Tuesday, August 13, 2019

This is Mexico by Dean Ricci

This is Mexico
by Dean Ricci

I’ve never felt further away from home than I did at that moment. I could feel the pieces of tooth swimming across the left side of my tongue, but it was a distant and almost unimportant sensation. At that instant I was focused on the baseball bats in the hands of the four men surrounding me, but much more so on the pistol aimed right at my chest by the fifth. The tiny little (sixth) guy with the ring that had split my canine tooth in half was still bouncing around in front of me like a madman, and I, well I must have had the most confused look on my face I have ever had in my life.
Perhaps a bit of a rewind is in order. Cut to my very first solo Otter load flying for Chicagoland Skydiving Center. I had told Doug, the owner and pilot training me to fly her, that I wasn’t sure if his winter trip to Mexico was something I’d want to take on. I’d suggested that perhaps we both find out first if I could handle the Otter there at home before I agreed to fly it off to Mexico. I was climbing through about 8,000’ on my first solo Otter load before I radioed down to manifest to tell Doug that Mexico sounded just fine to me! That’s how much I loved flying that plane.
Chicago to far southern Mexico is no small trip. Flying your own aircraft internationally is no little deal. Doing it with nothing but a few notes from a jump pilot buddy named Kro, the first flight plan I’d made in more than two years, an outdated GPS database, and non-pilot co-pilot is just, well it’s f*cking stupid.
Hinckley to Texarkana to Brownsville went off without a hitch. My close long-time friend Mandy kicked back in the co-pilot seat listening to music and enjoying the view, while I sat wondering if the cloud layer we’d been over for the last 200 miles would break before we got to Texas and I’d have to shoot an approach I was completely unprepared to make. Once the Otter was firmly planted on the ground in Brownsville, Texas (through clear skies), and the prevailing weather had been checked (f*cking crap), I let the boss know that I wouldn’t be continuing on to Mexico until the next day (even though Brownsville, Texas was the biggest shithole town I’d ever been in) because the thought of trying to land in some random field in Mexico in the forecasted bad weather ahead scared the living f*ck out of me.

Two days later … Puebla, Mexico was in sight. It was a pretty straightforward flight, other than the fact that it didn’t appear that Mexico had an air traffic system (that I could identify anyway). I believe after having crossed the International line, I spoke to only one Mexican controller, and he basically told me he didn’t care what I did. Once I was on the ground in Puebla I started their version of clearing customs, which involved spending a lot of money on paperwork I wasn’t told I’d need and going back and forth between two counters filled with people whose apparent jobs were to make the whole experience as difficult as possible. I made contact with the DZO Tony, who told me he was about an hour’s flight south of Puebla, just around the back side of the big f*cking volcano. He said that Pepe, his “guy” on the ground, would be waiting for us.
Imagine the most rutted-up f*cked up, weed-covered, rock-strewn, pothole-filled back road you’ve ever seen. That was the runway. Place on one side of that runway 50’ tall high-tension power lines. Place on the other side of that runway a rather deep ravine. Space those two very daunting obstacles about 2,000’ apart, angle the runway downhill just a touch and then stick the whole f*cking mess at about 4,500’ above sea level. Now bring in a fully fueled Twin Otter stuffed to the gills with everything from a dozen spare tires and enough spare parts to build a second plane, to a scooter and a six-month stockpile of cleaning supplies. Put in the pilot seat a guy who’s only landed that Otter completely empty and at sea level, and … BAM! Welcome to Mexico!
Cut to a day and a half later. The plane had been emptied, and was happily parked on a completely different runway that had everything from pavement to a centerline. I was about a million times more secure with my choice than I had been the previous evening, and was starting to think that I might just manage to survive the whole experience for more than a week. My nerves were settled, I once again believed I knew how to fly a plane and was totally ready to get it all started. It was Friday, the beginning of the DZ’s Halloween Boogie, and people were starting to show up for what promised to be quite the party.
DZO Tony had quite the reputation as a total party animal, and f*ck me, it was true. I was to be a guest at Tony’s house for the first week or so that I was in the country, which, unfortunately for Mandy, Fritz Pfnür, Fritz’s girlfriend, and me, meant we couldn’t get away from the damn music raging at Tony’s house long enough to get any rest. As I began flying on Saturday, it was only the mood of the jumpers that kept me awake.
[...I watched him taxi the King Air down a hill and hit one of the props on the runway...]

