For many jumpers, spotting means looking to make sure the green light is on before tossing themselves from the door without so much as a look down to see where they are above the planet. Many seem so trusting of the green light that even if a pilot were to fly five miles out to sea and turn it on, it’s likely they would just blindly bail out and go for a swim. Thankfully, our jump pilots are not that cruel.
Spotting has become a lost art, as I noted in the article “Learning to Spot in a GPS World” in the December 2010 issue of Parachutist. Pilots now use GPS (global positioning system) devices in even the most basically equipped jump planes thanks to the wide availability of low-cost, hand-held GPS units. Gone are the days of a jumper hanging his head out the door of the airplane while still several miles away from the drop zone to provide corrections to the pilot and guide the airplane on the desired track across the ground. Now, the pilot uses a GPS for that guidance and can provide an accurate spot for the jumpers, load after load. So, why is it a big deal that we no longer spot with our heads out the door? In some situations, it diminishes the level of safety.
In most jump planes larger than a Cessna 182 or 206, the pilot uses a system of lights next to the jump door to communicate with the jumpers. But there is a widespread misunderstanding among jumpers (and probably some pilots) regarding the use of these lights. Over the years, jumpers have begun equating the green light with a command to exit the airplane. In reality, jumpers should consider the green light as a signal from the pilot that the airplane is configured properly and ready for jumpers to exit. Nothing more. The jumper still needs to check the spot and look for clouds and other aircraft before initiating the climb out and exit. This is where the old version of spotting had an advantage over what is happening today: Kneeling at the open door of the jump plane to give corrections to the pilot gave spotters plenty of time to look for conflicting air traffic and clouds.
True, your pilot is in contact with an air-traffic controller who should be providing warnings about nearby air traffic, but the controller can’t see if local traffic is departing the airport below and might become a factor. And the spotter has a better vantage point than the pilot when it comes to watching for clouds on jump run. Looking out of the door for a little while gives the spotter a chance to ask for corrections that can help keep the jumpers in clear airspace. If the jumper just takes a quick look down once the plane is directly over the spot, there won’t be any time available for needed corrections. And while the later groups in larger airplanes really don’t have the option to linger in the door and look around for very long, a quick look can still verify that the spot is where it needs to be, that the group can maintain the correct cloud clearances and that there is enough separation from the previous group.
There are lots of reasons why we should be looking out of our airplanes more than we currently do. Spend some time getting reacquainted with spotting the old-fashioned way and get your head out the door for a while. The fresh air will do you good, and you just might help save the day for your buddies.
Jim Crouch | D-16979 | USPA Director of Safety and Training