Skydivers in air
6 min read

This story is perhaps not quite a typical “get-there-it is” one, but it was based on a “necessity” coupled with “she’ll be right” to get four parachutists on their way to the drop zone for a last jump, late in the day. As it turned out it could well have been a last jump for them and a last flight for me.

I was based in Australia from the Camden Airstrip in New South Wales, where the Sydney Parachuting School/Club once operated. I was towing gliders at the time at the same airstrip when I got a call from the lead jump master that he needed a pilot, urgently. I had flown for them before and being keen on building my hours in a Cessna 182 rather than mainly Pawnees and Super Cubs, I “jumped” at the opportunity.

When I got there, the regular 182 was ready to go, as the duty pilot had finished for the day, refuelled for the next day’s ops, and gone home. Four skydivers were waiting (a jump master and three jumpers), two I recognised and one new guy. This was one more jumper than normal and my understanding was that the new guy was on a qualification jump.

Cessna 182 cabin

With no seats, skydivers can move around the cabin of a 182 quite easily—maybe too easily.

We loaded up with the new guy down the back, the two regulars in the middle, and the jump master in the front next to me with his back to the instrument panel so that he could observe all that was going on and control the sortie.

I did think at the time that with a full fuel load and four heavy weight jumpers I was pushing the 182 a bit, but the old girl had a big engine, a large wing area and we had a 5000 ft. sealed runway. This was plenty big enough for a 182, as I had towed heavy gliders behind a 182 from shorter grass strips. “She’ll be right,” I reckoned.

We lined up, got clearance to go and I opened the tap on the 182. She accelerated a bit slower than normal but we managed to get off the deck OK, when suddenly at approximately 200 ft. the jump master lurched towards the back of the aircraft. Unfortunately for me, his parachute had somehow snared my propeller control and put the 182 into full coarse pitch. With a constant speed prop aircraft, on takeoff you need full fine pitch to get a grip on the air at relatively low speeds. The sound of the change in prop pitch was heard all over the aerodrome and as my fellow tug pilots told me later, they could not understand what the hell I was doing.

In the split second of the pitch note change, I realised what had happened and grabbed the jump master’s helmet to pull him back against the instrument panel. Fortunately for me, he (being an experienced jump master) also heard the pitch change and instinctively stopped moving, thus helping me pull him back to regain fine pitch, maintain control, and resume the climb out. Mind you we were all a bit shaken.

We cleared the trees at the end of the runway comfortably and continued the climb out to a safe altitude. Do we go back or continue to the drop zone? As we were now safe and the two regular jumpers did not want to waste the opportunity to jump, we went on to the drop zone, offloaded the two regulars, and I returned with the jump master and new guy still on board. You may well ask why did those two return, rather than jump?

Firstly, why had the jump master lurched towards the back of the aircraft? From the start, I had noticed that the jump master appeared to have been keeping a close eye on the new guy and generally talking to him a lot—reasonable for a qualification jump, I figured. However, the new guy was acting somewhat nervously, fiddling with his reserve chute at the start of the takeoff run. A sudden realisation by the jump master that the pins on the reserve could pop at any moment prompted him to act quickly. It did not take much imagination on his part to work out what could happen if the reserve chute deployed inside the cabin with the door open and at low altitude.

He lurched towards the guy in an attempt to get to him before the pins popped, but unfortunately they did pop. Because I had grabbed the jump master’s helmet to pull him back, the other two jumpers also saw the danger and forced the guy down on top of his reserve chute. By focussing on the reserve chute deployment, the jumper master had overlooked that a rapid move all the way to the back of the aircraft would have shifted the CG aft, which, at our weight and low speed, would most likely have caused a potential loss of control. At our low height and speed, the jumpers could not have exited the aircraft and I doubt anyone would have survived.

Skydivers in air

Not everyone is cut out for skydiving.

Secondly, why was the new guy fiddling with his reserve chute inside the aircraft? This is not normal practice under any circumstances. As it turned out (unknown to me at the time), the new guy had in fact, recently developed an anxiety issue with jumping and was on a check jump to determine his future in the sport. Apparently the other jumpers were going along with him in support. I don’t think that this knowledge at the time would have influenced my decision to go as I would not, in my wildest dreams, have anticipated such an incident to occur.

I did fly for that skydiving club again and was involved in two further potentially fatal incidents, not to me or the 182 but rather to two jumpers early in their sky diving careers. Both incidents were classified as accidental events that occurred outside the aircraft. Sometime after my takeoff incident, a Cessna Caravan with a load of jumpers on board crashed on takeoff from a nearby airstrip, resulting in fatalities and serious injuries. That was rather sobering as I do believe Lady Luck was very much by my side that day—our takeoff could also have gone horribly wrong as it did for those in the Caravan.