Besides the Otter, the DZ had a King Air leased from a drop zone in Colorado that was being flown by a local pilot by the name of Cesar. I’d heard about Cesar from Kro, the pilot who had flown the Mexico gig before me and was warned quite firmly to keep an eye out. At first Cesar didn’t seem to be much of a concern. He didn’t speak English, and didn’t seem to have any desire to get to know the gringo pilot in the flash Otter. I’d almost decided not to give Cesar a second thought—until I watched him taxi the King Air down a hill and hit one of the props on the runway, sending sparks and a few chunks of pavement flying! I was floored almost to inaction by what had happened, but after what I’d seen soaked in, I ran in front of the King Air as the jumpers began loading the plane screaming, “Shut this f*cking thing down! Shut it down!” Not only had Cesar known he had a prop strike, but the f*cker was still gonna fly the load, putting not only himself but everyone onboard at serious risk! There was just no way in hell I was gonna let that happen.
After I’d finally managed to get the attention of Cesar, as well as Tony, I was able to get the load transferred over to the Otter while they “inspected” the King Air. I didn’t really know what type of inspection they were doing, but as I pulled up to load the third group since the prop strike I saw some really stupid shit … The King Air was chalked on all three tires and completely unattended with both engines running. I can only assume that Cesar must have decided that doing a run-up from a safe distance would be a good idea. The next thing you know … He also decided that taking a quick flight was a good idea as well. A quick flight that involved buzzing the Otter at high speed! I just about lost my f*cking mind.
Luckily for me, Cesar hadn’t learned English in the two days I’d been in Mexico, so he couldn’t understand the massive string of profanities flowing through my headset—but Pepe on the ground sure as hell could! I was so mad I couldn’t see straight, and ended up glad that I had another two hours of flying before I was able to shut down, giving me a good chance to cool off before I could confront F*ckstick for his actions.
With Tony interpreting, I told Cesar that he had absolutely no business being a pilot. I made it very clear to him that in no uncertain terms was he to go anywhere near the Otter either in the air OR on the ground, and that he should stay the hell away from me as well. As it turns out, considering I was basically all alone in far southern Mexico right around the time the drug cartels were really getting the hang of killing people and cutting off their heads, calling Cesar out in that way may not have been the wisest of choices.
It was almost twenty-four hours later that I climbed out of the plane after a beautiful flyby that I found myself approached by the six men I mentioned earlier. I guess it had been a really good day, full of fun jumps and happy people, because the previous day’s excitement wasn’t even remotely in my mind when the first guy walked up and said, “We have a problem.”
That’s just about the time I swallowed half of my tooth. The little guy, who probably stood no more than about five-foot-five, threw a sucker punch from my blind spot that confused me more than anything else, because my first reaction was to laugh and bark out the word “what??” It wasn’t until he came in for punch number two and I’d shoved him away that I saw the baseball bats. As he came in for number three, I got my first view of the gun barrel pointed straight at my chest, and let the little shit swing away.
Cesar, being the big man that he was, stood a safe twenty feet back from the action, letting his boys prove how rugged and tough he was. The gang clearly saw that I saw the gun CLEARLY, and slowed the pace a bit, I assume to savor what was to come. “This is MEXICO” came from the mouth of Mr. We Have a Problem. He had clearly been voted the spokesman for the group, and was taking his job quite seriously, using the full weight of the situation to really put some impact behind his words. And then … My savior!
Mandy had been watching the situation unfold, and according to her, screaming her f*cking head off (although to this day I don’t recall hearing a sound) loud enough to attract the attention of the military on the field. It didn’t appear that the military intended to do a damn thing about the attack, but they did stand up and look our way (I assume to get a better view), which turned out to be just enough to back my new friends off just a touch. The Spokesman looked to the military, then to me and said, in his most ominous tone, “Eeef you are here Saturday, you go home in a box.”
“Doug, if I’m here on Saturday, the f*ckin’ guy says I go home in a box! So … Either I leave Mexico with the Otter, or I leave without it! Your choice!” To his credit, he handled the news pretty damn well. I mean really, when you consider I had just called him to tell him that I was flushing his entire winter down the toilet because of something that happened to somebody else’s plane, he was a real gent.
Tony, the DZO, had quickly gone into damage control mode, and was busy telling his entire staff that there had been no gun, and that for some unknown reason I was making the entire story up. It wasn’t until Fritz’s girlfriend stood up and called bullshit that he stopped trying to play everyone. Luckily for me, she had seen the guy with the gun (who turned out to be a f*cking Federale) and told the entire staff right then and there what she had seen. Between her, Mandy, and a staff that wasn’t blind or stupid, everyone got a pretty good picture of what had transpired.
From then on out, things started to get a bit strange … First, I found myself standing in front of a group of 20 or so staff members, telling them that I was leaving as soon as the sun came up WITH the Otter, then apologizing deeply because I knew that I was ruining their season by doing so. I felt horrible in a way that I never have before, but it was the only choice that was to be made. Once Doug had the chance to get a handle on the situation, he told me flat out to get in the Otter and get the f*ck outta there. To this day I still greatly respect his decision and how hard it must have been to make. Then, the staff, whose entire season I was about to destroy, did something I really never would have expected.
Each and every one of them went above and beyond, and helped me load thousands of pounds of equipment back into the Otter so that I’d be ready to leave at first light. They actually helped me take money right out of their pockets. Of all the staff, I only knew Buzz from Chicagoland. I don’t know a single one of the other staff members’ names, but I owe them a huge debt of gratitude nonetheless.
That night Tony took me to meet a Mexican version of the Godfather who told me, through Tony, that I should put the past behind me, and that I should not worry. He told me that I should not speak of that night any further because I was now under his protection, and nobody would touch me. He invited me to stay to finish the season in comfort, knowing that he would be looking out for me. I flew out as soon as the sun hit the horizon the next morning.
As I crossed the border from Mexico back to the U.S. and Brownsville, Texas, I remember thinking that it was just about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. If it hadn’t been so damn close to the border, I probably would have settled down there …
["So, to the staff of that DZ in Southern Mexico I give my heart-felt thanks."]

