By the Aviation Community
After more than 6 years of flying skydivers I thought that I would write an article for anyone that is thinking of becoming a Jump Pilot. I will start by telling the story of the day that I first heard of this world, my first day on the job, followed by a lot of information that you need to know about this exciting job.
So I had just finished up the training for my Commercial Certificate and I was hanging out at my pilot school and I ran into Cody my flight instructor. The jokster that he is, said "What are you doing here?", "Why aren't you out getting paid to fly, that's what your Commercial is for!" We laughed and I said, "I JUST got it, plus no one is hiring anyway".
He informed me that I was wrong and that I should check out a certain website and how "at this time of year they're hiring Jump Pilots big time!" To which I said, "What is a Jump Pilot?" Again we laughed and he informed me that Jump Pilots fly skydivers up to altitude and kick'em out! I was instantly intrigued.
That very night I checked out the site he mentioned and sure enough, I found drop zones (places where skydiving operations are conducted) all over the country that were hiring! Some of which were ONLY requiring 300TT and a high performance endorsement! I started calling the phone numbers and the first 3 ads that I responded to ALL hired me over the phone!! Not only that, but they were asking me "When can you start?" I was like... ummm... can I call you back?...lol This was all happening SO fast! But then again, I like fast! So after thinking about the pros and cons of each drop zone , I decided to fly for Capitol Skydiving near Austin, TX. Within ONLY one week of Cody telling me what a Jump Pilot was, I was in my car with everything I could fit in it, moving half way across the country! I will never ever forget how excited I felt driving to my first drop zone! You can not put a price tag on that joy.
As I drove through and past the city of Austin, following the directions to the drop zone, I quickly realized that (unlike L.A. where I'm from), after you get 10 minutes out of any city in Texas you can QUICKLY find yourself in cow country! I was like "What the..." I even pulled off the road thinking that I had made a wrong turn or something. I called the DZO (drop zone owner) and told him where I was and he said, "You're on the correct road, just keep going down that road until you see some big red balls on a power line and that's where we are." I was thinking, oh crap, did he just say "balls on a power line"? That's never good. Did they belong to the last pilot?...lol
I drove up, walked in the door and the man said, "You must be Chris?" I said, "Indeed I am and you must be Mike!" Within 10 minutes of small talk greetings he walked me out to the Cessna 206 (with the cargo door removed) and said, "Now show me that you know how to fly this airplane!" I was like (hard swallow), "alright". Now, I MUST explain something first, I had never been in a situation even remotely close to this one. This was a private airport (TE96), with a dirt runway, 2600 feet long by 30 feet wide! With power lines running across the threshold of the runway! Remember? The ones with the big red balls on them?...lol PLUS, I quickly discovered why that airport is called "Crosswinds" airport! Yikes! I was use to flying at Long Beach airport, runway 25L is roughly 5000 feet long by 100 feet wide! No dirt, no power lines! By the way, this is a good point in my story to tell all the younger pilots, during your training, go out and explore small, distant airports! I wish that I had done more of that in my training. Always challenge yourself, never ever get complacent.
So, my new boss Mike asked me to fly him to a local airport and do some touch and goes. To get familiar with the C206 on a hard surfaced runway before landing at his grass strip airport. As we flew to local Taylor airport, I looked down at the ground and realized, yikes, there's not very many landmarks down there! It looked like a giant quilt... farmland. I hope you're starting to understand why flying to unfamiliar airports during your training is so important. I'm flying my new boss in his airplane, thinking, he is going to ask me to fly him back to Crosswinds airport and I don't think that I'm going to be able to even find it! And no, there was no GPS in the airplane at that time. I nailed my touch and goes and then, sure enough, he said "Now take me back to Crosswinds".
Luckily I had noticed 4 large grain elevators kinda near the approach end of the little airport. I was scanning for those sucka's big time! I wanted to show him that I could get us back there without asking him or ATC (he told me not to bother them). I found the grain elevators! To this day, I have never been SO happy to see some grain elevators! They led me to the airport! Now, I had to deal with the dreaded power lines! All Mike said was, "I don't care if we have to go around, just don't flirt with those power lines, I lost one pilot to those already". Yeah, that wasn't distracting or anything...lol It sure wasn't funny at the time, but it is now.
So, I am happy to say I nailed 3 touch and goes there as well! I parked the airplane and tied it down. He said, "I'm very happy with your flying", "I want this airplane pre-flighted by 8am, you'll have your first load of skydivers at 9am." and walked back into the office. I'll never forget that shock! The words that came out of my mouth to him were, "Sounds good!". But inside I was like... wait... what about... what the... did he just say? Again, this is hilarious now, but at the time it was straight craziness!
