill to a tee.
Right off the bat I discovered that my old steed, the Cessna 182 (mostly B, C, and D models) are literally the backbone of the skydiving industry. That fact placed me in a most favorable position in my quest for securing employment.
Ultimately I ended up at a drop zone in Southern Colorado, about 50 miles or so southwest of Colorado Springs. The mountain scenery is just absolutely spectacular, and so radically different from my former East Coast environment. The story I’m about to relate to you occupies a very special place in my heart. I feel blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to fly approximately 1000 jump runs over the course of two eight-month seasons (March thru October). That said, here’s a snapshot of what it’s like. So buckle up and get ready for a ride to the top!
For starters, take everything you thought you knew about flying a Cessna 182 and throw it out the window. These 182s are mostly bare bones, and the way you fly them at full gross weight, on high density altitude days is an art form all unto itself. The interiors are gutted except for the pilot seat. The pilot and the jumpers enter the aircraft from the right side, stepping inside by way of a large steel platform attached over where the typical small Cessna step is on the landing gear strut. The door is a specially modified, top-hinged product that opens parallel to the wing and is secured open by virtue of a latching mechanism at altitude.
The right side yokes are removed, with that area becoming a back rest for a TI (Tandem Instructor) and his student. They are the last ones in, the pilot being first followed by the second TI and his student. That pair sitting in the back has to shuffle their way back on their butts (like a dog with worms), with the TI facing forward and the student sitting in between their legs. We would occasionally carry single sport jumpers too up over the DZ (Drop Zone), but for the most part two tandems were the preponderance of our business. Bottom line: five people in a 182 with equipment oftentimes made for very cozy and cramped quarters.
Before I forget, let me say that our company was one of three DZOs at our small mountain airport. On a busy day there could be four jump ships in the air at one time, all vying for a rapid gain in altitude in order to arrive over the DZ first, followed by a hasty descent to pick up the next load. When fire season was upon us you could also count on having to deal with a bevy of AT-802s (single engine turbine crop dusters retrofitted to carry fire retardant). Add to that a local military flight school that, for reasons beyond my comprehension, chose to send their training aircraft to our busy field to practice pattern work—a conversation for a different day. At any rate, I’m sure that by now you might be getting a good visual impression of just how busy and chaotic it could get.
The first load of the day for me was the best. You could always count on an early morning west wind, which meant a runway 29 departure, with the sun behind us illuminating those beautiful mountains. Aside from the pure pleasure of flying two very well maintained souped up 182s that each sported a P. Ponk engine conversion (O-520 rated at 285hp), one of my biggest takeaways was the happy customers that came out to jump with us. For most it was a “one and done” bucket list item to be scratched off as completed.
The vast majority of our customers were female, the notion of which I’ve always considered fascinating (as you know who from ST would say). I truly enjoyed their intrepid spirits and exuberant attitudes. The other thing to interject into that equation was our tandem instructors. I found it absolutely remarkable how these people knew how to put a first time jumper at total ease. It was really a sight to behold, how at around 12,000 feet and five minutes to “jumpers away,” those TIs would get their customers hooked up to them and have them drop their heads back in preparation for the moment they would depart the aircraft from 14,000 feet. From my perspective it was a look of total calm and complete surrender.
Another interesting observation is that in 1000 or so jump runs, I only witnessed about three or four last minute “chicken outs,” when the door opened (with only one of them being female). I found out afterwards that she had previously done a bungee jump off of a bridge! I couldn’t help but ask her later how she could bring herself to jump off of a high bridge, but then refuse to jump out of a perfectly good aircraft strapped securely to a big, strong, good looking guy well trained in the art of tandem skydiving?
Her response: “I just wasn’t ready.” Sounds like a perfectly good reason to me! Hats off to all those fearless young women; it was a real pleasure watching their grit and moxie.
The secret in getting “to the top” first truly lay in the pilot’s ability to leverage the thermals and updrafts, along with being able to recognize when trapped in the clutches of a mountain wave. You really become very deeply tuned in to the VSI, looking for an area alongside a ridge where you could get that 1000 to 1200 foot per minute rate of climb. On a hot, 95-degree day those thermals can really give you a quick boost.
Conversely, getting caught in a mountain wave can produce an opposing result, and one needs to “exit stage right” very quickly in order to break loose from it. It really forced me to consider and appreciate how glider pilots operate. Then you get those days where there’s little to no lift and you must learn to carefully manage oil temps by utilizing proper airspeed control, attitude, RPM, and mixture. The temptation is always there to keep pitching for a more aggressive climb rate, but I remember a few occasions where 14,000 feet was just out of the question. Truly the exception, but nonetheless something that required good judgment and planning. Lights loads (just a single tandem) generally meant a rocket ship ride to the top. Large bodies on a hot day meant a slow trip, especially when racing with competing jump ships for “two minutes to jumpers away.”
The first time you kick in some rudder and pop that big door open is a real thrill. You guessed it, watching two people strapped together jump out of an airplane you are flying is quite a treat for the eyes. Another kick of the rudder, a pull of the lanyard to close the door, shut the cowl flaps, and down you go. At some point during the descent the engine could start to run rough, calling for a fuel tank switch. A reasonably quick descent (to pick up another load) requires a steep spiral where airspeed is managed by bank angle. Drop down too fast and you might end up with a bad case of sinus head; it can really make your day. Fortunately I can count those days on one hand. Not only that, you’re not doing the engine or airframe any favors either.
I’m sad to say those days are over now. Due to rising costs and shrinking profit margins, the drop zone operator made the decision to shut down at the conclusion of my second season there. When considering the onslaught of COVID-19 the following March, that decision ended up not only being a wise one but also quite fortuitous. I’m happy to have all those great experiences under my belt, and I truly wish we could “play it again,” but some things are just meant to be.
In closing, my internal tape recorder located deep within the inner recesses of my brain housing will occasionally provide me with a small treat when I get to ruminating on a dark and dreary day: “Over the Fremont County Airport, 14,000 feet and below, jumpers away, jumpers away, do not overfly the field during skydiving operations – SKYDIVE!”