I lasted a total of four days in Mexico. It was the last time I visited that country, and I still have no plans to return. Ninety nine percent of the people I met there (well, ninety five anyway) were wonderful people. Had it not been for the crazy events that took place there, I truly believe I would have had an amazing experience. The staff at the DZ were kind, full of smiles, apologetic for the events, and were amazingly generous with their help. It is a testament to what I hope is the real spirit of the Mexican people.
The true test of a choice that you make is simple. Would you make the same choice if you had it to do all over again? Absolutely! Would I change the way I approached f*ckstick Cesar? Sure. I can tell you from experience that having a gun pointed at you sucks! Would I change stopping him from flying a load of jumpers after the prop strike? NEVER! Those were my people! It didn’t matter if I knew them or not, they were skydivers, and I would never be willing to risk their lives under any circumstances, no matter who they were or where they were from. So, to the staff of that DZ in Southern Mexico I give my heart-felt thanks. To Cesar I say, “GO F*CK YOURSELF!” (From a safe distance and an undisclosed location).

This article was posted on SkydiverDriver.com with permission from Dean Ricci and  Blue Skies Magazine

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Right Stuff by Dean Ricci

The Right Stuff
by Dean Ricci

So, just what makes a good jump pilot? The truth is, there’s no real set answer to that question. As you can imagine, there are as many factors that go into a good jump pilot (some more important than others) as there are factors for a good skydiver, so let’s do it backward and list a few things that make a really shit jump pilot.

While on the road and flying for a really nice Midwest drop zone, I had the opportunity—or misfortune, if you will—to fly alongside a Caravan flown by the worst jump pilot I have ever met, seen or heard of. The DZ got stuck with this guy we’ll call “Tool,” after their two very accomplished jump pilots had moved on to bluer skies as it were, leaving them in a tight spot.

Tool had interviewed with the DZOs of this unfortunate operation and told them that outside of what I’m sure he explained was an amazing corporate career, he’d been quite the successful jump pilot as well. He told of his 500+ hours flying jumpers back when you had to spot with your eye, not the GPS, and that with everything available to him in their beautiful aircraft, the job would be as easy as could be. So, as any DZO would, they checked him out in the Caravan, ensured that he knew how to go up and back while keeping the rubber side down, and strapped him in the cockpit with very simple instructions: Go up and down, fast.

Cut to just under two weeks later, and my arrival. I’d had the chance to fly for this particular DZ the year before in the Chicagoland Otter, and knew the operation pretty well. It’s a drop zone full of great people, very accomplished jumpers, an airport willing to bend over backward to please them and an all around great vibe.

