Drop in anytime

October 1, 1996

Imagine hurtling earthward at 10,000 feet per minute, free-falling — minding your own business — and suddenly an airplane shows up only a few feet below. Or imagine flying along at 4,500 feet in a clear blue sky, minding your own business, when a skydiver (or jumpers) goes whizzing by without any warning. It's not something that a lot of pilots think much about because out of sight is frequently out of mind and we don't see jumpers very often. There is little friendly discussion between the two factions and it can get acrimonious, usually the result of a misunderstanding.

In most cases the debate is over an incident — usually close passage by an aircraft to a jumper — and sometimes it is about access to airports. Jumpers have a place in our sky; with declining general aviation traffic, we should accept all flight operations and figure out how to make them work compatibly. All the jumpers want to do is climb to a reasonable altitude, hurl themselves out of a perfectly good airplane, enjoy the view for a few minutes, and return to an airport where they can get back into the airplane and do it again. The good news is that they use airplanes; are not bothered by noise; generally tolerate pilots; and, in many cases, are pilots themselves. They help to support an increasingly fragile infrastructure of FBOs by buying fuel, maintenance, aircraft, and other aviation-related services. The industry does need their business.

The bad news is that a free-falling body is almost impossible to see because of its size and the fact that its terminal velocity is about 120 miles per hour. An airplane flying through a drop zone above the canopy opening altitude of about 3,000 feet agl is in serious jeopardy. After the chute opens, the vertical descent rate drops to a more survivable number and the jumpers are somewhat easier to see and avoid. The jumper also presumably has some time to look around and can make some limited evasive maneuvers if an airplane is spotted.

In learning about the other side, one point that came home to me is that jumpers are anxious to avoid aircraft and their whirling propellers — if you get the picture. Don't ask for a more graphic explanation, but rest assured that the motivation is exceedingly high. While it is easy to dismiss the idea of coexistence by saying that it is a safety problem, skydiving has been conducted at many airports that have operated for years without a problem; however, it does take some awareness of what the other side is doing.

For the record, in searching the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's database back to 1982, we were able to find only two parachute/aircraft collisions involving other than the airplane from which the jumpers just departed. In one case, a jumper free-falling from 7,400 feet collided with a Piper Cherokee that was passing through the drop zone at 7,000. The jumper stated that about six seconds after departing the jump aircraft he saw another aircraft "headed straight at me." The jumper's foot hit the stabilator of the Cherokee, and the aircraft went out of control, killing all on board. The jumper survived with a broken ankle. A review of the recorded communications between the pilot of the jump airplane and approach control showed that the pilot had transmitted two warnings prior to releasing the jumpers. There was no record found of any communications between the Cherokee pilot and any ATC facility. The NTSB is still working on the probable cause.

The second accident involved a jumper who collided with a Christen Eagle at the opening of an airshow that was being operated under an aviation event waiver. That is a special circumstance outside the purview of this discussion.

One thing is clear, however. As pilots, we need to be more aware of jump activities for safety's sake, and the only way to know when jumpers are in the air is to be on the jump frequency. There are currently no local notams on Duats, because they change too frequently; and there are no plans to incorporate them. The FAA publishes an advisory circular, 90-66A, which outlines the procedures as follows:

  • All activities are normally conducted under a notam, noting the location, altitudes, and time or duration of jump activities. The Airport/Facility Directory lists airports where permanent drop zones are located. So, if you're out for a flight on a pretty day, do not assume that you're up there by yourself. Be particularly cautious when going to an unfamiliar airport.
  • Jumpers normally exit the aircraft either above or upwind of the airport and at altitudes well above the traffic pattern altitude. Parachutes are customarily deployed between 2,000 and 5,000 feet agl and can be expected to be below 3,000 feet agl within 2 miles of the airport.
  • For the purpose of learning about known air traffic in the vicinity, pilots of jump aircraft are required by FAR Part 105 to establish two-way radio communications with an ATC facility or FSS that has jurisdiction over the affected airspace prior to jump operations. They will call at least five minutes prior to jumpers away and at the time of the actual drop. In addition, when jump aircraft are operating in the vicinity of an airport, jump pilots are encouraged to provide advisory information on the CTAF, such as, "Chambersburg traffic, jumpers away over Chambersburg." ATC must be advised when all jumpers are on the ground.
  • When a drop zone has been established on an airport, jumpers are expected to land within the drop zone. At airports that have no established drop zones, parachutists should avoid landing on runways, taxiways, aprons, and their associated safety areas.

Jumpers must notify the FAA at least one hour before the jump, mentioning the time at which jumping will begin, the location of the drop zone relative to a VOR or an airport, the altitudes where the jumping will occur, and the duration of the activity. They must also adhere to VFR, which means no cloud busting.

FAR Part 91.103 is the catchall rule stating that pilots must become familiar with all available information for a particular flight, but the FAA doesn't always say how and doesn't make it easy. On a recent VFR cross-country flight I was unable to find any notams relating to jumpers on Duats, as noted above. Although a call to flight service yielded the location of a few drop zones, flight service personnel were unable to provide an ATC frequency. When operating near an airport drop zone, the CTAF is a reasonable bet, but there are no guarantees. The unicom operator may be elsewhere, or the jump plane pilot may be coordinating with ATC when you call to ask for status.

About the only guarantee of hearing a drop announcement is to be on the appropriate ATC frequency. This generally means that the flight is operating under IFR or VFR flight following. If IFR is not necessary and ATC is too busy for flight following, that means finding the frequency on your own. It is quite possible that a jump notam could be filed after you received your briefing.

The Air Safety Foundation has asked the FAA to publish ATC drop zone frequencies adjacent to the parachute symbol on sectional charts. Then, VFR pilots not on flight following could monitor or call up to be sure. The FAA has been thinking about this for awhile. We think it's time for a proactive approach. The chart change also has the added benefit of quickly identifying frequencies for flight following.

There is plenty of airspace, but we all can't occupy it in the same place at the same time without some aggravation. To learn more about drop zone operations, visit the U.S. Parachute Association display and seminar at AOPA Expo in San Jose, California, this month. The Air Safety Foundation will be working with both the FAA and USPA to improve communication. It's better to meet our free-falling friends on a social basis and learn to be a diver survivor, not a jumper bumper!

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.