Throwing People From Airplanes
Many of life’s best opportunities are a result of hard work and determination. Some are truly a matter of just being in the right place at the right time. The latter is exactly how I (very accidentally) became a skydive pilot.
Shortly after making the move to Tennessee, I was able to get myself back into the air with the help of a few locals. I had not flown for nearly seven years, and I was certainly missing it. I purchased my first airplane, a beautiful 1973 Cessna 172M, which allowed me to fly more often. I loved that airplane. She didn’t do anything fast or carry a very heavy load, but she always did exactly what I asked of her. I would fly every chance that I could; sometimes to a destination and others just to be in the air. The first summer after making the purchase, I remember hearing quite a bit of new activity on the radio from the airport just southeast of me. It sounded as if a skydiving operation had opened up shop, and boy did they sound busy! I decided to take my new plane on a quick hop over to the Marion County Airport (KAPT) so I could see what was going on.
When I pulled up on the ramp, I was surprised to see the number of people all over the place. This otherwise sleepy little airport was booming with business! I saw an older model Cessna 182 parked on the ramp in front of where all the people were, so I walked on over to take a look. The aircraft was completely stripped out on the inside with just the pilot seat remaining. The right-hand door had also been modified so that it was hinged at the top, allowing it to swing all the way up to the wing.
I started talking to the gentleman who was flying the aircraft, asking him all kinds of questions about what was going on, what it was like flying skydivers, and whether or not I might be able to try it someday. He introduced me to the owner of the drop zone (DZ), and before I knew it, I was strapped into the pilot seat to make my first flight (with the chief pilot riding along as a skydiver). By the end of that day, I was taking skydivers to altitude above the airport, watching them get out, and hustling back down to make my next pick up. It was incredibly fun, and I was hooked! I had become a “diver driver”.
I already had a full-time job running the airport in Winchester, but when I could, I’d spend many weekends in Jasper, TN flying loads of jumpers for the Chattanooga Skydiving Company that year. It was a great way to build flight time and make a little money on the side. As the year went on, the DZ became busier, upgraded to a turbine aircraft, and needed more of a full-time pilot. My priorities were elsewhere at the time and I just couldn’t fill that role. I didn’t have the amount of flight time the insurance company required for the new aircraft anyhow, so it was time for me to step aside. There were no hard feelings, and I’d still visit from time to time to see how things were going, even flying the 182 when able.
Pretty soon, I started to miss the flying and friends I had made. I’d heard that a DZ just north of me was starting to get busier, so I flew up to the Tullahoma Regional Airport (KTHA) to take a look for myself. Skydive Tennessee had recently changed hands, and was seeing a revival. I went into the office to introduce myself to the manager, and told them that if I’d be happy to fly for them if they ever needed someone part time. Coincidentally, their primary pilot was leaving to go fly at the airlines, so they were in need of a replacement. After making a couple of flights with the owner of the company, I was back in the saddle, this time in a Turbo Cessna 206.
Flying the Cessna 206 was a lot like flying the Cessna 182 back in Jasper. It was of a similar vintage and had the same style jump door, but it did have a few differences. It could carry one extra skydiver, came with a GPS to assist in finding the spot the jumpers wanted, and with the turbo, it was now possible to get to altitude quicker (which meant more loads per hour and more money).
Being at Skydive Tennessee was just like being at Chattanooga Skydiving in the beginning. A new owner had recently purchased the DZ, and was still building the business up. At the time, it was only open Thursday through Sunday, so I still had plenty of opportunity to fly on the weekends. There were a couple of other pilots flying as well which meant I didn’t have to miss time at my own airport to fly there during the week. Even some of the faces that I’d seen and met at one were becoming familiar to me at the other. I was having the time of my life. In fact, I would say over and over again that the only reason I was coming around was because I was having so much fun, and that when it stopped being fun, I’d stop showing up.
Eventually, the DZ would start to get busier, just as before, and would be open seven days a week. There was even talk of getting a Cessna 208 Caravan to fly since more and more jumpers were starting to show up. Sitting at about 900 hours total time, I was afraid that I was going to be out of a job again. Thankfully, between flying my own aircraft and the 206, I was able to get the last 100 hours needed to satisfy the insurance requirement in order to fly the Caravan. In the meantime, I was able to start flying with one of the other pilots in the Caravan to get a jump start on my training.
The Caravan is an amazing machine, both compared to the other jump planes I’d been in (so far) and just about every other aircraft I had in my logbook at the time. It could carry two and a half times the number of skydivers the 206 could, had a large jump door to the rear of the aircraft with a spacious cabin interior, and (with the Pratt & Whitney PT-6 slung on the front) was climbing to higher altitudes, faster than its piston powered cousin. I’ve heard the Caravan referred to as the “Turbine Suburban” because of the loads that it can carry. It seems like a large aircraft (and it is), but it feels extremely light on the controls. To me, it felt so much like flying my 172 that I often had to remind myself on landing that I was in an aircraft that sat several more feet off the ground by comparison.
Here I was, barely 1,000 hours in my logbook, and I was in command of a turbine powered rocket ship. I didn’t think that it could get any better. I was so wrong. As demand would change at the DZ, so would the aircraft. I would soon be given the opportunity to fly several different types of aircraft that I could’ve only dreamed of while in flight school, each with their positives and negatives. Before I knew it, I would log time in three different Cessna 208 variants (including a Texas Turbine Conversion model), the Beechcraft C90 King Air, Pacific Aerospace PAC750, Beechcraft Model 99 Airliner, and (my personal favorite) the de Havilland DHC6 Twin Otter. I was also being given the opportunity to ferry these same aircraft across the country and to fly at different DZs during skydiving events known as “boogies”.
Being a jump pilot has given me opportunities to fly aircraft that I would otherwise never have been given the chance to, and I’ve met some fantastic people over the years that I consider friends for life. To date, I’ve done two tandem jumps and have been able to throw several friends & family members (including my wife) out of an airplane. It is not lost on me how lucky I am in my work life. Not only do I have a full-time job that I love managing the airport in Winchester, TN, but being a “jumper dumper” gives me a weekend side hustle that feels like having fun with old friends. This life I live is a charmed one…a lucky one...if there is something you want in life, chase your passion! Remember, half the battle of getting the job you want is just showing up!