When friends drop in

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Skydiver jumping out of a plane with a second small aircraft in the background
images (modified): Adobe stock | Mauricio G | Martin

After an unsettling experience, Angela Stevenson decided to get familiar with parachute operations – and took the plunge.

Flying through a military parachute-training drop zone, I heard ‘Snowbird 4’ call 5 canopies had been dropped on the same side of the field – and at the same distance from it – as me.

Although I was sure I’d done the radio calls correctly, I felt uneasy for a few minutes. Snowbird 4 had clearly decided there would be no conflict and proceeded with the drop. However, it was still an unsettling experience, one that sent me on a deep dive (pun intended) into parachute operations.

To find out more, I took one for the team and jumped out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane. Have you? Because you should. In the name of research and development, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Not your thing? That’s okay. Here’s what I learnt.

A little knowledge

There is a lot to know about drop zones. Having ‘grown up’ at an airfield that was at times busy with jump operations, I thought I knew a little bit. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Researching this article revealed I really only knew the basics and was making assumptions. The best advice I received was – don’t assume anything.

It’s the performance on descent that would curl your average pilot’s eyebrows.

They’re fast talkers

Yes, that’s a generalisation, but jump pilots work on up to 3 frequencies:

  • CTAF for circuit calls and multiple additional calls required for a jump exercise
  • area frequency for clearances (controlled airspace entry, initiating drops, reporting when skydivers have exited controlled airspace)
  • a company frequency (more about this below).

Their airwaves are busy. They want to get their transmission in before someone ‘steps’ on the call causing heterodyning (awful screech), in which case nobody hears their message.

Rules are rules

Jump aeroplanes are classified as power-driven aircraft and, therefore. abide by CASA rules. The right-of-way rule applies on the ground, in the air and in emergencies. But beware – expectations vary. Some airfields (often private strips) may have negotiated jump run, drop or descent logistics with a jump operator.

However, parachutists in free fall or under canopy have right of way over aircraft, except balloons.

Fast or slow

Jump aircraft can be as small as a Cessna 172 or as large as a C17 Globemaster. However, Richard McCooey, CEO of the Australian Parachute Federation, says: ‘The C208 Caravan is now the most common jump aircraft. These often have upgraded engines and are operating IFR.’

A Cessna 182 might climb to 10,000 feet in about 20 minutes and a Kingair can rocket to 13,500 feet in about 10 minutes, but it’s the performance on descent that would curl your average pilot’s toes.

Some aircraft, for example, the Pilatus Turbo Porter, uses full-pitch propellor for braking on descent. I jumped from 15,000 feet over Moruya airfield but, by the time I had landed on my rear end on the beach (about 4.5 minutes), the turboprop Beaver I’d jumped from was already back at base, loading up.

So, yes, after the drop, the jump aircraft’s new mission is to return to base as quickly as is safe. However, the parachutist’s descent time does vary.

Julia McConnel has 27 years of skydiving experience. She’s jumped 11,000 times, at ‘almost every drop location in Australia’. She is a licensed tandem instructor, holds a PPL and is part-trained as a jump pilot.

She works for SkyDive Oz and solo jumped from the same aircraft I was in for my tandem. ‘At Moruya, when we exit at 15,000 feet, freefall, canopy open about 5,000 feet and land, it takes about 5 minutes,’ she says. ‘But if we open immediately after exit it can take up to 15 minutes.’

Geography and morphology

Drop zones are not like those nicely defined parcels of controlled or uncontrolled airspace, or prohibited, restricted or danger (PRD) zones marked on a chart. They’re more … ‘in this area’. That area might be described by a flight information region or aerodrome NOTAM, in the ERSA or a country airstrips guide, or indicated by a pink parachute symbol on a chart. They can be, and often are, temporary.

A drop zone may not be near, or at, the airfield from which the jump aircraft departs. For example, Caloundra Airport in Queensland hosts a significant jump operation but their associated drop zones have jumpers landing at a number of beaches on the coast.

Drop zones can be active day or night, cloudy or clear, and might be higher or wider than you think. Military and private exercises can originate from Class A airspace and pass through Class E to Class C, D or G, and might involve immediate or very late opening of the chute. And, although a ‘typical’ drop zone radius is within 1-2 nm of the landing site, the zone I flew through had a 15 nm radius!

‘At Moruya, technically, we could drop from anywhere,’ McConnel says. ‘This could be up to 10 miles away, as long as the jumper can make it back to the airport where the landing site is. But usually it’s within 1 nm, or occasionally further if the wind is stronger, perhaps up to 2 nm away.’

Cartography

The pink parachute symbol on some charts indicates parachute activity and, more specifically, a parachute landing area. It does not necessarily indicate the point at which a parachutist exits the aircraft. And it’s not always exact – sometimes it’s placed near the actual position in a spot that’s free of other symbols or important information.

However, if there’s not a pink parachute on a chart, it cannot safely be assumed that there is no drop zone or even that a drop zone will be activated by NOTAM. Military, temporary or display drops can happen anywhere, even onto private land. ‘For example, a display drop into the MCG is now rarely NOTAMed, relying instead on air traffic listening and watching,’ McConnel says.

Technology and documentation

Parachute operations within, or near, a PRD zone do not mean this zone will automatically light up on your EFB, or even be activated. And, not every drop zone is noted in the ERSA.

Toogoolawah, a private strip in Queensland where intense operations run almost every day of the year, does not have an ERSA entry. However, the jump operations are noted in Watts Bridge Airfield’s entry. Sometimes a drop zone’s information is only contained in a country airstrips guide or the like.

Flying in or near drop zones is not specifically taught (or tested) as part of the PPL or CPL syllabus.

