Meat Missiles

March 12, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

airplane and skydiver collisionThis is a pejorative term used by some pilots to describe skydivers. In free fall they are impossible to see and at terminal velocity, a descriptive term, may reach speeds of about 120 miles per hour. We have ample evidence of what a nine pound bird can do to an aircraft, so it takes little imagination to envision what devastation a much larger human can wreak. Years ago, a free fall jumper suffered a broken foot while removing the stabilator of a passing Cherokee resulting in four fatalities in the aircraft.

Under canopy, after the chute has opened, theoretically the target should be much easier to spot, and the impact will be less. However, you will not like the results! An accident in Florida earlier this week illustrates the point spectacularly as captured by photographer, Tim Telford.

The few details we know are this—subject to change: The skydiver was about to land on the runway when the aircraft arrived at the same time. Pilot and parachutist saw each other seconds before the collision, but inertia has a way of carrying things to a logical and frightening conclusion. The pilot pulled up to evade and hooked the shrouds of the chute pulling the diver behind the aircraft and whipping the aircraft nose first into the ground.

skydiver-plane collisionLady Luck smiled on both veteran participants whose instinctive reactions probably saved their lives. There were minor injuries for both in what sure looked like a fatal accident.

The NTSB and FAA will investigate, but a few thoughts for your consideration. I am wary of skydivers, not personally you understand, although many of us wonder about the wisdom of leaving a perfectly good airplane. In flight however, their trajectories will largely be forward and down with some constrained ability to maneuver. You won’t see them easily if at all. At airports where jumps are in progress monitor the CTAF and stay clear until sure that gravity has reclaimed everyone. In a recent drop zone arrival, I heard the call of “jumpers away” and decided that a little VFR holding practice might be just the thing. We landed a few minutes after the last jumper was down, and everybody got to fly again the same day.

En route, monitor CTAFs or get VFR flight following where available. Also, refresh your knowledge about parachute ops with ASI’s  “Know Before You Go: Navigating Today’s Airspace,” which includes a chapter on Parachute Jumping Areas. This is an encounter to avoid and it’s easy to do so! Sharing the airspace carefully, aloft and at the airport is not only neighborly, it’s life-prolonging.

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Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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12 Responses to “Meat Missiles”

  1. Ronald Put Says:

    Excellent article above. From the perspective of a 1000 hour private pilot and 2000 jump skydiver:
    Skydivers are not supposed to cross a runway below 1000 ft, let alone land on a runway. This is part of basic skydiver training and contained in the Skydiver Information Manual (SIM). The runway surface, i.e. hard top or other (grass), is irrelevant. Skydivers generally don’t know much about aircraft traffic patterns and hence may feel perfectly safe flying at 1000ft 1/4 mile from the runway at mid-field. Normally a drop zone operator will strive to keep skydivers away from established traffic patterns (just like I try to make all my landings greasers) but mistakes, mis-calculations and higher than forecasted winds at altitude happen.
    During climb to altitude and while on a jump run at 13,000 feet (or sometimes even higher) we always look for conflicting traffic (way) below. But a small airplane, even when most are bright white when viewed from above, is difficult to spot from altitude. Also it takes 60 seconds or more for skydivers to decent to 2000 feet hence we’re looking for aircraft that are a couple miles from the drop zone in any direction… a difficult task. Us “meat missiles” reach MINIMUM speeds of 120 miles an hour (vertical) but can reach WELL OVER 200. Oh and we don’t carry radio’s or transponders in free fall.
    So how best to deal with this? 1) read the charts: when en-route simply do not overfly a drop zone … like never ever. 2) communicate: ATC (at least Norcal approach) will suggest a small heading change if your track suggest a conflict with a drop zone. When visiting an airport then the tower or unicom will often give specific information about where skydivers are dropping to visiting aircraft. No one, pilot’s or skydivers has to be held up, the airport is usually big enough to handle all the traffic. Key, as the article suggests, is know your route and communicate as needed.

    Ronald Put SEL, MEL & Instrument Airplane.

  2. Duane Says:

    Ronald’s comments above, as both a pilot and “meat missile”, are very good and useful.

    In the local papers in the Lakeland-Tampa area, the reader comments on the story of the Lakeland encounter between aircraft and skydiver were, as typical, generally ignorant … but they did prompt me to to a little bit of rules-study.

    Several commenters stated that “skydivers always have right of way over aircraft, so the (87 year old) pilot is obviously at fault”. I couldn’t remember reading about skydivers having right of way over aircraft in the FAR, so I went and looked it up (FAR 91.113) and, sure enough, there is no mention of skydivers in the several categories of aircraft and which has right of way in the air.

    I also went and read, for the first time, a portion of FAR Part 105.23 c, which covers parachute operations over airports. Sure enough (as I always assumed), the FAR specifically prohibits skydiving ops that would interfere with aircraft in the airport traffic pattern:

    “(c) A parachutist may drift over that airport with a fully deployed and properly functioning parachute if the parachutist is at least 2,000 feet above that airport’s traffic pattern, and avoids creating a hazard to air traffic or to persons and property on the ground.”

    As I pilot, I’d never before read up on parachute ops in the FAR. Didn’t think I needed to …

    Therefore, in the particulars of the Lakeland accident, it appears that the pilot – no matter his age (which most commenters seemed to focus on as a “cause” of the accident) – was not at fault for this (thankfully non-fatal) collision with the skydiver.

    Even so, regardless of fault, and regardless of the FAR, freak accidents will happen … and how many pilots would ever expect, and therefore “see and avoid”, skydivers landing (illegally) on an active runway?