Perhaps it was because they recognized me from the previous year, perhaps it was because more than a few of them had read my articles in Blue Skies Mag or perhaps it was just my considerable charm and devilish good looks, but for whatever reason, I ended up getting an earful about Tool right away. They all said it in slightly different ways, but in a nutshell, Tool was an asshole that couldn’t spot for shit. I decided that I’d try to have an open mind, keep an eye out, and see for myself throughout the day. It didn’t take long to form my own opinion.

Strike One: While chatting with Tool on the ground before load one was even manifested, I tried to discuss a discrete radio frequency for us to be on so we could talk between ourselves. His question, without even a hint of sarcasm, was, “Why do we need to talk?” I thought about trying to explain to him that while running a multiple aircraft operation, it’s imperative for the pilots involved to be in constant contact to avoid dropping jumpers on top of each other, aircraft collisions, spotting corrections, jump-run separation, checking out the blonde tandem student with the amazing rack, etc.—but he walked away before I even had the chance to get the dumbass look off my face.

Strike Two: I was taxiing out for load five and getting ready to depart off runway 23. I heard the Caravan make a two-mile, 3,000’ final approach call for the same runway, so I made my call. “Middletown traffic, 2ST rolling for an intersection departure off 23.” I instantly got an almost panicked response from the Caravan with Tool yelling into the mic, “But I’m coming in HOT, I’M COMING IN HOT!” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud into the mic and respond “You’re in a Caravan that’s two miles away Tool, you’re NOT coming in hot!” Then, just for my own personal satisfaction, after he landed and once he called clear of the runway I announced, “Middletown traffic, 2ST climbing thru three thousand five hundred and WELL CLEAR of inbound HOT traffic”.

Strike Two and a Half: This strike was for the dozen jumpers that Tool put off the field on a light-wind day with mild jump-run speeds, having done so AFTER the jumpers on board asked him for multiple corrections and after I’d told him what direction jump run was, the distance prior to the field he should turn on the green, and how far he could let the last one exit at. It turns out that his favorite word every time a jumper asked him for anything was “WHY??” Jumpers land off, it’s a fact. Many factors can go into an off landing, but when you have all the information Tool had at his disposal it just shouldn’t happen.

Strike Two and Three Quarters: This one I didn’t get to see in person because I never flew in the Caravan with him. It turns out that on every single load he was on, he would go out of his way to announce that he’d give extra altitude if any of the girls on board would show him their tits. That’s actually how he did it as well … “I’ll give you more if you show me your tits!” He also attempted to institute a rule that only women were allowed to sit in the co-pilot seat; that way the tits were more accessible. Now don’t get me wrong, BIG fan of tits here, but in my opinion, asking for them is a lot like paying for sex. If you have to do that, you’ve got real problems!


Strike Three: While flying through about 4,000’, I heard the Caravan call two minutes to jumpers away. About four minutes later, as I was calling my two minutes to jumpers, it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard Tool call jumpers away, nor had I heard him communicate with approach that he was dropping. I hopped on the discrete frequency I’d finally gotten him to go on and asked where he was. By the time he answered, I was under one minute and about to give the door light. He explained to me that he was about one minute to the green light and was too busy to talk. The worst of many problems with this situation was that Tool was dropping fun jumpers from 13.5, and I was dropping tandems from 10.5, a fact that both he and I were aware of. When I leaned forward and craned my neck to look up, I’ll be damned if I didn’t get a great look at the belly of the Caravan about three thousand feet directly above me, totally ready to drop right on my head. Even worse than this was the fact that when I explained the whole thing to him later, he didn’t seem to really grasp what the problem was.

Even if you take the different jump altitudes out of the equation this is still a big deal. Two aircraft dropping at the same time and not talking could potentially put jumpers from different aircraft jumping into each other without even knowing. Imagine a tracking dive out of one aircraft, inadvertently blasting straight toward a tandem from the other aircraft … There are just too many possibilities for death and destruction to list.

In my personal opinion, and that of many other people I know, the best damn jump pilots out there start out their careers as jumpers. As a skydiver, you should already have a damn good grasp on issues like spotting, jump runs, group separation, wingsuits versus tandems or big ways, etc. The things that jumpers take as basic knowledge, your average general aviation pilot is completely clueless about. I honestly believe that it would be easier to take a non-pilot skydiver and turn them into a jump pilot, than to take an accomplished pilot and do the same thing.

