The things we never consider…
How much time do we think about the ride to altitude?
There is another side to the fun of skydiving. The side where it gets dangerous on the ride to altitude or on jump-run. The ride to altitude seems like just an easy way up, but our behavior on board has a major impact on the flight characteristics of the aircraft. And far too few people know about it.
How much time do we actually think about the ride to altitude? Yes, on the ground we get ready for our skydive; checking our gear, finding our friends, getting manifested, and planning the jump. We think about our emergency procedures, train well for the moment that hopefully never happens and hire coaches to get better in whatever discipline we choose.
But what do we know about the flight operations at our dropzone? Do we know who is flying us and how the DZ handled their recruitment and training? Do we know the requirements the jump pilot needs to meet to become a ‘diver driver’?
Different countries cover their requirements on flight licenses in their national regulations. But very few of them cover the actual training for skydiving pilots. Within the EU, the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) regulations apply, but in all these hundreds of paragraphs, there is nothing that gives a guideline on the training of pilots for skydiving operations. Different skydiving national authorities and associations however, have published guidelines and handbooks concerning skydiving operations and pilot training.
But what are some of the main risks we are facing in skydiving regarding the operation of our aircraft? The last years have shown an increase in accidents of skydiving aircraft. So much, that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency got curious and stepped in to raise awareness on this topic. Together with the national authorities, they started to investigate the root causes of these accidents and found two main issues:
First: The operator must take responsibility regarding aircraft safety and pilots training and secondly, skydivers must be more aware about their role in skydiving operation.
Operator Responsibility – Aircraft Safety
The regulations define the operator’s responsibilities and the airworthiness and required maintenance of the aircraft. Aircraft used for skydiving operation need to be suitable for this kind of flying. Commonly, aircraft used for skydiving have modifications installed to make it easier to jump out of them. Common modifications on aircraft are; removable cabin doors or doors that can be opened and closed during flight; air deflectors; steps; seatbelts on the floor; and static line equipment.
Some of these modifications need special approval and maintenance. Generally, the maintenance program for aircraft used in skydiving operation needs to be modified to address the additional load on the structure and landing gear resulting from multiple flights, landings and high-speed descents in a short period of time.
It is a huge part of aviation safety that all participants are trained well and have a common goal to make all activities as safe as possible. It is common sense that a pilot who is interested in becoming a jump pilot should know how to fly and land an aircraft and hold a valid license. But how much do flight hours really say about the overall skills of a pilot? Flying skydivers is a totally different business to flying a commercial jet or making sightseeing flights for your local club. Even very experienced pilots need specific training that covers the distinct topics faced in skydiving operation.
It must be in the best interests of aircraft operators to implement an effective initial and recurrency training and examination programs to ensure the safe operation of their aircraft. This should include operation, aircraft-specific weight and balance calculations, fuel management, preflight inspections, and aircraft emergency procedures. This basic training and aircraft familiarization must be adjusted to the operation and aircraft type. For skydiving operation, more specific topics need to be included.
The aims of such training should be to ensure adequate knowledge and skills, as well as the right attitude during flying. It should cover normal and abnormal situations for aircraft systems, operation of aircraft, weather conditions, skydiver-related topics such as exit order, equipment knowledge and overall cooperation with ground staff and manifest. For more experienced pilots, special operations such as formation flying, dropping over water, or dropping at night should be covered if that is something they are planning to do.
In 2014, following a fatal crash of a skydiving aircraft into the woods of Jämijärvi in Finland, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom conducted and published an aviation risk survey which summed up the operational risks in parachuting. It defined several critical periods during the flight which highlight the main topics that should be addressed in the safety training for jump pilots and skydivers.
Among skydivers, the risks associated with skydiving are acknowledged, but the risks associated with the ride to altitude are often neglected and not sufficiently recognized and addressed.
During aircraft loading and take-off, incorrect or shifting of the center of gravity may result in loss of control of the aircraft. Correct loading and clearly defined weight limits and seating orders as well as minimum movement inside the aircraft during flight and jump-run are crucial to safely conducting the flight. Specifically, loading procedures and seating arrangements as well as the use of restraining devices should be addressed in any safety training and briefing. Upon jump-run and exit, there is a risk of excessive movement due to jumpers getting ready for exit towards the rear of the aircraft. This may cause a shift of the center of gravity at a critical moment in flight, resulting in a stall and loss of control.