    This accident illustrates yet another reason why every pilot needs to be monitoring CTAF in the pattern, even in very old airplanes lacking electrical systems, just by the simple acquisition and use of an aviation hand-held 2-way radio.

  3. Michael Dean Says:

    Back when I was training, and during my first solo x-country, I had just taxiing in after laniding at my first destination airport. (57C) My original plan was to land, taxi back & take-off. Once I heard the “jumper call”, I decided that probably wasn’t the best idea. So I sat on the ramp until every jumper was on the ground. then I took-off, and headed to my 2nd deistination, (61C) which also has jumpers. I heard the call about 10 miles out. I decided to circle around, well clear of the field, to the southeast.

  4. Terry Says:

    I hear “jumpers away” often, but seldom hear an “Jumpers on ground” call over the CTAF. Seems this would improve communications between jumpers and aircraft in the area.

  5. Robert Says:

    Second that Terry. A “all jumpers on the ground call” would be helpful.

    On one hand, I wish every airport had an active jump zone. The more folks utilizing the airport, the better.

    On the other hand, I’ve intentionally stayed away from airports with active jump zones. But, that’s my personal comfort level. I just feel uncomfortable with jumpers around, not knowing where they are once they leave the plane, and the difficulty in seeing them.

    A friend of mine is a skydiver. In his training, I don’t recall him mentioning airport operations for aircraft (traffic patterns/45 entries to the downwind/TPA etc..).

    The first time a person gets into an airplane could be to jump out of one. It might behoove us pilots to help get the word out about what we’re doing and what we’re looking for. Conversely, it might behoove the jump operators to help get the word out about some nuances in their operations.

    But, all that to say this: aircraft and jumpers have been sharing airports for some time now. This kind of accident is rare so, we must be doing something right.

  6. Robert Says:

    Duane, the FAR may say nothing about the right of way specifically for parachutes, but I think the hang up is the catch all “least maneuverable has the right of way.

    Another hang up, in all the NTSB reports it rare, very rare, that the fault is not placed (however erroneously) on the pilot.

  7. jim hanson Says:

    Collisions between a parachutist and an aircraft in flight are so rare as to be inconsequential. NOT mentioned in the article is “Who hit Who?” It reminds me of the common practice of reports of “the general aviation aircraft hit the airliner”–a virtual impossibility, given the relative speeds. Same for skydiver and aircraft–the skydiver couldn’t hit the aircraft if he tried. Both the skydiver and aircraft were landing into the wind–yet somehow, the aircraft pilot failed to see the skydiver landing.

    Several commenters advocate using the radio–a useful tool, but hardly one that would have prevented this accident. This is a clear case of failure to “see and avoid”–something that AOPA usually advocates–but apparently not in this case.

  8. Jack T Says:

    PART 105—PARACHUTE OPERATIONS Based on some of the earlier comments, I did go back and read Part 105. I also revisited definitions in FAR Part 1 where AIRCRAFT and PARACHUTE each have their own definitions. I think a quick read of these regs is in order before assigning any fault in any direction.

    Aircraft means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.

    Parachute means a device used or intended to be used to retard the fall of a body or object through the air.

    The regs seem pretty clear that falling, however controlled, is not flying.

  9. Wayne Says:

    I appreciate Duane’s research and remarks regarding the S. Lakeland Airport incident. I’ve been into both S. Lakeland years ago and occasionally Z-hills (ZPH), and unlike the former, the drop zone at ZPH is off to the side of 18/36, with the trffic patterns located to protect the jumpers. It is certainly not intended at ZPH that the jumpers land on the runway. This, if landing on the wunway it standard practice, seems to perhaps be a fault of the jump operation, particulary in view of Part 105 regarding interference with aircraft.
    One factor to keep in mind regarding ZPH, with the jump center near the south end of the N/S runway, is that the Twin Otter jump planes usually takeoff on 36 and land on 18 (to minimize taxi time), so caution is needed by those using 4/22. Currently Rwy 4/22 at ZPH is undergoing rework, forcing all to use 18/36.

  10. Sky Diva Says:

    I would just like to respond to say: the “jumping out of a perfectly good airplane” line is so lame. Don’t pilots leave “perfectly good ground”? When you wake up in the morning you leave a “perfectly good house”. Scuba divers jump out of “perfectly good boats”. It’s just a dumb statement that somebody thought was funny and now everybody repeats (like the abominable “avoid it like the plague”, as if the plague is still a common concern and/or ‘avoidable’ if it were).

    Just say you don’t get skydiving. That’s what you really mean.

  11. Jon Says:

    I also appreciate everyone’s study of the regs and definitions. I am a pilot and a skydiver. I would like to make comment to the definition of parachute. I believe the definition is dated to the days of round parachutes. Today’s canopies are very maneuverable flying wings. When I’m under canopy I consider myself a canopy pilot. I would just like to get the definitions straight. And for any pilot willing and able I recommend a conopy flight. It is really an interesting mode of flight.

  12. Fortson Rumble Says:

    As a +500 hr pilot and +3,000 jumps jumper it’s all simple to me – but I’m in both “sports”
    1. Unless you are landing at an airport that has a dz, DON’T over fly the field. Simple, easy no drama!
    2. “All jumpers down” Are you going to require gliders to do the same? Add two minutes from jumpers away and 90% of the time all the jumpers will be down.
    3. Approach the airport at a lower altitude, keep in mind parchutes are normally open above 2,000 feet – most are open higer. (I like to deploy at 3,000)
    4. When you leave, depart when the jump plane(s) is on the ground or climbing.

    There no reason why pilots and skydivers can’t get along. Skydivers like pilots (we need them!) and fwiw I’ve seen a lot more “attitude” from non-jumping pilots than skydivers.

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