The dead side

Depending on the aerodrome’s registration status, parachutists usually, but not always, descend on the dead side, where one is designated. Or sometimes it can be tricky, like Latrobe Valley in Victoria, with left-hand circuits on both runways and a drop zone landing site in the middle.

Ground control

Every jump exercise has something almost better than a co-pilot – a ground control assistant. Licensed by CASA to operate a radio, they communicate with the pilot on company frequency and are trained to interpret the weather, assess the safety of a jump operation from the ground and monitor hazards and aerial activities. It’s good to know someone on the ground is watching and listening; however, don’t let this lead you into complacency. They might assess the safety of the operation, but it’s not their job to make you a safe pilot.

A special breed of pilot

Paul Smith, owner and CEO of Skydive Oz Moruya, jump pilot and skydiver, has been in the business for ‘just a few decades’. ‘Once upon a time, everyone was doing it, without a lot of training,’ he says. ‘That led to the jump pilot authorisation. Since then, we’ve seen an amazing increase in jump pilot skill and technique.’

The authorisation requires a minimum PPL with 200 PIC hours. There’s a training syllabus – groundwork, theory exams, extensive airwork and a flight test. ‘Operating in a very complex environment requires next-level situational awareness – the human element, air traffic control, powerful engine management, fast-climbing aeroplanes and setting up the wind component correctly for the drop,’ Smith says. ‘You have to be very mindful about who you put in the cockpit. A lot of people don’t make it.’

What can I do?

Flying in or near drop zones is not specifically taught (or tested) as part of the PPL or CPL syllabus. Unlike entry into controlled airspace, there is no endorsement – it’s just part of understanding the variety of uses of airspace, aerodromes and landing areas. However, according to those in the zone, it starts with proper prior planning.

Things I can do on the ground

A WAC and a GPS are simply not sufficient for this scenario. As PIC, I need to review all the paper and digital info – find all the relevant NOTAMs (local, FIR, aerodrome, PRD and head office) and thoroughly read the ERSA or country airstrips guides (is it current?). And do this for the entire route, including alternate route and any planned alternate, nearby or contingency aerodromes.

If I’m still uncertain, I’ll phone the operator, aerodrome or NOTAM contact. And if I do, I’ll ask the jump aircraft’s callsign rather than waste precious mental energy figuring it out in the air and maybe missing other vital information.

I’ll also need to understand the weather at any drop zone I encounter. A jump aircraft will typically drop parachutists upwind of the landing site, so I’ll plan my approach to avoid that area. In very little wind, jumpers are more likely to be dropped directly overhead, so flying over the airfield would be a poor decision.

Things I can do in the air

Everyone I spoke to was adamant most potentially hazardous situations can be sorted out with good airmanship and communications (listening and talking).

ADS-B and transponder ON. (Don’t forget the Federal Government ADS-B subsidy.) ‘ADS-B and using flight tracking apps are the best thing!’ Smith says. ‘If an aircraft in the area hasn’t called – not realising or not required to be on CTAF – we or ATC will call them.’

I’ll listen on area and CTAF (on the correct frequencies) as soon as possible and establish where, and at what point of the run, the jump is at. If unsure, I’ll ask the jump aircraft or ATC. And I’ll give an accurate estimate for my arrival in the circuit and my intentions for joining.

I’ll ask the jump aircraft’s callsign rather than waste precious mental energy figuring it out in the air.

‘Also, make sure you know exactly where you are when you do your 10-mile call and call that so if you’re southwest, say southwest, not south,’ Smith says. ‘And make your 10 nm call at 10 nm. If a jump pilot is at a high flight level and someone gives a late inbound call, saying they’re in that area, it can really throw a spanner in the works! No jump pilot wants to be held up at a flight level that means a risk of hypoxia to their passengers.’

Coming into or being in the circuit near a jump exercise can be intimidating. Sheldon Jones, Head of Operations of Merit Aviation Flight School at Moruya, has shared the field with skydivers for 15 years.

A jump pilot himself, he says, ‘It’s all about negotiation and communication. Our students are taught to think ahead, for example, when the jump plane calls ‘4 minutes to drop’, to where they’ll be in the circuit, to make pertinent decisions. If they’ve just taken off and the jump pilot calls ‘dropped’, there would be no time to land again, so perhaps they’ll extend downwind. If chutes are about to land, the student won’t turn final until all parachutes are on the ground. Whatever they decide, they insert ‘copy the drop’ into their transmission when necessary and advise of any avoidance actions.’

And for flying at a drop zone, Jones has a great tip. ‘Before you start up, stop and watch a drop,’ he says. ‘See where they go and how the plane and parachutists come down. It will only take a few minutes and will be a few minutes well spent.’

However, the jump aircraft won’t take the same route every time, due to traffic, wind and the need to fly neighbourly. ‘Jump pilots don’t necessarily want to fly over the same parts of a neighbourhood every single time,’ Jones says.

And, of course, I’ll keep my eyes outside! From a cockpit, it’s impossible to see a skydiver freefalling at 200 km/hr with their canopy unopened, and still very difficult when it is, even at distances of less than 3 nm.

Australia has 50 registered jump operators, working with 90 or so aircraft and hundreds of authorised pilots, who undertake about 400,000 jumps a year. There are few major incidents involving jump aircraft and parachutists and other aircraft that it seems odd to expend so many words on the subject. But the truth is, it’s complex, and requires planning, consideration, and awareness.

Perhaps some pilots simply steer well away from drop zones and perhaps that’s a good thing. But if this information assists an aviator to fly safely into an incredibly scenic airport such as Moruya, then my words are not wasted.

See the Pilot safety hub for resources.