Diver Driver

May 1, 1994

When former naval aviator and ex-airline pilot Rex Derby flies passengers these days, they all hold one-way tickets. And they all have the same destination: somewhere above Zephyrhills, Florida. Altitude: 13,500 feet.

Actually, the parachutists he hauls to altitude and dumps unceremoniously into the hazy blue aren't passengers at all, according to Derby. "I tell them before every flight," he jokes, "they are cargo. And cargo doesn't complain."

Being a full-time skydiver driver may seem like wild-and-woolly work to those more used to the aviation mainstream. Pilots who spend all day hauling butt to altitude, discharging mobs of hooting maniacs, and screaming back to earth only to do it all over again and again must be far-fringe types, a little offset of center, right? But Derby comes off as businesslike and downright level-headed, especially when compared to the cowabunga crowd that populates your average American skydiving center. Still, he's no safety cop, and he certainly doesn't condescend to the jumpers, many of whom are experienced "pilots" of their own chosen flying machines. "All the people that are out here are out here to have fun. They don't want to be growled at," says Derby. "You have to be concerned and watch out for safety, but you want to do it in a nice way."

"Out here" is the Freeflight Skydiving School, a mecca for novice and experienced sky fallers from across the United States and many overseas countries, especially in wintertime. Nearly every winter day offers at least some skydiving weather — that is, VFR, with winds that aren't too severe.

Freeflight offers instruction to about 1,000 students a year, according to company President Frank Arenas, a veteran skydiving instructor with more than 6,000 jumps to his credit. The school leases a fleet of two turbine de Havilland Twin Otters, a single-turbine Pilatus Porter, and a Cessna 182 from Freefall Express, a subcontractor that also supplies airplanes and pilots to skydiving schools in Deland, Florida, and elsewhere.

A few years ago, Derby says, he couldn't have been described as a typical jump-plane pilot. A lot of the pilots you would see around skydiving centers were fairly low-time guys — jumpers first and pilots second. And that's pretty much the way the owners wanted it. Putting the jumpers in the right place at the right time requires some pretty esoteric mental geometry that is best picked up through the repeated experience of hurtling through the sky at 120 miles per hour and popping your chute just in time to avoid becoming a big splotch on the tarmac. These days, though, with the airlines laying off pilots in droves and cutbacks in military flying, experienced airmen who once would have scoffed at a job flying skydivers now can be had in ready supply. "The market for flying jobs is really saturated with people," Derby says. And many of them, like Derby, have the jump experience requisite to get a foot in the door.

Derby got that experience in the Navy, when he completed Airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and then continued jumping for sport.

He grew up dreaming of flight, both figuratively and literally. "When I was very young, I remember I used to have dreams about flying all the time," he says. He hung around the local airport and more than once called inquiring about $5 introductory lessons, telling the person on the telephone, "This is Rex Derby's father calling...." But the chance to be a pilot wouldn't come until after a stint in the Navy and an enlisted appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. After graduating from Annapolis in 1977, Ensign Derby went to Pensacola and became a naval aviator. He flew mainly helicopters in the Navy and, after being discharged in 1983, held various piloting jobs involving the Beech T-34C, the single-engine turbine version of the venerable Mentor military trainer. He flew for Beechcraft as a test and demo pilot, then test-flew for the Chinese military in Taiwan. The fluency he gained in Chinese later landed him a job flying Blackhawk helicopters in mainland China for more than two years. But his dream, like that of so many fliers, was to be an airline pilot. After earning his ATP and flight engineer credentials, Derby got a job flying Metroliners for the regional carrier Comair. He loved the job at Comair (and would go back today at the drop of a hat), but as with most commuter pilots, the idea of flying for the majors beckoned like the Holy Grail. In April 1989, his dream came true. He became a line pilot for one of the most historic and respected big-league airlines of all time. He signed on with Pan Am. And in December, Pan Am went belly up.

Derby lived about 45 miles southeast of Zephyrhills, in Lake Wales, and occasionally, he would drive up to the skydiving center just to watch the goings on. "I'd come out here and drool," he says with a grin. Last May, Arenas called looking for a pilot. Derby was there the next day.

"The pay is lousy, but at least the hours are rotten," he says with a grin. "The main thing is to be available a-a-a-all the time. It's a tough, demanding job in that it demands all your time." The days can be long ones. On one recent weekend, for example, he flew 22 loads on Saturday and 24 on Sunday. When the weather is forecast to be overcast and drizzling for more than 24 hours, he gets a day off. And although there may be idle hours on slow days, he still must be at the airport in case a drop-in shows up seeking an introductory skydiving lesson. In his down time, he works as his own line crew, fueling and washing the airplanes himself, and fills in at the office occasionally.

"It's not just a job. It's a flying job," says Derby. Sure, he still hopes to get back into the airlines some day. Meanwhile, he's logging multiengine turbine time. And he's proud to call the cockpit of an airplane his workplace again.

Derby is waiting near the Otter with Arenas and several other skydivers when we arrive in the predawn hours for a photo shoot. He gives me a quick tour of the Otter.

