By Howard Deevers
Yes, we do have FAR's that regulate just about everything we do as pilots, and we train to be safer pilots, and we do an Annual Inspection on our airplanes, and do a flight review to be sure that both we and our planes are safe to fly, but one of the last things that come to mind about aviation safety is jumping out of an airplane. It sure is low on my priority list, but a lot of people DO jump out of airplanes.
Southern Arizona is one of the hot spots for parachute jumping in the U.S. You can find what airports do parachute jumping by that little parachute symbol on your sectional. I could not find any in Northern Arizona, but Southern Arizona is a busy place for jumping.
That little symbol should show you about where the jumpers will land, but don't count on that alone. Depending on wind, and skill, they could land just about any place in that area. Your sectional may have a notation about the traffic pattern at the airport as well. Most of these landing zones are away from the traffic patterns for those airports, but the one at Casa Grande (KCGZ) looks to be right in the downwind traffic pattern area, with no notations; this is just outside of the Class B, 30 NM, Mode C ring around Phoenix. Be sure to check the Facilities Directory for more information at these airports.
Eloy Arizona (E60) must rank in the top 10 locations in the world for parachute jumping. Parachute jumping is a popular sport, and Eloy offers one of the best locations with very good weather nearly year-round. Look at Eloy on your Sectional and you will see a box with a caution message very near the airport. Other airports that have intense parachute jumping also have caution boxes: Pinal (KMZJ) and Marana (KAVQ).
Parachute activity at Pinal is military training, and they do intense jumping, at times from very early in the morning (think still dark) and going on most of the day. The AWOS at MZJ has a notation after the weather that “military parachute jumping can occur day or night, 7 days a week, up to 24000 feet with releases out to 15 nautical miles.” That is quite a lot of airspace that we need to be aware of. The jumping activity at Marana is both civilian and military and is always by NOTAM, and is closer in, with landings at the center of the airfield, NW of the intersection of the two runways. Be sure to check the AWOS before entering the pattern and monitor the CTAF frequency for activity at all airports that do parachute jumping.
The planes carrying jumpers are required to announce two minutes prior to release, and then again when the jumpers are out. By monitoring those CTAF frequencies, we at least know where to look to “see and avoid” jumpers.
People falling from the sky, hanging on to a “sheet,” and aiming for a landing spot are not the only safety issues for pilots at these airports. The planes that take jumpers aloft and “dump” them out are now on a rapid descent to get back to the starting gate for another load that may be waiting for them. These planes can range from single engine Cessnas on up to military C-17's. All aircraft arriving at these busy jumping airports must be alert to the jump plane traffic.
I have watched parachute jumping at several airports and have had to deal with the jumping planes on descent as well. I have also had conversations with some of the pilots while on the ground. These are well trained and appropriately rated pilots, and they are as concerned with safety as much as the other users of the airports. I know it doesn't seem that way to some pilots at these airports. I have heard complaints that the jumper planes “cut me off” in the traffic pattern. Since these planes are making rapid descents, they tend to stay out away from the standard pattern and make wider base turns than we would in a normal pattern. They don't want to descend on to a plane already in the pattern.
At Eloy you may find the jumper planes land on runway 20, pick up a load of jumpers then depart on runway 02. That can be confusing to some pilots not familiar with that airport.
Fortunately, there have been very few actual issues or accidents at any of these airports. The safety message here is “Be Aware” of your environment and be looking for other traffic at all times. The safety message to the jumper planes is the same. Don't let a routine that you do every day become a “bad habit.” None of us want to be on the news tonight!
Be sure to check the Arizona Pilots Association web site for a free safety seminar near you. And, don't forget to “Bring Your Wingman.”