Needless to say, I didn't sleep much that night and not just because I was in a completely new environment. I remember thinking, "Am I really gonna drop people out of that airplane tomorrow?", "Like really?", "Are the skydivers going to be nervous that a rookie is flying tomorrow?" By the way, the answer to that question is... hell yes!...lol Most skydivers are sketchy of new pilots. Yes they do make them nervous, which is completely understandable. Most TI's (tandem instructors) and Videographers have spent many more hours in airplanes than rookie Jump Pilots and they will watch your EVERY move. But it's smart of them to do and I'm glad they do it. They tend to sit a little bit closer to the door when a newbie pilot is flying. If you're a good pilot and you have a good personality you will be welcomed into that drop zone family fairly quickly, and it truly is a family too! We all work together... I mean "fly" together, look out for each other, go out to dinner together and play together. You TRULY get to know each other. Some of them will be lifelong friends of yours.
Most of the Jump Pilot hiring is done in the months of March and April. You will find a few drop zones that will hire you with a minimum of a Commercial Certificate, 2nd Class Medical and 300TT. That number, by the way, is a bare minimum and most drop zones require at least 500TT due to their insurance policies. They will also have a pilot on hand to train you how to fly skydivers. For more information on training check out my Training Page.
Not all pilots will cut it. Through out the years I have had to let a few pilots go that simply could not get it. I even remember one of them that was too freaked out that we have to open the door during flight. Um... yeah... we HAVE to open the door or they can't jump out silly...lol NEXT!
There are a few drop zones that will hire you into a Caravan or PAC 750 if you have at least 1,000 TT plus 25 hours in type, and jump pilot experience, again per their insurance requirements. I love the Caravan and have created a site to help Caravan Pilots, Mechanics and Owners, you can find it here. The Caravan is the most popular turbine jump airplane worldwide. Check out my Skydive Aircraft list here for more information about all of the various jumpships!
Pay and Perks
You will fly approximately 100 hours per month. The amount of hours flown per month varies depending on what month it is (June-August is peak), whether you are the main pilot or a back-up, if your drop zone is newer or older and established. Weather will obviously also play a role. A Cessna 182 (the most popular jump plane worldwide) can do 2.5 loads per flight hour up to 11,000ft MSL. If you are flying less loads than that per flight hour you are doing something wrong. By the way, my record amount of loads in a C182 is 23 loads in one day! Crazy huh? At $15/load, not a bad payday.
During the off peak season you will be flying less than half of what you were during the Summer. So I highly recommend that you have some supplemental income coming in. Most northern drop zones are closed Oct - March. Drop zones in northern states that have larger aircraft ie. Caravans, PAC 750s or Twin Otters lease those to southern drop zones that only have 182s or 206s. When the larger aircraft are leased to other companies, the leasing company usually provides the pilot not the leasee. I've worked for companies on either end of the spectrum. And that is another huge perk to this job, if you happen to be flying a smaller jump plane at a drop zone that decides to lease a larger one, you can get your hands on that larger aircraft at zero cost to you! Before I was hired to fly them, I had flown many Caravans and Twin Otters from the right seat during skydiving operations. The pilot's will usually instruct you while you fly it. Side note: It would be in your best interest to buy that pilot a "beverage" or two at the end of the day. That is, only if you would like to sit right seat again.
Flying skydivers is very challenging and weight and balance is one of the most challenging parts of it. You should already know not to take-off with an airplane that is heavier than it's Max. Take-Off weight limit. For a C182 I believe that it's 2950lbs. Plus you have the whole weight shift during flight issue, when they move from a seated position to an exit position. In a Cessna 182, you will often have 2 skydivers hanging from the right wing strut plus 2 more hanging out of the doorway. Talk about parasite drag! When they are hanging on the strut and in the doorway, the control wheel is fully to the left and opposite rudder. You MUST watch your airspeed! Skydivers have been killed because the pilot stalled the airplane with skydivers in the doorway. They lose their grip on the wing strut and end up getting struck by the bottom of the wing or the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer.
After they drop away, its neutral control wheel and full left rudder to get the door to drop down enough for me to grab and latch it. Tell ATC, "Jumpers away", close the cowl flaps and then I would put the airplane in a left bank, keeping an eye on the divers the ENTIRE time and then I put it into a slip. Alternating between right and left slips. This can be accomplished without over stressing the airplane. We slip the airplane to descend faster and to avoid shock cooling. There have been debates in my Jump Pilot group on whether or not we should slip the airplane on the way down. I can tell you that I've flown over 6,500 loads of skydivers and it worked great with zero problems. But if the DZO doesn't want you to slip it, then don't do it. You do not own that airplane and you should respect their property.
