Welcome to the front office! This new bimonthly column will take you behind the scenes of jump piloting to give you insight into the job and why your pilots do what they do. Author Chas Hines, C-41147, is an airline pilot and certified flight instructor who spent five years as a jump pilot at various drop zones. He has logged more than 5,000 hours of flight time, 500 of those instructing other pilots. He’s also been skydiving for 13 years and has more than 1,500 jumps. He can often be found load organizing at Skydive Arizona in Eloy.
Becoming a pilot takes a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work and a huge amount of determination and perseverance. And, of course, money. Earning a pilot certificate is expensive! The cost of renting an airplane, paying for a flight instructor and building experience (flight hours) makes or breaks careers daily.
A pilot must have a minimum of a Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Pilot Certificate in order to fly jumpers. Earning that certificate requires at least 250 hours of flight time. Before that, they probably achieved an FAA Private Pilot Certificate and perhaps even an instrument rating (which is not required but is important for later career moves). That means your jump pilot probably spent about $8,000-$10,000 for the private pilot training, up to $15,000 to build 250-plus hours of flight time and possibly another $10,000 for an instrument rating. (More detail and specific pricing is available by calling your local flight school.) As you can see, your pilot made a significant outlay in training costs before being able to walk onto a drop zone and begin earning money.
Although 250 hours sounds like a lot of flight time, keep in mind that this is the minimum amount of experience needed to do the job. It is quite common for turbine aircraft owners to require 500, 1,000 or even more flight hours to fly their aircraft. In addition, plane owners may require experience on a certain aircraft (either that the pilot hold the required FAA Type Certificate for that plane or have flown a minimum number of hours in a specific kind of aircraft) before approving someone to fly their planes.
So, a commercially rated pilot can fly your drop zone’s airplane. If there are two (or more) engines onboard, they must have a multi-engine rating on top of that. If you are jumping out of a Caravan, Porter, Cessna 182 or PAC750XL, your pilot has at least a single-engine commercial pilot certificate. If you are at a DZ with a Twin Otter or Skyvan, your pilot is at least a multi-engine-rated commercial pilot.
The next highest rating is an FAA Airline Pilot Transport Certificate. The FAA does not require this certificate (commonly called an ATP) for jump operations. However, your pilot may be flying jumpers at the drop zone to build the 1,500 flight hours an ATP requires. Finally, each and every pilot must have a Second-Class FAA Medical Certificate from an FAA-authorized aviation medical examiner within the last 12 months. This certificate signifies fitness to fly an aircraft according to the medical and fitness requirements set forth under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 67. This is in addition to the pilot being and feeling fit to fly on any given day. Pilots must carry their rating certificates, medical certificates and government-issued photo IDs anytime they are flying your jump ship.
If you come across a pilot who has been flying jumpers for years and is still doing it, be sure to thank them, get them a beer and listen to their story. They will be an invaluable source of information for you, especially in today’s world where pilots are in high demand and most of them stay at drop zones only long enough to build time for a bigger, better job.
Chas Hines | C-41147
FAA Certified Flight Instructor and Airline Transport Pilot