What makes a good jump pilot? A little skill, a little luck, and the realization that your responsibility starts the moment you fire up the engine, and ends when the last jumpers are on the ground, and the aircraft is all tied down. It’s taking and giving corrections when needed, communicating both with other aircraft and air traffic control and with the jumpers. It’s knowing your responsibility not only to the jumpers, but to the operation as well. It’s about protecting the jumpers by giving them the best spots and the most information possible. It’s also about trying your hardest, every damn day, on every damn load to keep from being a complete and total fucking TOOL.

Lastly, if you’re a Midwest Skydiver wondering how to make sure you don’t end up in Tool’s aircraft, you need not worry. He got canned a few days after my weekend with them! (I’d like to think I was part of the reason why he got tossed.) So take yourself a drive down to Start Skydiving in Middletown, Ohio, and tell ‘em “The Fuckin’ Pilot” said to say hey!

This article was posted on SkydiverDriver.com with permission from Dean Ricci and  Blue Skies Magazine.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Pissed Off Pilot? What Your Pilot May be Thinking and Why. By Dean Ricci

by Dean Ricci

I love this sport. I love the people, the vibe and the job, but that love doesn’t keep certain things from really pissing me off! Before I started flying jumpers, I was a fulltime AFF and tandem instructor. I had close to seven thousand jumps, I’d worked at half a dozen DZs including Cross Keys, which was the busiest DZ in the States at the time. I’d done a lot and seen even more, and I knew everything … right up until I started sitting up front full time.  As soon as I was behind the stick, I started paying attention to things that had rarely, if ever, crossed my mind as a jumper. I looked back at more than a few of my actions over the years wondering what I’d been thinking and realizing how little I really knew.

The thing is, I’m a jumper first. My life as I know it started with a parachute on my back almost 16 years ago. As a jump pilot I always try to keep that in mind. On the flip side, most jumpers aren’t pilots and have little or no idea what goes on at the front of the plane and, at bigger drop zones, may not even know who their pilot is.

We’re gonna try here to cover some of the things that I, and other jump pilots I know, think about and are concerned with while taking you to altitude. Some of them may seem like old news, but you just might be surprised!

The Loading Area

Here’s the spot where my head just about comes off a dozen times a day. My whole reason for existence is fast turns, and as many loads as I can manage. At a medium or large drop zone, there are a whole lot of people who want to jump and only so much daylight; the loading area is where the difference between thirty loads in a day or thirty-five-plus loads is made. It’s also where you the jumper can dictate how many jumps you’re gonna get in.

Have your dirt dive done BEFORE the plane pulls up to the loading area! As a pilot, there’s nothing worse than watching the clock ticking with props spinning on the ground while jumpers are trying to figure out their slot and first point on a 10-way.

It is everyone’s responsibility to keep everyone else away from the propellers! A screaming pilot is really hard to hear with the engine running, and he or she can only see and do so much. Even if the engine has not been started, stay away from the spinny, whirly, choppy thing and yell to anyone that heads that way!

Know your exit order BEFORE you get in the plane—that way when you get to the plane, you can get in and sit the f*ck down!

If you’re trying to help out the pilot and DZ by loading, pulling the power cart from the A/C, helping an observer on the plane, etc., make sure that what you’re doing is really helping! If you’re not sure what’s going on, either ask or let someone else do it.


Hardly a new topic, right? I for one never thought about not putting on a seatbelt in an aircraft and yet, as a jumper and pilot, I see it happen all the timeIf you choose not to wear your seatbelt for takeoff or landing in a jump plane, you’re going to appear twice in the FAA report: once as a victim and yet again as the probable cause of death to someone else, more than likely a friend of yours.

Hey jackass, that camera helmet should be boned in or worn for the same reasons you should be. The people around you aren’t trying to be dicks by telling you to secure it, they are trying to keep if from taking their fucking heads off! It’s nothing but a really big projectile if that plane stops quickly. The seatbelts come off you and your equipment at the altitude your DZ and pilot want them to, and it’s your responsibility to know what that is.

Not nearly as important as putting your seatbelt on, but still important: take it off when you’re supposed to. With your belt on, you create a potential log jam in an emergency situation in which people need to leave quickly and safely.

Last but not least, your pilot can receive a violation against his or her license if the FAA observes passengers without seatbelts on, so watch out for him as well! You’re not going to do much jumping without a pilot, and when he’s flying again after getting spanked by the FAA, see how much extra altitude you get.