I keep the airspeed within the yellow arc. The VSI is pegged, but I'm guessing around 3,000 fpm. It is very important to keep your eye on the skydivers the entire time, while scanning for other traffic. Also, don't forget to tell ATC: "Jumpers on the ground", they usually appreciate that. Do them favors whenever you can, they help us every single day and I believe that most pilots take them for granted.
Whenever I've been hired at a new DZ, I have always arranged a meeting with the local ATC facility. I feel that it is important to personally meet the people that protect us everyday, thank them and shake their hand. It is also important to ask them what we as Jump Pilots can do to make their jobs easier. Maybe I have an "old school" approach but I believe that it's a school that's respectable and always appreciated by the Controllers that I meet.
I must add the fact that I love the positive energy at drop zones! Everybody is having fun and most skydivers are passionate about what they do as I am about flying them! According to my log book, I have flown over 6,500 loads of skydivers and I have smiled EVERY single time they have jumped out! After more than 6 years of flying skydivers, I still think... dude, those people just jumped out of your airplane! As I hear their screams fall away...lol How can you not smile about that? I hope this article helps a few young birds decide if they want to become a jump pilot! It's definitely not for everyone. It's only for cool pilots!
~Blue Skies, Christopher Rosenfelt
If you have any questions about this or any of my other articles, feel free to email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now that you have just finished your training to earn your Commercial Pilot Certificate, how do you plan on building your flight time to get to the 1500 hour minimum to be able to apply for an ATP Certificate? Most aspiring professional pilots end up choosing the CFI route, but I didn't and you don't need to either. There are advantages to getting your CFI Certificate like the fact that certain employers believe that you know how to work with others in the cockpit because you were a CFI and many believe that you haven't truly learned something unless and until you can teach it. But there are also advantages to not going the CFI route, like saving $10,000 and doing something that you actually enjoy, to mention just a couple.
When I had 300 total flight hours, I decided to become a Skydive Pilot aka Diver Driver and that was one of the best decisions of my life. For more information about flying skydivers, please visit our affiliate website SkydiverDriver.com and read my article "My First Days as a Jump Pilot", it will answer a lot of questions that you might have about that exciting job!
After throwing screaming humans out of "perfectly good airplanes" for a few years I decided to challenge myself with a different type of flying, Aerial Survey. To be specific it was flying a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipped Cessna 206 for an American Aerial Survey company. Most of my flying was done in Central America and Mexico.... beautiful Cancun to be specific! While "working" down there I lived in a hotel on the beach, paid for by the company. I regularly relaxed on the warm beach and went scuba diving and visited Mayan pyramids on my days off. Now, what were you telling me about being a CFI? Ha!
There are numerous different ways that you can go about building your flight hours. Below you will find 10 different types of non-CFI flying jobs for you to consider, many of which you will find here on JobsForLowTimePilots.com!
1. Aerial Survey Pilot
Like I mentioned above, being an Aerial Survey Pilot can be very enjoyable and rewarding. Also, if you are looking to build flight hours the quickest, this is the type of flying that you will want to do. You can easily log over 150 hours per month depending on obvious variables such as weather and how busy the company that you chose to fly for is.
One disadvantage of this type of flying is that you will more than likely be away from home, staying in hotels for days, weeks and even months at a time. However, the benefit to that is that most companies will allow you to keep the hotel points (available for a year) that you can use for personal trips or vacations on your days off.
Types of aircraft: Cessna 172, Cessna 182, Cessna 206, Cessna Conquest, Cessna Caravan, Piper Aztec.
Minimum hour requirement: 250TT
If you would like more information about this type of flying, feel free to join the Aerial Survey Pilots group on Facebook!
2. Glider Tow Pilot
Towing gliders is a fun option for anyone looking to build up their total flight hours. There are soaring schools and clubs located all over the world. Most glider towing operations use taildragger type aircraft, so you will more than likely need to get your tailwheel endorsement. That normally takes 4-10 hours and costs about $2000 max. Once you have that, most soaring companies that hire you will train you in their specific type of airplane and give you free soaring lessons!
