It took almost 25 years of skydiving, but I finally experienced an aircraft emergency as a skydiver. Actually, I would not even classify it as a true emergency, since the engine loss happened at 13,000 feet. As a pilot myself with many hours in this King Air, I knew what was going on and I had a good idea of how the pilot who was flying was going to handle the situation. But seeing how everyone reacted was interesting. Some looked nervous, and some seemed confused about what to do.
There was no warning to help ease everyone into the idea that the airplane was not happy, just a loud bang followed by an immediate yaw to the right. The pilot was very experienced in the airplane, and he had just completed an emergency-procedure training session with a flight instructor two months before. Given that we were at 13,000 feet, he had plenty of altitude to work with as he went through the single-engine checklist. He immediately pitched the nose down to increase the airspeed and provide an additional level of safety, but the slight descent as the airplane made its way back to the airport a few miles away worried some of the jumpers who did not understand why the plane was descending.
Eventually, the pilot leveled off the airplane, and the jumpers exited single file over the airport. Everyone landed uneventfully, including the pilot in the wounded King Air. Had the airplane lost the engine at a low altitude or been a single-engine airplane, the situation would have required different actions from both the pilot and the jumpers.
While my drop zone covers aircraft-emergency information on Safety Day each year, the most recent one was five months earlier, and it was easy to see that none of the jumpers on the load had brought their notes. A few minutes after the engine quit, the jumpers became edgy, the jabbering back and forth increased, and a few were even a bit panicky. In these situations, it is best to have just one jumper communicate with the pilot. So, I told everyone to be quiet and asked the pilot to tell us what he wanted us to do during our exits. Having just one jumper communicate with the pilot to provide a single, clear communication point with the others on board made everyone understand the situation and the proper response much more clearly.
Afterward, I wondered why the jumpers were not more prepared. I soon realized there were several reasons:
- Aircraft emergencies rarely happen. Out of sight means out of mind.
- Most skydivers are not pilots and do not understand the process a pilot goes through to handle the loss of an engine or other aircraft emergency.
- Drop zones rarely discuss the process or have jumpers practice for an aircraft emergency.
- Some people experience shock and denial in an unfamiliar situation.
Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5 contains just three sentences about aircraft emergencies! This not only reflects the fact that aircraft emergencies are rare situations, but also that there are so many variables to consider (type of aircraft and emergency, DZ location) that each drop zone must develop its own procedures and educate its jumpers.
Aircraft emergencies are few and far between these days but can happen to you on any load and at any altitude. A well-trained and knowledgeable pilot and clear communication between the pilot and the jumpers is critical for a successful outcome. It took me almost 25 years, but I was ready when it happened to me. Will you be ready when it happens to you?
Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training