Circle the Jumpers: The Voices of Experience

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Greg Shelton

I always try to talk to the pilot and skydivers ahead of time. They are not always available. The main thing I want to know is, “How many are jumping?” Then, I explain to them: “Okay, if you say there are three jumpers, then when that third guy comes out, I’m rolling in right behind that airplane and starting the descent. I don’t want a fourth guy jumping out and hitting me.”

The other thing that I try to make clear to the pilot is that he is going to continue on in a straight line and leave the area, so I don’t have to worry about him. I had a guy, after they all jumped out, he rolls right into me, rolls over and heads on his back like he was trying to beat the guys down. After I told him to fly straight out, he rolls over and comes right into me. I jerked back and went right over the top of him. So, that is another thing you have to be careful of.

The other thing that I don’t like is when they free fall. I’ve had them jump from high altitude and then pop their canopies about 4,500 feet. If they don’t have smoke, a lot of time those guys are hard to find. You are down there at a lower altitude hoping they are not coming down on you. I kind of quit doing that where they were free falling from high altitude.

Have them jump at 4,500 feet, then circle them, because then you can see them. You know where they are at. I think somebody in a Pitts hit somebody when they did that free fall once. I think they were free falling and the pilot was trying to find them and ran into them. That is the thing I don’t like about free falling.

You kind of know where they are going to step out because of the wind, but it seems to me that they have always been kind of hard to spot if they don’t have smoke. If they are going to do a hop and a pop, you can be right there with them.

Then I’ve always stayed above the highest one so I don’t dirty up the air for them or anything like that.

When there are other planes, step up on one another, so that whoever is leading the bunch doesn’t start getting below the sky divers. It is just like you are in echelon flight. You are skimming just outside of the smoke of the guy ahead of you. If there are three of you, you might be at three points of the compass. Just follow a guy’s smoke. Watch the other guys and all the sky divers.

Bud Granley

One of my friends circled the jumpers at an air show and it turned out that he hurt his neck pulling about six or seven Gs. He had to stop doing air shows for a while, go to a chiropractor and go to therapy. I can see that happening if you are going to circle the jumpers, looking back at them, while you are turning at 7 Gs. He put his neck out of kilter and sprained some muscles and strained some things.

I suggested to him that he fly slower and keep the Gs down, and he did that afterwards at another air show. Keep your speed down and you can still fly close enough to the jumpers. Seven G, eight G, pulling around the turn is actually dangerous for the pilot.

Circling the jumpers is a fair amount of work. You’ve got to prepare. You’ve got to go fly. You’ve got to come back, smoke up again and refuel for your main act.

You circle the airplane and don’t get involved with the airplane until their chutes are open. There are certain rules about circling the jumpers and one of them is that the jumpers have to be accounted for before you approach them.

Here are some of the things you have to do: You have to brief with the jump pilot. You have to brief with the jumpers. Those are the rules. How many jumpers are going to be out? It has to be totally controlled. It has to be totally open.

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Deb Gary
Deb Gary is a former air show performer, member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame and freelance writer whose work has been published in Air Shows Magazine and Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.