Types of aircraft: ACA Citabria, Cessna 175, Cessna 188, Piper Pawnee
Minimum hour requirement: 500TT
3. Banner Tow Pilot
You will regularly find banner tow aircraft flying relatively low to the ground while circling sporting events, flying along beaches and other highly populated tourist spots. Similar to glider towing, you will more than likely need a tailwheel endorsement, again that normally takes 4-10 hours and costs about $2000 max. This job, for the most part, is a Summer season job but you can definitely rack up a lot of flight hours in that season!
Types of aircraft: ACA Citabria, Piper Pawnee, Piper Super Cub
Minimum hour requirement: 500TT
4. Skydive Pilot
Commonly referred to as "Diver Drivers" or Jump Pilots, this is a type of flying that I personally know the most about. As I mentioned above, when I had 300 total flight hours logged I started flying skydivers in a Cessna 206 for a skydive company near Austin, TX. and eventually moved up to a Caravan.
I enjoyed it so much that I ended up flying skydivers for 7 years for skydive companies all over the U.S. This is a fun but challenging flying job. One of the few flying jobs that has you constantly climbing and descending all day. These aircraft are loaded down to almost their max. gross takeoff weight on every load. Also, your CG will be all over the place while the skydivers are exiting the airplane. They also create drag while hanging outside of the door in slow flight conditions.
Obviously most of your flying will be done during the day in VFR conditions, so it is important not to get "rusty" with your Instrument flying skills. Because of this reason, I recommend that you, at least once a month, do some instrument flying and approaches. Don’t get rusty and have fun. Throwing screaming humans out of “perfectly good airplanes” was some of the most fun that I've ever had in my 30 years of flying!
Types of aircraft: Beech King Air C90, Cessna 182, Cessna 206, Cessna Caravan, DeHavilland Twin Otter, PAC 750XL
Minimum hour requirement: 300TT
For more information about this exciting type of flying, please visit our affiliate website SkydiverDriver.com and read an article that I wrote that will answer a lot of your questions, titled "My First Days as a Jump Pilot".
5. Aerial Photography
Although drones have taken over much of this type of flying, there are still numerous flying jobs available in this field. Most of us learned how to fly in Cessna 172s and the most common type of aerial photography airplane seems to be this same airplane. So it should not be much of a transition for you. Aerial photography companies are also utilized by Forestry Departments all over the world for forest health surveys, wildlife management, fire detection and location scouting.
Types of aircraft: Cessna 172, Cessna 182, Cessna 206, Piper Aztec
Minimum hour requirement: 500TT
6. Fish Spotting
For new pilots, or even seasoned ones for that matter, this one might be the most surprising to see on the list! I know for me it was surprising to find out that this type of flying exists.
Fishing companies all over the globe rely on fish spotter pilots to help them locate large schools of fish like herring in Alaska or even single marlin off of the coast of California. You will obviously need to move to a region that has a large fishing industry. If you're a helicopter pilot, you can find jobs flying R-22s on large tuna boats in the Pacific. You will be gone from home for months at a time, but you will definitely rack up a lot of flight hours.
Types of aircraft: ACA Citabria, Cessna 172, Piper Super Cub, Robinson R-22
Minimum hour requirements: 500TT
7. Traffic Watch
If you live near a large city, you more than likely have a company that provides traffic watch services for the local TV and radio news channels and occasionally local law enforcement. Most traffic watch jobs involve helicopters but there are numerous fixed-wing jobs available, usually in Cessna 172's.
This flying job can be challenging because you will be flying low-level, slow and usually through congested airspace. However, unlike some other jobs on the list, this one does not require you to be away from home for days or weeks at a time. You will mainly be flying mornings and evenings during "rush hours".
Types of aircraft: Robinson R22, Cessna 172
Minimum hour requirement: 500TT
8. Pipeline Patrol
When you think about pipeline patrol, don't only think about Texas and California. There are oil and gas pipelines running above ground and production fields all over the U.S. and in numerous countries around the world.
This job can be challenging for a new Commercial pilot considering the fact that you will usually be flying as low as 500 feet above the ground, sometimes in mountainous areas in variable weather all while looking for damaged pipelines. "Must love low-level VFR flying" and "comfortable in high winds and using small runways" as stated on a recent pipeline patrol pilot job posting.
But challenging flying can be rewarding flying. Know that you will always have challenges in your flying career. Meet those challenges, learn from them and you definitely become a better pilot!
Types of aircraft: ACA Citabria, Cessna 172, Cessna 182
Minimum hour requirement: 400TT
9. Air Tour
Think about some of the most beautiful places on the planet and I guarantee that there is an air tour company there. I've personally seen them in New Zealand, Hawaii, Los Angeles, NYC and the Grand Canyon. Places that most of us would love to live and fly! Obviously most of your flying will be done during the day in VFR conditions, so refer to #4 on the list above as to what you should be doing every now and then.