An emergency usually happens when you least expect it. It can take only a few seconds to develop and end just as quickly, one way or another. We all learn from emergencies—or should.

God bless the person(s) who designed the Cessna182. The old girl is more likely to have saved us on that day rather than any actions I/we may have taken.

Wes Madycki
Latest posts by Wes Madycki (see all)
11 replies
  1. John V.
    John V. says:

    I’m sorry, I don’t understand – are you saying that you willingly took off (totally illegally, BTW!) with 4 passengers plus yourself in a FOUR-PERSON Cessna 182 (but not needing a fifth seat because that “new guy” was stuffed into your baggage compartment, of course!), so that you were quite possibly overweight and with a probably-too-far-aft CG (especially with the jump master turned around in his seat)… and all you can say (cheerfully, apparently) is “I did think at the time that with a full fuel load and four heavy weight jumpers I was pushing the 182 a bit, but the ‘old girl’ had a big engine (and) a large wing area”??

    Do you not realize how unbelievably *lucky* you and your passengers were, to come out of this illegal and potentially-doomed (even before that bull-in-a-china-shop wearing a parachute and turned around in his seat is considered) flight, alive and in one piece?? And you talk about this all so casually; have you EVER spent even a few minutes looking carefully at a 182 POH? If you had, you might just have thought at some time, “you know, if Cessna had WANTED to refer to that back area as a “PASSENGER/baggage compartment in their manual, then they probably could have done so – why didn’t they?” I have to ask – is this what passes for “normal flying” in Australia?

    P.S. The (apparently unintentionally ironic) last paragraph in your story says it all, except that the words “rather than” should have been replaced by “especially because of” (any actions I/we may have taken). As a friendly suggestion, you might well want to take a serious look at all of your other “standard” flight practices, to see if some of those mightn’t also warrant some immediate changes … for safety reason, you understand …

    Reply
    • Roland Schultz
      Roland Schultz says:

      Your Narrative comes across as: Prime for the making of an FAA Inspector…..Heavy on Book Learning, but shallow in experience & not having a “Clue,” of the Real World!

      Reply
    • Jeff L.
      Jeff L. says:

      I’m based in the U.S. and I have also flown a Cessna 182 with four jumpers. The only seat was mine, so the jumpers are weight and are distributed within the (former) seating area. These planes are modified for these operations (i.e. with a passenger door that opens up against the wing). So rather than speak so authoritatively on an operation you know little about, and so condescendingly to a pilot you do not know, perhaps you should do some reading as well.

      Reply
  2. David Tyler
    David Tyler says:

    Great story, Wes! I did a few shifts dropping jumpers. The school owner told me the faster I got his -182 down (and back in the air), the more money he made — so he urged me to flatten out the prop and roll nearly wings vertical, pegging the VSI. “See if you can beat the jumpers back down,” he said. I laughed, but I wasn’t sure he was joking. Over time, I got the impression he didn’t regard his airplanes as terribly precious, so while it was “fun while it lasted,” it didn’t last long.

    Reply
  3. David M Campbell
    David M Campbell says:

    Releasing jumpers over airports is one of the most dangerous legal events in aviation. Someone will get chopped up soon,

    Reply
    • Wes
      Wes says:

      David M: Agree wholeheartedly, particularly if care and safety was not taken seriously – hitting a parachutist would be a nightmare. We have one airfield nearby to where I did my Parachute sortie flying which was exclusive to parachuting, such that the jumpers landed back at the airfield and pilots would circle away from the parachutists until they had all landed before landing back at the airstrip. In our case the jump zone was well away from the aerodrome which was set up for general aviation.

      Reply
  4. Wes
    Wes says:

    John V: BTW, there were no seats as she was set up in cargo mode. As it turned out she was not overweight and was within with CG limits on take off. Anyway I respect your opinion.

    Reply
  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    With no seats except for the pilot in the C182, you can legally fly with pilot with 4 skydivers. As far as weight goes. we never flew more than 1/2 tanks so we stayed within legal limits. It was a fun job, low pay but lots of hours.

    Reply
    • wes
      wes says:

      How true Dave. Hiw would one get a parachutist into and out off tbe luggsge compartment is beyond me not to mention with the jump master “in the front seat”, how would the othet jumpers get past him as he/she is the last one to exit exit. As it turned out the tanks were only 3/4 full, if that as in talking to the duty pilot later, he never filled past 3/4. If the 182 gad been over weight or outside CGi.its the flight would not have occured. Yes she was heavy nut I had flown a heavy 182 before so knew what to wat h out for. Ronald “hit the nail right on the head”.

      Reply

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