Good Pilot/Bad Pilot

Flying an unairworthy aircraft is like jumping a tattered old rig with a parachute that has big holes in it. And having an untrained or unqualified pilot fly an unairworthy plane is like giving that tattered old rig to a student and not teaching him how to cut away and pull his reserve. Seems absurd, right? Sadly, history shows us a long list of aircraft accidents in the skydiving industry that started with a poorly maintained plane flown by someone who didn’t know how to appropriately handle the malfunctions that occurred.

People at the DZ will sometimes say, “He is such a good pilot,” or, “He is a really bad pilot.” Do you ever ask yourself what a good or bad pilot really is? Every time we make a skydive, we are managing and accepting our own individual risk. And although on the ride to altitude, the aircraft and pilot are beyond our control, we should know that we have boarded an airworthy plane flown by a qualified pilot.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued a special investigation report compiling all skydiving aircraft accident synopses since 1980. It is poignant to read; the tragedy of these airplane accidents is the large loss of life coupled with the fact that most were highly preventable. What is truly astounding is that of the 31 accidents in the report, 28 were determined to be caused by pilot error. In 18 of those 28, nothing was mechanically wrong with the plane. In the remaining 10 of those 28, various aircraft emergencies occurred that were not correctly handled by the pilot, so the blame is shared between improper maintenance or malfunction of the aircraft and inadequate flying skills. Two of the 31 have undetermined causes. Only one, a stabilizer-trim-control malfunction that may have been impossible to fly, was solely blamed on a failure of the aircraft.

Now do not panic, there is hope in this story. The NTSB doesn’t publish a report every time there is an emergency in which the pilot does everything correctly and safely lands the plane. There are many of these instances—I can think of several in my experience as a pilot and several more that I have witnessed. Furthermore, many of these accidents in the NTSB’s report occurred nearly 30 years ago. Regulations on both aircraft maintenance and pilot training have evolved and improved. At this very moment, USPA is working in response to that NTSB report to ensure that every operator understands the FAA regulations and indicates that their aircraft is inspected in conformity with those regulations. The FAA will continue to oversee the safety of our skydiving operations.

In the meantime, let’s hold ourselves to the highest standards and begin to educate ourselves on what to expect from and how to support our pilots. We must continue to improve our collective reputation to the general public and most importantly, work together to prevent completely avertable tragedy. So what is a good pilot or a bad pilot?

A Good Pilot Flies a Well-Maintained Plane

In many cases you can see beyond the facts in the NTSB report and get an underlying sense of what type of operation each DZ was in terms of compliance to safety practices. Several exhibited a consistently hazardous attitude and lack of common sense. For instance, in one of the cases mentioned in the NTSB report, the investigators discovered that the operator knowingly put contaminated fuel into his planes for months, which inevitably caused an engine to fail. In other cases, operators hadn’t performed maintenance inspections, and jump pilots knowingly flew aircraft with major discrepancies. Unlike a car, an aircraft can’t simply be pulled over to the side of the road when it finally breaks down—a good pilot will verify, to the best of his ability, that he is flying an airplane that is legal and current on maintenance. He will perform a thorough preflight check before each day of skydiving. He will be confident that the fuel is not contaminated. Fortunately, these tragic instances of gross neglect have tapered away greatly in the last 15 years.

A Good Pilot is Well Trained and Current

You should expect your pilot to meet the licensing requirements as laid out by the FAA. Every DZ pilot should hold a commercial pilot’s certificate. You should expect him to review his emergency procedures annually (preferably in a simulator), just as skydivers do. He should be capable of flying his aircraft competently at all times, in all phases of flight.

When the aircraft does have a problem, a pilot should have the basic knowledge and training to maintain control of the plane, keep it flying at a safe airspeed and do his best to land it somewhere safely. Jump pilots need unique skills and work under distinctive circumstances—they perform takeoffs that are almost always at maximum gross weight, the weather is usually warm, runways are often short, jump runs are flown at low speeds with hundreds of pounds of people hanging off the side or the back of the planes and oftentimes the pilots will fly in formation. Jump pilots should receive special training and should carefully consider how to fly in these many different configurations.

A shocking 19 of the 31 accidents were caused by pilots who did not prevent a simple aircraft stall and were unable to recover from the subsequent spin. Although there is no FAA requirement for jump pilots to receive spin training, aircraft operators are at liberty to insist on documented spin training as a pre-employment requirement. In addition, for multi-engine aircraft operators, recurrent training for flight with one engine inoperative is crucial. (The lack of this basic skill resulted in five of the catastrophic crashes in the NTSB’s report.)