Types of aircraft: Cessna 172, Cessna 206, Cessna Caravan, DeHavilland Twin Otter, Robinson R44
Minimum hour requirement: 500TT
10. Part 91/135 SIC
This is how I personally added to my multi-engine turbine time. I was flying auto industry cargo all over North America, mostly at night in all weather with no autopilot. It was not pleasant at the time but it made me the pilot that I am today. I am not afraid to fly any airplane (that I've been trained in) in most types of weather at night. However, most of these type of jobs will have you flying passengers during the day. You can build a lot of quality flight time in this arena and I highly recommend it.
Types of aircraft: Beechcraft King Air, Bombardier Dash 8, Cessna Caravan, Embraer Brasilia, Pilatus PC-12
Minimum hour requirement: 250TT
Keep checking JobsForLowTimePilots.com for flying jobs like the ones mentioned above and let us know if you have any questions. We love helping out our fellow pilots!
The legendary Cessna Caravan (C208 for short) is arguably the most versatile plane ever built. Commuter airline? Sure. Military? 31 different air forces fly them. Island-hopping? Indeed, in the Caribbean, the Hawaiian Islands, the Greek Isles, Indonesia and more. Bush flying? Yep, in the Serengeti, the Australian Outback, the Amazon jungle, you name it. Cargo? Fedex has 239 of them. Air ambulance? Good to go. Arctic Circle in your travel plans? No sweat. If you’re on an Alaskan glacier lake tour, chances are you’re in a Caravan outfitted with floats.
And skydive operations routinely rank the Caravan as one of the best jump planes around. The Caravan is the “Swiss Army Knife with Wings,” and you can find them literally all over the world. Fortunately, every once in a while Cessna brings a brand new one to Houston to show it off…
I first got excited about the Caravan a few years ago when I met Chris Rosenfelt (my ATOP B-737 sim partner), who runs Caravan Nation (and its fantastic Instagram page) — he’s dropped countless skydivers out of Caravans and is a huge advocate for the plane. Then over lunch, Cessna’s Derek Moore explained that Cessna was seeing increasing interest in the Caravan as personal transport, with orders for the optional “executive” interior ticking up. About the same time, my email to the legal community announcing my law retirement in favor of flying generated a surprising number of “Can you fly me to out-of-town hearings?” responses. I wondered, could the Caravan serve as an all-in-one charter business and family plane?
I jumped at Derek’s offer to test-fly the Caravan. First, I downloaded and studied Flight Safety’s 298-page Caravan-flying manual. Normally when researching a plane I’d also tinker with its weight-and-balance limitations (i.e. what can it carry and how far?), but that seemed silly here: the Caravan has a whopping 3300-lb. useful load. Even with 4 hours of fuel on board, it’ll launch 7 passengers and their luggage. Basically, if you can fit it in the door, the C208 can carry it. And it has some (four!) sizeable doors.
I met Derek at Sugar Land Airport, and we did a hands-on walk-through of the highlights. The first thing you notice about the Caravan is that it’s BIG — the tarmac shaded by its high, 52’ wingspan was perfect for a preflight chat. And at 14’ tall, it dominates the ramp. The plane’s new — 150 hours on it — and sported the most popular options: a creamy executive interior, purposeful underbelly cargo pod, and 29” (mountain-bike sized!) tires, to name a few.
Time to fly! I climbed the tall steps and slid into the pilot’s seat through the only pilot-specific door I’ve ever used (the co-pilot has his own door). Guiding me from the right seat was Terry Allenbaugh, Cessna’s Caravan guru whose pedigree stretches back to flying C208 serial no. 8 all over Ethiopia in the 1980s. Terry’s colleague Austin Bally and Derek relaxed in the spacious cabin, with Derek helpfully adding C208 bells-and-whistles commentary along the way.
Unlike all the smaller planes I’ve typically flown (except the Piper Meridian), the Caravan is a turboprop: a propeller-driven plane powered not by a piston engine but a turbine, in this case the ultra-reliable 675-hp Pratt & Whitney PT6A. So while the Garmin G1000 panel looked familiar, I welcomed Terry’s advice on the turboprop-specific aspects of the throttle quadrant.
