As the freefalling skydiver deployed his main parachute and stabilized under the blossoming canopy, the sight of an aircraft in close proximity shocked him out of his freefall high. The aircraft almost immediately banked into a steep turn to avoid the imminent mid-air collision.
That scene has been repeated all too often and has resulted in fatal accidents. There are numerous skydiving clubs across Canada, mostly at uncontrolled aerodromes, but a few operate at larger airports with a control tower or flight service station (FSS). And over the past few years, I have watched the comings and goings of numerous pilots across our local drop zone. Overflying pilots appear to be unaware of the skydiving activity and often fail to respond when I try to contact them on the radio.
At the Drop Zone
Parachutists normally leave the plane somewhere between 2500 and 12,500 ft. AGL. If they exit the plane at 2500 ft., they will open their parachutes almost immediately. If they exit at 12,500 ft., they will freefall for about 60 seconds before opening their parachutes at 2500 ft. Parachutists always exit the plane upwind of their intended landing site. If the wind is calm, they will exit directly overhead the landing site. If the wind is 10 to 20 kt., they will exit about 1/2 mi. upwind. On very windy days, the exit point could be a mile or more upwind.
Planes used for skydiving are either climbing or descending. There is never a level-off, cruise phase. As a result, the pilot is never in the best position for seeing out of the plane. All due caution is exercised, but it is difficult to see out of the windscreen when the nose is high. The descent phase is very rapid. The plane is flying quickly and has a high rate of descent.
If you wish to land at, or fly past, an airport where skydiving is taking place, the best tool is your radio. On the right frequency, you can determine where the jumpers are, and you can advise the jump-plane pilot of your position and intentions.
If there is an FSS or a control tower at the airport, it is easy. Simply follow the directions you are given. The specialist or controller has the big picture and can keep you clear of any jump operations.
However, most drop zones are at uncontrolled airports, and arrivals there are not quite so easy. There usually is no one to give you the wind direction or the preferred runway. You have to overfly the airport in order to see the windsock. Once you know the wind direction, you can decide on the best runway. Using this technique at an airport where skydiving is in progress can be hazardous, simply because there will likely be open parachutes below 2500 ft. AGL in the area.
Arrival at a drop zone should start well back from the airport. Listen for a while; jump pilots make general broadcasts when the jumpers are getting close to exiting and again right at exit time. If you hear a jump plane, you can ask for the winds and runway in use. If you do not hear any activity, make a blind broadcast. To be safe, make this request or broadcast a few times as you get closer. Depending on how busy the drop zone is, it may take a couple of tries before you get an answer. Plan your arrival such that you do not overfly or fly upwind of the airport. This may necessitate a wide circuit of two or more miles from the airport. If the drop zone is active, it might be safer to do a right-hand circuit, entering on the base leg or even doing a straight-in approach. Ensure that you keep the other traffic informed of your intentions.
If you do not get a response to your radio calls, perhaps no one is in the air, or perhaps the jump-plane either does not have a radio or the pilot is not using it. Err on the side of caution and assume that there are parachutes in the air. Fly as close to the airport as necessary to determine the wind direction, but no closer. Make this pass on the downwind side of the airport at 90° to the forecast wind. This will minimize the time that you are in the area where parachutes might be. If you have two people on board, give the non flying person the job of looking for parachutes while the pilot assesses the wind direction. Make frequent radio broadcasts informing other traffic of your intentions.
Transiting the zone
The best advice is simply not to overfly a drop zone. Pass at least 5 mi. away from the aerodrome. Monitor the published frequency and broadcast your position, altitude and intentions. If you do overfly, broadcast when overhead and when clear of the zone so that the pilot knows when it is safe to let the skydivers exit their aircraft. Keeping people informed is your best defence.
Don is a commercial pilot who flies jump planes and is an active parachutist.
Originally Published: ASL 2/1997
Original Article: Skydiving