The Ride to Altitude

Have fun! That’s what we are here for, and there’s nobody on board who doesn’t know it. The thing is, have responsible fun. No screaming at the top of your lungs to show how much you love skydiving. There’s one particular fool that used to think it was great fun to scream like a B horror movie from takeoff through one-thousand feet, right up until he got thrown out of the plane (you know who you are, asshole!). It’s not only stupid behavior that makes you look like a tool, but it’s dangerous as well. Why would you want your pilot to wonder if there’s something horribly wrong during takeoff?

Keep the shifting around in the plane to a minimum, especially in a mid-sized aircraft. Your pilot probably isn’t worried about weight and balance at this point, but he’s getting pretty tired of trimming out the aircraft ‘cause you’re chatting with the whole load. It may not look like the pilot is doing much, but trust me, he’s busy! Anything to help out on a 12-hour day is greatly appreciated!

Keep your eyes open. You have a view of the aircraft that the pilot doesn’t. If you see something that looks funny or wrong with the plane, the jumpers, etc., say something to the pilot. The life you save may be your own.

Try to remember that the pilot is there to do a job, and that job is not only taking you to altitude but also keeping you safe along the way. If you need to speak with him or her, do so, but get to the point! Distracting the pilot too much could result in anything from a bad spot, less altitude, or even him/her not seeing the other plane flying right at you!

Jump Run, Exits and Freefall

Whether or not your jump plane has jump lights, you undoubtedly have signals for when to open the door and when to leave. These signals are given (or not given) for a reason. If the green light hasn’t come on when you think it should, it may be that the pilot knows there is another aircraft below you that causes a major hazard and is holding you until it’s clear, or that winds have changed drastically. The pilot of your plane is more than likely in constant contact with a controller and has information you don’t have, so whatever the reason may be, don’t do anything before the pilot signals you!

Remember how you figured out exit orders BEFORE you got on the plane? Now is the time to put that info to use. Know how much time you should be giving to the group in front of you. Have a good idea how long your climbout is going take and GET ON WITH IT! In the door isn’t the place to chat, and all you’re doing is screwing the spot for those in the back, usually the tandem instructors who already have enough on their plate without having to deal with a bad spot!

Unless you’re at a DZ where the jumpers are responsible for spotting, let the pilot fuck up the spot BEFORE you try to correct him! As a jump pilot, I know how fast we’re going thru the air, how fast we’re going across the ground and EXACTLY how far away from the DZ we are, as well as wind speeds from the ground to exit altitude, so give your pilot a chance to do his job. Then again, if you’ve been on a load with a bad spot, it’s not a bad thing to let the pilot know where you opened up because he may not realize it. Be polite though, or you may be doing a lot of hiking!

If you look down and can’t see the ground because of clouds, tell your pilot! There isn’t a licensed jumper out there that doesn’t know you’re not supposed to punch clouds, regardless of how amazing it may be.

Here’s a question for you. If the FAA is on the ground watching jumpers punch clouds, what happens to the jumpers? The answer is: NOTHING. If the FAA is on the ground watching jumpers punch clouds, what happens to the pilot? The answer is: the pilot is f*cked!

Depending on how much of a d!ck the FAA official wants to be, your happy time in a puffy may have just trashed your pilot’s career. This is especially important for you WINGSUIT FLYERS! It doesn’t matter how far you had to travel to hit that cloud, it’s still your pilot’s responsibility, and he or she is the only one that will pay the price for your fun. If you didn’t realize that, now you do—please please please act accordingly! Oh, and there may be another aircraft in that cloud you might hit as well!

Truth be told, I, like most of the jump pilots I know, absolutely love what I do. For the most part, flying jumpers to altitude and diving down like a mad man to get more jumpers is an incredible ride. The people, the vibe, the scene and the sport is what I’ve lived for, and enjoy more than almost anything else. The tips, suggestions and criticisms offered here are things that not only slow down a DZ’s operation, but also pose potential hazards to jumpers and pilots alike. With very few exceptions, every jump pilot I know takes very personal responsibility for everyone onboard the plane they fly. Not only are the people onboard fellow skydivers, but more than likely friends. Most of the things that really piss me off are things that put the people I care about at risk, and that’s something I’m completely willing to get publicly pissed off about. It’s all about having a fucking blast SAFELY, and like it or not, every skydive starts with an aircraft and every aircraft starts with a Fuckin’ Pilot!