On its simple start-up, the Caravan delivered the sweet whine of a turbine spool-up. No piston catch-and-fire here! A call to Sugar Land ground control, and we were taxing to the runway. After a short take-off briefing, I set the standard 20-degrees of flaps for take-off and advanced the power. Rotation speed is 70kts (70, in this giant bird!) and with nothing more than a slight release of the yoke, the plane flew itself off the runway after an astonishingly short (1500’) ground run. Terry had warned me that all that power required solid right rudder on climb-out, and he was right.
In no time, we were cruising smoothly southwest at 1700’ in this iconic airplane! Under the Caravan’s giant wing, the view from the cockpit is panoramic. No wonder whale-watching, bear-seeking, and safari photo-shooters love this plane.
A smaller craft might have been pushed around by Houston’s summer thermals, but not the Caravan — it’s heft seemed to smooth out the otherwise bumpy air. So too, its robust A/C mocked the soaring mid-August heat. As stout as it is, I expected the C208 to handle ponderously. Not so: it rolled in and out of steep turns surprisingly lightly (although I had to override its envelope protection — with Terry’s permission — to roll it more than 45 degrees). I ignored the Garmin autopilot and hand-flew it the whole time, enjoying every minute. It’s a hoot to fly!
Time to land came too soon, but landing the Caravan was the highlight for me. There’s no need to really flare it — again, Bruce Bohannon’s mantra worked well: “Glide it down, round it out, let it settle, hold it back.” But on touchdown the Caravan’s turbine engine allows a “beta” mode, which basically reverses the propeller pitch to create backwards thrust. So immediately after the wheels were down — again on Terry’s advice — I yanked the power lever from idle to max beta, and a dramatic whoosh signaled the prop was actively slowing us. As a result, our landing roll was over by the first exit on SGR’s Runway 17, 1800’ tops. That’s short field performance! I taxied in with a Caravan-sized grin!
I owe a huge thanks to the Cessna team. I learned a great deal from Terry’s steady guidance. And Derek makes a compelling case for the Caravan. It remains to be seen whether it’s the right plane to take Humphries Aviation to the next level. But, the Caravan’s fun to fly, and it’s good enough for Jimmy Buffett. So it’s a strong contender!
Flying skydivers is the perfect gig for a freshly minted commercial pilot. You can start filling your logbook with hours and get paid, too. And it’s some of the most fun flying you can do. Of the more than 260 DZs in the U.S., over one hundred of then still rely on the venerable Cessna 182 as their primary jump ship. So, technically, all a low-time commercial pilot needs is a high-performance checkout and you’re good to go (though obviously, the more training, the better).
So, what does the job entail? Sure, there is the flying part (more on that later). But there is so much more. Flying skydivers can be physically demanding with long days—sometimes sunup to sundown—and few breaks; you must be in shape. Speaking of which, some DZ owners will ask your weight up front. The reason is simple. Stock Cessna 182s have a MTOW of 2,650 lbs. and a pilot and four skydivers will get very close to that, leaving little margin for adequate fuel. The lighter the pilot, the more leeway allowed for the jumpers and fuel. Some DZ owners will be reluctant to hire a pilot much over 200 lbs. However, many jump 182s now have Wing-X wing extensions, which increase the MTOW to 2,950 lbs. and makes the pilot’s weight less crucial.
The pilot is often the first person at the DZ in the morning because there is much to do to have the airplane ready before the first load is called. You should arrive rested and ready; you could have a full day flying 16 or 18 loads. Bring plenty of liquid to stay hydrated, and you may need a lunch that you can eat in the airplane while climbing.
You may need to unlock and open the hangar doors then pull the airplane out by yourself. Depending on the type of door, this can be a chore, as can be pulling out a 1,700 lb. aircraft single-handedly.
Next, perform a slow, careful, and complete preflight inspection. Jump planes are flown hard and cowling screws and fasteners often work loose, as do other components. The security of jump doors and steps should always be checked. Clean the windshield, which helps you see-and-avoid other air traffic.
Next, fuel the airplane and ensure the engine oil is at the proper level. Always check the amount of fuel in each tank with a fuel stick calibrated for that airplane. Now sump the fuel drains and the gascolator, carefully checking for water and sediment.
Some DZs want you to start the engine and perform a runup before the first load, to fully ensure the airplane is ready.
Get a weather briefing, including the winds at the altitude increments up to your max jump run altitude. You’ll share that with the tandem instructors and skydivers, and hopefully agree on the jump run track and heading.