For pilot training, stall speeds and characteristics of a stall as well as stall recognition and recovery with different engine settings must be covered. It is essential to have a good understanding of aerodynamics to improve awareness and reaction to these potential hazards.
Avoiding In-Air Collisions
As a jump pilot, understanding the different skydiving disciplines and the planned flight path of each skydiver is important to be aware of the hazard of an inflight collision. Communication with manifest and the skydivers on board to have an overview of the planned jumps is key, especially when it comes to wingsuit flying; tracking or any kind of angle flight with vertical movements; high pulls, and long spots. Especially when flying with a turbine aircraft and performing a high speed descent, the pilot needs to be aware of what is happening in the airspace around him and the location of the jumpers in freefall and under canopy.
Due to the setup of a lot of drop zones, the landing areas for aircraft and skydivers are often in close proximity to each other. In these situations, the pilot usually is aware of the dangers of colliding with skydivers and pays attention to his/her surroundings. In higher altitudes however, he or she might not be expecting slow-descending skydivers under parachute or in freefall.
Other topics for the integrated flight training include any normal and abnormal aircraft and flight related procedure like engine failures, go-arounds, flight characteristics with different loading, flight planning for skydiving operations as well as noise reduction and specific procedures at the different drop zones. Specific training on special equipment like in-flight doors, static line equipment, exit lights and other modifications plays an integral role in a good preparation. Especially in operations where the aircraft is not solely used for skydiving, training on how to get the aircraft ready and prepared is essential.
Due to the complex nature of the operation with lots of climbs, descents and especially landings, human factors are one of the key safety issues to be addressed. To identify human factors in skydiving operation is essential and can help understand and reduce the potential risks.
In general, ‘human factors’ is a collective term for psychological, cognitive, and social factors influencing socio-technical systems and human-machine systems. To put it more simply, it is those factors that influence people’s performance. These can be physical and mental health, stress, fatigue, the way information is processed, workload management and situational awareness, decision-making and communication, surprise and startle, resilience, cultural aspects, leadership and management, threat and error and others.
The term human factors has grown increasingly popular as the commercial aviation industry has realized that human error, rather than mechanical failure, underlies most aviation accidents and incidents. And this not only applies to the crew in the cockpit or in our case the skydivers on board, but it has also recently become a major concern in maintenance practices and air traffic management as well. Human factors is dedicated to promoting a better understanding how humans and their variable performance can be safely integrated in the operation.
Pilots are usually required to reduce flight time to maximize income and reduce costs. Stressful situations, fatigue, malnutrition, and dehydration can have an impact on the way we process information, our situational awareness, and our decision-making process. Part of the initial and recurrency training should be to identify threats and determine strategies to minimize negative effects on human performance.
Communication is one of the most critical points of a safe operation. Communicating well with the ground crew and manifest, the skydivers and air traffic control, is crucial for a smooth and safe day of flying skydivers. There are different barriers to communication which can be divided into four main areas: Language, psychological, physical, and general. At most drop zones, all four apply, as they operate with staff from different countries, speaking different languages and coming from different cultures. This obviously makes communicating difficult and needs to be considered for extra training and clear communication structures. A slow speech rate and a standard phraseology as well as short and precise messages can increase the level of understanding.
As a skydiver it is important to know your role in skydiving operation and to be aware of the flight operational risks. The previously mentioned Traficom Survey concludes that skydivers generally perceive the risks concerning the jump itself, but their understanding and knowledge of risks in flight operation is low. The severity of these risks and the factors causing them are not sufficiently recognized by everyone, which results in a low degree of compliance with guidelines or not taking the responsibility to get familiar with them.
Skydivers play an integral role in aircraft operation and their procedures can dramatically affect the controllability of the aircraft. Weight and balance are usually not a very big subject during basic skydivers training. It is vital to understand the importance of this topic and to understand that the specifications are different for each type of aircraft. Skydivers need to understand the effects of their behavior on the flight characteristics of the aircraft.
What you have learned at your home drop zone might be correct for the aircraft operated there but might be totally wrong for the aircraft operated at the drop zone you are visiting. The same applies to the emergency procedures.
Skydiving is a fun sport and it will always be fun if all participants are aware of their roles and responsibilities, acknowledge the risks and factors that cause them and do their best to mitigate them.
Sources (and useful information):
- More Than an Easy Ride - 19th January 2023
- More Than an Easy Ride - 19th January 2023