It's a former commuter. All its passenger seats and unnecessary gear have been removed, and a large, vertically sliding plexiglass door covers the big cargo opening in the rear. A set of plywood stairs on rollers allows access to the smoothly paneled cargo hold, which can accommodate up to 22 jumpers, the minimum cost-effective load being 10. (We would have about a dozen on our jump runs, and it looked fairly crowded back there to me. They must really pack 'em in to fit 22.) The cockpit is conventional. If the panel is a bit basic for a large airplane, that's because all the operations are VFR, and only a very few are at night. The only unique touch is a light system for signaling the folks in back — more on that later.

Finally, the sun offers photographer Winston Luzier the light he needs to turn this morning's jump run into a Kodak moment. A loudspeaker voice tells the skydivers to get ready, and soon I'm seated next to Derby in the Otter's cockpit while men and women dressed in brightly colored jump suits pile into the back of the airplane. They line up in two rows, backsides to bellybuttons, looking a lot like riders on long toboggans. There's not the slightest shade of apprehension in the faces of these experienced skydivers. If anything, they seem giddy. Although they come from all walks of life, as the cliche goes, they do seem oddly related. They're all very slender and a little irreverent, and each exhibits a sense of easygoing self-confidence.

Derby fires up the kerosene heaters, and in a few moments, we taxi the few yards to the runway, turning onto an immediate takeoff run. The airplane soon lumbers off the pavement and eases into a better than 1,500- feet-per-minute climb. Derby says the Otter climbs at 1,200 to 1,800 fpm, depending upon the load and the weather. He leaves in about 5 degrees of flaps, which he has discovered gives him another 200 to 300 fpm of climb. "You take it," says Derby. "Head over that way and keep it at 85 knots." A few minutes behind the yoke of a trimmed airplane is no basis for a pilot report, but my gentle banks and attitude changes suggest that the Otter is as stable and straightforward as they come. It's a breezy Florida day, but you would never know it in the cockpit of that airplane. It flies like a big delivery van or maybe a dump truck — a jumper dumper.

While I'm making believe I'm a jump-plane pilot, Derby talks to Tampa Approach. Air traffic control has assigned Freeflight a permanent squawk code. They use it all day, every day, contacting Approach on each jump to let the controllers know of their whereabouts and when the skydivers will be heading out the door. Derby also announces his intentions on the unicom frequency.

A few miles from the airport, Derby tells me to turn around and head back toward Zephyrhills; we're still climbing like a bat. The airport, with its crisscrossing runways — one of dozens of similar old World War II training fields scattered across Florida — is an impossible landmark to miss. As we approach the drop zone, Derby begins his silent math problem, deciding where best to position his charges so they'll land on the airport and somewhere down the road. He already has checked the winds aloft and now must figure the "ballistics" of how far forward the divers will be carried during free fall (thanks to the momentum from jumping out of a moving object), and how far they will drift after opening their chutes (thanks to the wind). On partly cloudy days, Derby often climbs above the white stuff and drops his charges through a hole in the clouds.

About now, Derby also gets serious about looking for any VFR traffic transiting below us. With airways in the vicinity and traffic approaching the big airports in Tampa and St. Petersburg, airliners also are a factor, but the controllers are pretty good about advising people on both sides of any possible conflicts with IFR traffic. It's the pilots who come tooling through with their radios off and their thoughts somewhere in the ozone that pose the real problem. When we solicited advice on flying near drop zones, a cheer literally went up among the Zephyrhills skydivers. Most of them have had the daylights scared out of them by transient lightplanes.

Many VFR pilots use Zephyrhills, for example, as a landmark for skirting nearby Tampa or Orlando Class B airspace. They may not talk to Tampa Approach or listen to the Zephyrhills unicom. Some, incredibly, even see the parachute symbol on their sectionals and decide to go sightseeing, to go watch skydivers from the air. And most transient aircraft are flying through exactly the altitudes at which a dozen or more 200-pound objects with little directional control may come hurtling by at speeds far too fast for "see and avoid." The jump pilots and skydivers do what they can to accommodate transient airplanes — "We don't own the airspace," says Derby — but they are not likely to spot every airplane that passes through during a drop. If Derby sees traffic just prior to release, he will delay or cancel the drop and circle for another opportunity.

We transient pilots must do our part, too. Check the notams for any jump activity along your route. When flying near a parachute drop zone, monitor the local unicom. If you're using flight following, ask the controller if there is activity at the jump zone. Keep your eyes open for jumpers under canopy; they'll probably be at or below 2,500 feet. (Unless you have bionic vision, you probably won't see them in free fall.) Better still, skirt the entire jump area — steering a mile or two to either side of the airport will suffice to keep you and the skydivers out of harm's way. The jumpers usually get dropped within a mile of the field.

