Very few coaches and instructors are also airplane pilots, but we still need to learn about the proper operation of the machines that take us to altitude. After all, we spend a lot more time riding in aircraft than we spend in freefall or under canopy. As rating holders, we play an important role in ensuring that the drop zone is operating as safely as possible, and that should include the jump planes and how they are flown.
Jump pilots are flying for commercial operations—seats or not—and their passengers deserve the same safe attitude as they would have from pilots flying airliners. Yet we occasionally hear of a pilot performing a high-speed takeoff (building speed flying just above the runway and then pulling the plane up abruptly at its end), diving the plane close to jumpers in freefall or under canopy, performing a buzz job just inches above spectators standing in the drop zone landing area, attempting to operate in weather so severe that it requires aborting the jump operation and landing the plane at a different airport... even performing incredibly stupid stunts such as a barrel roll with a plane full of jumpers.
Coaches, instructors and especially Safety & Training Advisors have a lot of influence on how a drop zone operates. If the pilot is getting bored and pulling stupid stunts, rating holders have the best opportunity to immediately quash the behavior. Almost every load of jumpers includes at least one rating holder. With so many new jumpers entering the sport each year, it’s common to see an entire load full of jumpers who, with the exception of the instructors, each have less than one year in the sport. If the rating holders allow the pilot to continue with dangerous flying, the newer jumpers probably won’t know any better. Suddenly, unsafe flying becomes the new normal at the drop zone.
Making a simple, unthreatening request to the pilot to stop the unsafe act will probably go a lot farther than making a huge scene about the issue. Calmly pointing out the risks involved may be all that is necessary for the pilot to get back to flying properly. If the pilot refuses to cooperate, the rating holder should bring the matter to the attention of the DZO or aircraft owner. Or if the owner of the aircraft is also the pilot, resolving the issue might require involving the USPA Regional Director.
It’s bad enough that there are a few jump pilots out there who fly in a hazardous manner, but it’s even worse if rating holders continue to allow those pilots to place jumpers in harm’s way by doing nothing about it. The end result could be a catastrophic loss of life and machinery. As a rating holder, you should have the knowledge and experience to know when things aren’t right in the left seat. Nobody deserves a scary, undisciplined pilot who places them at additional risk.
—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training