So, You Want to Be a Jump Pilot. Here’s What To Know
Updated: Feb 27
Flying skydivers is the perfect gig for a freshly minted commercial pilot. You can start filling your logbook with hours and get paid, too. Not only that; it’s some of the most fun flying you can do. Over one hundred drop zones 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. As you’ll see, flying skydivers can be physically demanding; you have to 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 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. Tragically, in 2018, a brand-new jump pilot crashed a fully loaded 182; only one survived. Here is the NTSB’s final report: Final (ntsb.gov)
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 you 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 take action, 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.
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.