As the Otter approaches the drop altitude, a cheer of an entirely different sort is going up among the skydivers. These people are psyched, and they're hooting and hollering back there — both words of mutual encouragement and yells of sheer exhilaration. Two minutes before the drop, Derby announces on the unicom, "Skydivers over Zephyrhills. Skydivers over Zephyrhills." He levels off, retracts the flaps, and signals the jumpmaster or "load organizer" with a green light that lets the jumpers know that it's almost bye-bye time. The load organizer can communicate with Derby through a system of red lights on the panel that lets the pilot know to come 10 degrees right or left or continue straight ahead. Derby can call off the jump if he sees traffic or some other problem. The jumpmaster — Arenas on this run — rolls up the plexiglass door, and the buffet and noise radiate toward the front of the airplane. The crowd in back is standing now — the hooting reaching a crescendo. Arenas signals with two steady lights that they're ready to go, Derby cuts the power, and suddenly our passengers are taking the faster way down, with shouts of "See ya!" "Yeehah!" "Shawanga!" and others that are lost in the slipstream as they drop out of sight. I glance forward, then glance back, and they're gone. Just the wind rattles around back there. It's kind of an odd sensation.

We crank it into an immediate, steeply banked dive, and already the skydivers are specks, barely discernible. The jumpers free-fall for around 70 or 80 seconds, dropping at 120 mph if flat or up to 200 mph in a dive. It's easy to see why they're hard to dodge in a Cessna 172. They free-fall from 13,500 feet to around 2,500 or 2,000, then pop their chutes and fly "under canopy" three to five minutes. (At drop zones where the divers and jump-planes have oxygen, they may exit much higher.) Students may open their chutes as high as 4,500 feet. Modern, square chutes have a forward airspeed of 15 to 20 knots and are quite maneuverable.

While the skydivers are popping little rainbows above the gray runways of Zephyrhills, we're heading downward in a sinus-popping descent of more than 4,000 fpm. Derby accelerates to the Otter's door-open VNE of 140 knots. Although the buffeting is certainly noticeable, the issue is not one of structural integrity as much as controllability. Surpass 140 with that big door open, and the resultant burbling air renders the control surfaces on the tail ineffective. We come screaming over the threshold, but Derby plunks it down with plenty of room to spare.

A few minutes later, while we await the next jump run, Derby is sticking his head out of the Otter's side window, mugging it up for the photographer. He reaches down and pulls out something that he has wedged next to the pilot's seat. It's his Pan Am uniform cap. He grins and laughs as he dons the now slightly worse-for-wear cap at a jaunty angle. But I can't help noticing a hint of wistfulness in his eyes. Still, I take note as Derby shoves the hat back into its usual place, this is basically a happy guy. He's a pilot who gets to fly every day and gets paid for it. You can't help envying him a little.

William L. Gruber, a former AOPA Pilot staff editor, is a freelance writer living in Venice, Florida.

Avoiding Falling Objects

How to find out if there are jumpers on your route.


The AOPA Air Safety Foundation looked at the incidents of collisions between skydivers and non-jump aircraft shortly after the accident recounted here. Checking back to 1982, our database did not reveal any other occurrences. There was only one other accident that we could find, which involved a military jumper dropping onto the wing of a Lockheed C130. The probability of this type of accident is statistically very small. However, the potential does exist.

FAR Part 105 lists the requirements for jump operations as follows:

The pilot in command of the jump-plane must have air traffic control authorization before releasing jumpers. Information must be provided to ATC or Flight Services including the date and time of the jump. The size of the jump zone must be described in nautical miles of radius around the target. Additionally, there must be a location of the jump zone provided relative to a VOR or, if more than 30 miles from a VOR, relative to an airport, town, or city shown on a world aeronautical or sectional chart.

If the jump occurs in Class A, B, C, or D airspace, the jump-plane must establish radio contact with ATC, or the appropriate flight service station if ATC is not involved, five minutes prior to the jump. The jump- plane must maintain contact with that facility and advise ATC when the last jumper is on the ground.

At nontowered airports, the jump-plane will generally make an announcement on the CTAF prior to the jump and must have prior approval from the airport management.

So how do you avoid free-falling 200-pound objects in your vicinity? For pilots on an IFR flight plan, this is handled automatically by the coordination between ATC and the jump-plane. For VFR, it's a bit more complicated. First, check the notams and ask specifically about jumps along your route of flight if you get your briefing from an FSS. Second, maintain a listening watch on the appropriate ATC frequency in your area of flight. If participating in VFR flight following, that should put you on the right frequency to hear the pre-jump announcement, but that's not a guarantee. Monitoring unicoms while enroute, particularly on nice VFR weekends, may not yield much in jump information because there will be considerable chatter relating to local traffic operations.

Is there a better way? ASF formulated a plan and discussed it with the U.S. Parachute Association to get its thoughts. This strategy was presented to a Federal Aviation Administration rulemaking advisory committee this winter. ASF recommends that an ATC frequency be published next to the parachute symbol on VFR charts. A transient pilot, noticing that he was close to a drop zone, could call the controller to ask if it was "hot." The controller, having current knowledge of the status, would advise the pilot. VFR pilots could proceed at their own risk, change course, or go forward in confidence that there was nothing happening during the next few minutes.

How long will it take for this to be implemented? That will depend on the response of the advisory committee and then the time required for rulemaking. It could take 24 months. Meanwhile, check notams and be wary of drop zones, particularly on weekends, when the activity is highest.

Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.