If you have a full day of flying, great! If you don’t, or if winds or weather put a halt to operations, the DZ owner may want you to stick around the rest of the day, especially if the forecast indicates improving conditions (some will pay a daily fee, even if you don’t fly). If you’re not flying, there is always lots to do around a DZ, so show some initiative. The airplane can almost always use a good wash and wax. Maybe organize the hangar, or at least the pilot/aircraft area so that the tow bar, chocks, fuel sumps, windshield cleaner, funnels and other items are together.
Ah, but there’s much more to the job and to do it safely, there’s a lot of knowledge to be acquired and practice flights to be done. Low-time pilots can be taught to be great jump pilots, but thorough training is required.
Lots of DZs train their own pilots. Some of that training is rigorous and complete, as it should be. However, at other DZs, training might only consist of a couple of flights and a debrief, then you’re thrown the keys and the waiting skydivers are pointed toward your plane. Lots of jump pilots (including me) have been trained that way, and while most of us survived, we had to figure out a lot of things on our own.
For DZ owners, it’s all about turn-around time, so even in a quickie course you’ll be taught the control settings and airspeeds for your most efficient climb and descent. Opening and closing a door inflight while nailing jump run speed and heading takes some practice. You must also learn to watch for, and act, when a skydiver gets ensnared on the step, or a parachute deploys inadvertently during climb-out. There are constant variables that require decisions: changing weather, cloud layers, wind shifts, ATC and local CTAF communications, local air traffic, fuel requirements, and skydiver demands.
Then there will be the pressure, if not from the DZ owner, then the skydivers themselves, to fly in conditions less than ideal—higher winds, low clouds, or broken conditions that don’t leave enough room between the clouds to maintain VFR cloud clearances during climb or descent (or for the jumpers to maintain cloud clearance during their descent), or maybe a build-up is headed for the airport but the jumpers think they can get a jump in just before the thunderstorm arrives. Just remember, you are the pilot-in-command. You are solely responsible for the safety of the flight.
Obviously, jump pilots assume a huge responsibility for the safety of all aboard, making it incumbent that a pilot knows as much as possible about the regulations, the airplane, and the operation, and have enough practice flights to feel comfortable with the job. What should you strive for? Every skydiver deserves a safe, smooth, knowledgeable, and professional jump pilot. Be that jump pilot.
You can learn more about Ed Scott at Jumpers Away.
By Jim Crouch
So, you have started flying and decided you want to make it a career? The great thing about being a pilot is all the different specialty flying within aviation. Most people assume the end goal is to fly big jets for an airline. That’s not always the case, but even if that is your goal, you need to find a way to build the time and experience that is necessary for the minimums for an airline or charter pilot job. Survey flying is one way to build time quickly, or you might even decide to remain in survey flying and skip the people hauling side of aviation.
Flying aerial survey projects is somewhat of an oxymoron. On one hand, it is challenging and interesting; on the other, it is repetitive and can even be boring. The best of both worlds when it comes to aviation! So, what’s involved in flying survey? The answer depends on several factors. Survey flying involves lots of different aircraft and working environments:
• Site surveying while flying a Cessna 172 or 182, while a photographer uses a hand-held camera to shoot photographs of land and construction projects.
• Photo imagery survey using sophisticated camera sensors mounted through the belly of the airplane.
• LiDar surveying using a sophisticated laser sensor mounted through the belly of the airplane.
• Coastal Bathy LiDar Sensor surveying using a sophisticated laser sensor mounted through the belly of the airplane to map coastal shoreline waters as deep as 20 meters.
A wide variety of airplanes are used for survey flying. From small single-engine Cessna 172’s to piston twins to single and multi-engine turbo props, mid-sized Cessna Citation jets, and even a turbo prop converted DC-3. There is a platform for every type of mission.
Typically, there is a sensor operator on board operating the camera/sensor. This frees up the pilot to fly the airplane and concentrate on flying the survey lines. Depending on the company, the pilot might act as both the pilot in command and the sensor operator. This, of course, adds to the complexity, so it is important to stay organized during the flight.
Survey flying is a lot like cutting the grass. Flight plans are created for the sensor system using parallel lines that can be anywhere from two to 125 miles long, or more. The altitudes vary depending on the type of project and can range from 1,000 feet AGL to FL230 or even higher. The pilot uses a flight display from the sensor that provides guidance to the survey project as well as guidance while flying each line. After completing a line, a procedure turn is used to turn 180-degrees and fly the next line in the opposite direction. Tolerances vary, but it’s usually good to remain within 50 feet of the center line both horizontally and vertically. Many projects will also have a ground speed requirement, such as 165 knots plus or minus five knots. Wind speed and direction plays an important part in the planning and execution of each project to use the correct power and flap settings necessary to maintain the required ground speed. Sound busy? It is! Think of it as flying a VOR approach that can be up to 120 miles long!
