Thankfully, no skydivers or jump pilots died in skydiving-related aircraft accidents in the U.S. during 2017. But there is room for improvement with regard to decision making by jump pilots. Skydivers were aboard two of the aircraft that had accidents (one that occurred during takeoff and one during landing) cited in this report. As you’ll see, those accidents could easily have ended differently.
With two exceptions, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated and issued its final findings of probable cause for the accidents contained in this article. Reports and complete data summaries are located in the Aviation Accident Database at ntsb.gov.
Two accidents in 2017 resulted in minor injuries to pilots:
- The pilot of a Cessna 182 sustained minor injuries and the aircraft incurred substantial damage during a forced landing in a field adjacent to the airport. The pilot reported that the engine stopped producing power as he entered the airport’s traffic pattern while descending after dropping jumpers at 10,000 feet on the fourth load of the day. During its landing, the airplane nosed over and came to rest inverted. According to the NTSB Preliminary Report, “The FAA inspector examined the fuel tanks and found no visible fuel.”
- The pilot of a Cessna 182 sustained minor injuries during a forced landing on a highway on-ramp, which caused substantial damage to the aircraft. The pilot, who was descending after dropping skydivers at 10,500 feet, reported that he "suspected engine power loss due to fuel exhaustion." In its final report, the NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be “the pilot's failure to attain a proper glide path on approach for landing, which resulted in an impact with a guard rail and post. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's failure to ensure that sufficient fuel was onboard for non-level flight, which resulted in fuel starvation.”
Five accidents resulted in no injuries to pilots or skydivers:
- A Cessna 182 sustained substantial damage when it landed with only the pilot aboard after conducting parachute operations. The pilot landed short of the paved runway, causing the nose gear to separate from the airplane. As the airplane bounced, the pilot aborted his landing. On his seconding landing approach, the pilot elected to land in a turf area parallel to the runway. The airplane nosed over when the main gear contacted the turf. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be “the pilot's failure to maintain the proper glide path during landing, which resulted in the airplane landing short of the runway, the nose landing gear separating and the airplane nosing over during a second landing.”
- A Cessna 206 sustained substantial damage to its left wing during a takeoff attempt with two skydivers aboard. The pilot reported that he encountered a wind gust, which caused the plane to veer off the runway centerline and subsequently strike a parked helicopter. The pilot then aborted the takeoff. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be “the pilot's failure to maintain directional control during the takeoff roll with gusting wind conditions.”
- A Twin Otter sustained substantial damage to its fuselage and right wing as it landed after dropping skydivers. The pilot reported that he was with a potential new-hire pilot, who was flying the aircraft from the right seat during the approach to landing. As the plane was about 15 feet above the runway, it encountered wind shear that caused it to slam onto the runway. The pilot in command then took control of the aircraft for what would prove to be a failed go-around attempt and ultimately a ground loop as the aircraft came to rest. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be “the prospective pilot's improper landing flare and the pilot's delayed remedial action to initiate a go-around, which resulted in a runway excursion.”
- A Cessna 182 sustained substantial damage to its right wing spar and aileron while attempting to land with three skydivers aboard. In describing the landing on the 1,800-foot paved runway, the pilot told investigators that he "felt our ground speed was fast and we must have a tailwind.” The plane touched down in a right crosswind about 600 feet beyond the runway threshold, then exited the end of the runway and veered left into a gully. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be “the pilot's unstabilized approach and failure to go around in rainy, gusting crosswind conditions, which resulted in a runway overrun. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's self-induced pressure to land due to the deteriorating weather conditions.”
- A Cessna Caravan sustained substantial damage to its engine mount and right elevator during its landing after conducting parachute operations. According to the NTSB, “The airplane struck the runway, nose wheel first,” and noted that, “After multiple requests, the pilot failed to submit the NTSB Pilot/Operator Aircraft Accident/Incident Report Form 6120.1.”
Piloting a jump plane is among the most demanding of flying jobs, with multiple takeoffs and landings in a variety of conditions and with a variety of loads, as well as the need to refuel often throughout a day. Pilots should fly every flight professionally. A variety of resources—the USPA Skydiving Aircraft Operations Manual and Jump Pilot Training Syllabus, a Flight Operations Handbook and the articles “Formation Flying 101” and the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Aircraft Control After Engine Failure on Takeoff”—are available under the Governance tab at uspa.org. Jump pilots and skydiving aircraft operators should utilize these resources as part of a comprehensive and proactive safety-management system.