This article was posted on SkydiverDriver.com with permission from Dean Ricci and  Blue Skies Magazine.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Way of the Jump Pilot by Dean Ricci

The Way of the Jump Pilot

By Dean Ricci

F*ckin’ Jump Pilot. It’s not exactly the job title most pilots look for when entering aviation. Indeed, most pilots who find themselves spending any time dropping jumpers usually only do so on their way to bigger things. But for some, it’s not only the most exciting, challenging and rewarding flying they’ve done, it’s the top of the pyramid.

Working as a pilot in skydiving offers a number of unique challenges that not everyone in aviation has had experience with, and as such it tends to attract a rather small percentage of commercial pilots. As a six-thousand-hour airline transport pilot, with almost five thousand of those flying skydiving operations, jump aircraft have been my home almost since the beginning of my career. Flying skydivers helped me refine stick and rudder skills, learn to fly an aircraft at its maximum performance, and deal with unique and challenging conditions not found anywhere else in aviation.

Nowhere else in flying does a pilot have to learn to deal with a shifting load of crazy jumpers, but passengers who leave halfway through the trip—all while making sure passengers exit in exactly the right spot, at exactly the right altitude and at the perfect speed every single time. Add to that the need to read and understand the effect of winds for jumpers both in freefall and under canopy, then toss in having to land an aircraft literally thousands of times a year, and you end up with a skill set unique to jump pilots. It’s a type of precision flying that isn’t easily understood or mastered. Yet like most pilots, I was lead to believe that flying jumpers was not a goal, but rather a steppingstone to a more fulfilling career, and so I moved on to bigger and better things.
… it became glaringly obvious that the dream job I was after was the one I had walked away from …
Having spent two years flying for a regional airline in the United States, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the side of flying that most people envision when they think “pilot.” What I discovered may surprise you. Bottom line: IT F*CKING SUCKED! Not only did I spend drastically less time actually flying an aircraft, but while flying, I spent much of my time simply monitoring systems and meeting paperwork requirements rather than actually piloting the craft. Add to that having to play stewardess for the passengers because an Otter is too small to have a true cabin crew, you can imagine what a fucking dream that can be. The whole experience turned out to be much less than I had expected or hoped for, and it became glaringly obvious that the dream job I was after was the one I had walked away from. So when the opportunity to come back to the sport I enjoy and the aircraft I love arose, I jumped at the chance! As it turns out, I’m not the only one.

Paul started out like many in aviation. Having started working as United States Federal Aviation Administration instructor pilot in Southern New Jersey, he eventually transitioned to jump pilot for a number of reasons.

“I needed a way to build time flying, and realized pretty quickly that as an instructor I was not only not building a lot of time, but wasn’t even flying the aircraft! When the chance to start flying skydivers in a Cessna 206 came up, it was a pretty simple decision to make. The more I flew jumpers, the more I enjoyed the challenge, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the larger aircraft the DZ had for their operation. And when I started flying the Otter … I was hooked.”

The de Havilland Twin Otter is widely considered the overall best aircraft in skydiving, and there are a whole lot of reasons why. Originally built for passenger operations and short haul cargo, its reputation as a short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) monster grew quite quickly. Because of the Otter’s short-field and rough-terrain capabilities, skydiving operators quickly recognized how wonderful a fit the aircraft was. Its popularity and reputation in the sport grew to such a degree that a special variant was designed specifically for the United States Air Force Academy, and the 400 Series specifically for the United States Army Parachute Team.

“The Otter simply does things you would never imagine an aircraft of its size could,” says Paul. “It’s probably the most incredible aircraft I’ll ever fly, and I came back to the sport when I realized that the only real flying I’d ever done was for jumpers. There just isn’t anything more incredible than flying a formation of four or five Otters while jumpers stream out into the sky!”

Like me, Paul left a career in what most would consider the sought after path in aviation to return to the jump-pilot life on the East Coast of the United States, and the larger-than-life Twin Otter.

Yet bigger isn’t always better, and doesn’t always fit. Probably the most well-known aircraft type used in skydiving is one that’s been around for ages, and is the daily workhorse for skydiving operations around the world: the venerable Cessna.

It also happens to be one of Chris’s favorite aircraft. Chris, a U.S. commercial pilot flying just outside of Austin, Texas, has been enjoying his flying career immensely. “I love the challenge of having to eyeball the spot without a GPS. I love having the jumpers right there next to me, and I have to admit that every time the door right next to me opens up, I get one heck of a rush!”