A good autopilot takes away some of the workload, but many survey operators use aircraft without a working autopilot. An autopilot will maintain the altitude within tolerance, and the heading bug can be adjusted to keep the airplane heading in the right direction. It typically requires bumping the heading one or two degrees every few seconds to keep the horizontal distances within required tolerances. Without an autopilot, trimming the airplane to fly straight and level helps reduce the workload of hand-flying, but it’s still a lot more work than flying with an autopilot. Ferry tanks are sometimes used to extend flight time so the airplane can remain aloft as long as possible when the weather conditions allow for the survey flying. So, you might find yourself in a survey job that requires hand-flying in the flight levels for as much as eight hours at a time, collecting more than 1,000 miles of survey line while remaining within a 50-foot tolerance of the line! That sure does make for a long day, but those are few and far between.
Overall, survey flying can be a rewarding career choice for pilots looking to gain experience and build flight hours. It offers a unique blend of technical skills and flying proficiency, and can provide opportunities to work in diverse locations and aircraft. If you're interested in pursuing a career in survey flying, make sure to research the different types of missions and aircraft involved, and consider the training and certifications required to succeed in this field.
For photo imagery survey, clear skies are a must, and the sun angle also comes into play. So, a flight might start at 8:30 AM and only last a couple of hours before clouds start popping up and ending the flight for the day. LiDar sensors don’t rely on sunlight, so they are flown almost anytime the clouds are above the altitude of the project. There is a lot of night flying when LiDar is the sensor mounted in the airplane. Depending on the time of year and the location of the project, a typical survey pilot can expect to see a wide variety of flying hours throughout the course of the year. There can be several days in a row of downtime hanging around a hotel room, waiting for the weather to improve enough to make a flight.
What sort of pay and quality of life can you expect as a survey pilot? That too has a wide variety of answers depending on the airplane in use and the individual company business model. Survey flying is conducted under FAA Part 91 regulations, so there are no mandated crew rest periods that must be tracked and followed. Most survey jobs are considered “time builders” for low-time pilots. Depending on the operator, you might be expected to stay on the road for several months at a time. Most have a more reasonable schedule such as month on/month off or 15 days on/13 off. Some pilots really like the work and the lifestyle, and choose to remain in the survey flying world, rather than flying people around in Part 121 air carrier or Part 135 on demand charter operations.
A more casual atmosphere, none of the headaches that can come from interfacing with the traveling public, and spending time in different parts of the country seem to be what attracts pilots to remain in the survey world. However, the pay for survey pilots can vary widely, with some positions paying as little as $20,000 per year while others pay six figures or more. Some companies also provide benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans, while others do not. Additionally, the quality of life can vary depending on the frequency and length of travel, as well as the type of accommodations provided by the employer.
Ultimately, survey flying can be a fulfilling career choice for pilots who enjoy the technical aspects of flying and are willing to work in a variety of locations and environments. However, it's important to carefully research potential employers and consider factors such as pay, benefits, and quality of life before making a decision to pursue a career in this field.
Survey flying is available to many low-time pilots, depending on the company. Minimum requirements will vary quite a bit depending on the operator, the airplane type, and the insurance company minimums. But, at the very least, you will need to hold a single-engine commercial certificate and an instrument rating. That might get you in the door flying a Cessna 172, 182, or 206. There are plenty of Piper Navajo and Cessna piston twins flying survey, so a multi-engine commercial certificate and instrument rating will go a long way towards finding better paying survey jobs with more complex equipment. Turbine time is also a valuable asset to hold since more and more operators are using turbine aircraft for survey work, such as Cessna Caravans and Cessna Conquests.
Pay runs a wide range, from near starvation wages for entry-level survey jobs to reasonable/good pay for more complex aircraft. The pay is certainly better in airline and charter flying, which is why lots of companies see a constant flow of pilots just passing through to build the time they need to make it to the airlines.
Low-time pilots have a limited number of avenues for building time. Flight instruction, flying skydivers, and banner towing are just a few. Flying survey can be a fun and challenging alternative. And who knows, you might just like it so much you decide to stay. It's important to keep in mind that survey flying can also provide valuable experience in technical skills such as flying precise lines, using specialized equipment, and working with sensor operators, all of which can be helpful in advancing your career as a pilot.
Aerial survey pilot for Digital Aerial Systems based in Tampa, Florida.