A Good Pilot Follows the FARs

Several accidents that were blamed solely on the pilot resulted from blatant ignorance of or disregard for the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Typically, rules are in place to protect us and if we follow them we can preclude most serious problems. For example, oxygen requirements are in place because extensive studies have been done on hypoxia—the mandated altitude limits are not arbitrary. One pilot cited in the NTSB report routinely climbed to 18,000 feet with no oxygen for himself or the jumpers (4,000 feet above the FAR limit for flying without oxygen for jump pilots, 3,000 feet higher than that for skydivers). On his last and fatal flight, he climbed to 20,000 feet and became so hypoxic that after the jumpers exited, he descended into the ocean, never to be found. In another instance cited in the NTSB’s study, a pilot attempted a high-speed, low-altitude pass, known as a “buzz job,” and crashed into a parked van. A sad story, yet fortunately his choices did not take a life other than his own.

You should be aware of whether your DZ generally exhibits a safe mindset or is inappropriately lenient with its pilot about safety issues. A good pilot will not jeopardize himself and others to show off, thrill the crowd or give his buddies a few extra seconds of freefall. He will have an understanding of federal regulations and will know the consequences of choosing to operate beyond them.

A Good Pilot Pays Attention

At all airports, but particularly those that are very active with non-jump-ship air traffic, it is important that your pilot monitors the radio and keeps an eye on the sky to reduce potential conflicts. Just remember that this is a team effort and someone from each group of jumpers should check the spot, look for traffic and check for clouds before exiting. Just as you are responsible to see and avoid others under canopy, pilots are responsible for doing the same with other aircraft and jumpers.

The NTSB special report cites only one fatal accident involving conflict between jump aircraft, a formation load. In this accident, the two pilots had no experience flying formation loads, and the pilot of the trail plane did not maintain his slot on jump run and passed the lead plane. When the jumpers exited the trail plane, one person struck the propeller of the lead plane and was killed. The pilot of the lead plane subsequently shut down the affected engine and both aircraft landed safely.

A Good Pilot Has To Be the Bad Guy Sometimes

Your pilot should be sure that basics, such as requiring that passengers belt in or wear helmets on takeoff and keep their seatbelts fastened until the determined altitude, are followed. He should be aware of weight and balance and let jumpers know if he needs them to load or exit in a particular way. He shouldn’t be afraid to tell jumpers if they’re doing something he doesn’t like.

If the DZ has a very short runway, loads may be limited to fewer people than the plane would normally carry, especially on a hot day. (Overloading the plane was considered a contributing factor in nine of the accidents in the NTSB report.)

When I was a brand-new jump pilot in a Cessna 182, I had five large skydivers try to all pile into the plane at once. They said they had done it that way in the past. The airplane had no modifications to accommodate a heavier load. It was intimidating to tell them, “No,” but I’m very glad that I did. On my first weekend flying there, I lost a cylinder and the engine was producing only partial power after takeoff. With four passengers, I barely maintained a 300 foot altitude, but was able to maneuver to and land safely on the runway. If an extra person was onboard and putting me over gross weight, my landing option would have been the swamp in front of me, and I probably would have been in the NTSB reports, too.

This topic is complicated, but ultimately, a good pilot knows that his main priority is to fly the airplane. That may sound painfully obvious, but when distractions start piling up, it’s important that a pilot is able to filter and prioritize. Maintaining control of the plane comes first and accomplishing other tasks such as chasing cutaways, chatting and doing the jumpers favors come last. It’s the pilot’s priority to keep the “dirty side down.” Support him and don’t argue when his choices veer to the safe side.

If you have questions or concerns about aircraft safety at your drop zone, USPA recommends speaking directly to your pilot and drop zone owner or manager. Concerns may also be addressed to your USPA Regional Director.

FEATURE20101-21
Photo by Scotty Burns

Ten Things a Good Pilot Should Never Do:
1. Fly without meeting the proper licensing, medical and currency requirements
2. Fly over max gross weight, particularly out of balance
3. Take off without everyone and everything secure
4. Fly with inadequate fuel
5. Attempt to fly in formation without thorough training and briefing with the other pilot(s)
6. Fly above the designated altitudes without oxygen
7. Fly a plane that is not properly maintained
8. Disregard other air traffic, not use radio communications and not announce a parachute drop
9. Exceed airframe limitations by diving the plane during the descent
10. Perform “buzz jobs”

About the Author
FEATURE20101-20Cara Thompson, D-26381, has logged 2,000 jumps in the last 10 years. She is a videographer, AFF Instructor and freeflyer, but mostly loves big-ways. Thompson makes her living flying private jets and has also logged several thousand hours flying jumpers. She has an Airline Transport Pilot rating and is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Certified Flight Instructor.

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Carlo Soldevilla
Fri, 01/13/2012 - 04:57

this is good.

Peter Danes
Wed, 01/04/2017 - 07:09

While the comments by Cara are on point, this is not unique to skydiving. In all of aviation, as well as most other activities, the human factor is predominant in accidents. It's almost always pilot error, whether it's skydiving or any other aeronautical activity. The equipment quite simply works - people are what fails.

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