Cessna Aircraft currently manufactures 10 different models; the C-172, C-182, the C-206, and the larger, widely popular Turbine C-208 Caravan and Grand Caravan have arguably taken more jumpers aloft than any other type of jump ship in existence. Nicknamed “Time Machine” by jump pilots, it’s usually the first aircraft most will fly, and with an average load time of 30-plus minutes, a pilot’s logbook can quickly fill up with the hours needed to tackle the larger and more complex aircraft most desire. It’s the same route Brent took. Flying out of Northern California with Skydive Sacramento, Brent knows the sport from both sides, being a tandem instructor as well.
Having made the transition out of Cessnas, Brent was at one point one of the highest time jump pilots in the aircraft that became his favorite jump ship. Standing out in skydiving as the only aircraft specifically designed from the ground up for parachute operations is the PAC-750XSTOL. Developed from the Cresco, a New Zealand crop dusting aircraft, the PAC took its roots from a heavy hauling yet nimble ship. Its light weight and high lift wing has made it one of the most efficient aircraft in the sport. Its very high power-to-weight ratio makes it possible to reach 12,000’ and return in just over 10 minutes.

“The fact that it has a stick control instead of a yoke control in the cockpit, lots of power and a responsive feel makes it a blast to fly. It’s got all the bells and whistles—including top-of-the-line GPS, which makes spotting a piece of cake—but when you’re flying it, she feels like a dive bomber, she comes down so fast! Watching jumpers that just exited your plane landing while you’re loading the next group is just cool.”

Yet there is no denying that sometimes the most popular aircraft has nothing to do with speed, efficiency or even comfort. Sometimes you simply want unique and cool! Take Perris Valley Skydiving in Southern California. When their fleet of two Twin Otters, a Skyvan and a few Cessnas didn’t seem to be enough, they added a big brother to the family. Delta Airlines first introduced the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 into passenger airline operations in 1965. Primarily used for passenger and cargo operations, the idea of using such a large jet-powered aircraft for skydiving was an idea that didn’t take shape until Ben Conaster, owner of Perris Valley, took a closer look. After years of research and planning, in 2008 the FAA made it the only airline transport-class jet certified for skydiving operations. It is by far the world’s largest and fastest tailgate jump ship, and the crews that fly her are unique in their field.

Not all popular and efficient aircraft used in skydiving come with wings though. For many years now, Skydive Cross Keys has operated the very popular Aérospatiale Alouette II helicopter. This ship provides a strong enough platform for jumpers to leap from at over 9,000’ while hovering, essentially allowing a zero-airspeed exit. Using the Alouette for everything from lower-altitude fun-jumper operations to tandem skydives, Cross Keys has thrilled jumpers and non-jumpers for years.

“For as much of a challenge as flying jumpers in a fixed wing aircraft can be, holding a hover over 2,000 meters up while jumpers hang from the skids is intense!” says Tom, a long-time rotor jump pilot. “It’s the most exciting passenger flying I’ve ever done.”

Toss into this wonderful aviation mix a wide variety of both fixed wing, rotorcraft and lighter than air, along with all the different pilots that fly them and you’ll find an incredible variety of ways to take to the skies and make a jump. As skydiving and aviation both continue to progress, we can only wonder what ships will be taking jumpers aloft in the future, and what pilots will decide that skydiving is where it’s at.

This article was posted on SkydiverDriver.com with permission from Dean Ricci and  Blue Skies Magazine.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

New for 2019 - Articles by Dean Ricci

Back in 2008 I was flying for Skydive Temple, about 50 miles north of Austin Texas. That is where I met a fellow jump pilot by the name of Dean Ricci aka Princess. He was flying a Twin Otter for Chicagoland Skydiving Center, whom my DZ had leased the Twin Otter from. Dean and I have remained in contact over the years and he is now flying a Twin Otter for Skydive Dubai. He has logged over 9000 hours of flight time, 7000 of which is flying skydivers. He is also a tandem instructor with over 10,000 jumps.

Since I last saw him he has also started writing articles for Blue Skies Magazine. I also wrote an article for that magazine back in January 2015 and I plan on writing more for them in the near future. 

I have read all of Dean's articles over the years and I have found them to be entertaining and informative, and I am happy to announce that new for 2019, and with permission from Blue Skies Magazine, we will be featuring Dean's articles here on SkydiverDriver.com! We are excited to be adding his flavor to our site and we hope that you all enjoy the articles as well.