As part of AOPA's member problem solving, we help sort out some interesting twists involving FAA regulations. Member pilots are usually trying to do the right thing but can too easily get tripped up.
It all seemed innocent enough. Our member, a commercial operator with a skydiving school business, takes an extra person along for a ride to fill an empty seat on a jump run — that's okay, right?
Actually no, even though the non-skydiving passenger met the regulatory requirement of wearing a parachute and was properly belted in the aircraft, he had responded to a bullhorn call for ride seats available, so he was actually a sightseeing passenger, not a skydiver by intent. As we know, sightseeing flights must be flown in standard-category aircraft. This particular jump aircraft, as are many, was being flown in the restricted category. The operation now was not legal.
Further, was the commercial pilot legal to fly either a skydiving flight or a sightseeing flight?
Both types of commercial operations may be flown without an air transportation certificate (known as a charter or Part 135 certificate) per FAR Part 119. However, when we verify further into FAR Part 135, as directed by FAR Part 119, we find that sightseeing operations are very specifically mentioned as requiring the pilot to be participating in an FAA-approved drug test program. This is something that is not needed for giving flight instruction, flying skydivers, banner towing, crop dusting, or one of the other specifically mentioned commercial operations listed. The FAA inspector's reminder to him had brought the call to us.
What could our member do? Create a skydiving school program advertising an intro package, which includes a flight as an observer viewing the jump procedure.
The FAA/DOT drug test plan participation for his pilot(s) is still a requirement for sightseeing flights, and at a cost of about $200 per year per pilot, the cost was minimal compared to the potential new revenue of the now legal, separate sightseeing business that he could develop as a natural attraction at his skydiving center.