“You are up there with your friends. You might be the last one out and you make that 1000-foot three-dimensional dive and you find your grip and you are smiling with your friends and you are not moving at 110 miles an hour but only very slowly together.”
On Tuesday, August 4, 1998, Brenda O’Brien addressed the Crosswinds Squadron, EAA Chapter 1198, of Howel, Michigan. Her talk sparked a lot of memories for the military veterans and it opened some new vistas for the rest of the club. O’Brien is a licensed private pilot, but it never held her interest the way sport parachuting has. She has been jumping for 15 years and has 1600 jumps to her credit. On the other hand, she earned her pilot’s wings in 1992 and has only 150 hours.
She started with that old military-style gear, the jumpboots, the big helmet, the 35-pound pack, and all. Over the years, sport parachuting has gotten more sophisticated and refined. The chute is no longer an umbrella of passive resistance but an airfoil. “You can go up to 50 or 60 mph forward,” she said. “And you can come down on tippy-toes.” The rig weighs about 15 pounds.
O’Brien pointed out that parachuting is regulated by the FAA. The FARs have three applicable sections, but most of the rules are in Part 105. The FAA rules, however, pale in comparison to the requirements of the United States Parachuting Association. O’Brien explained that as far as the FAA is concerned, anyone can take a legal chute and jump out of an airplane. However, the USPA has more stringent requirements. USPA jumpers keep a log similar to a pilot’s log. It takes 20 jumps to cross from the Student rating and earn an “A” license so that you can field a jump without supervision.
However, the FAA rules for pilots are specific and stringent. The PIC of a jump plane must be in communication with the airport controller. Since jumpers start at about 10,000 feet, this usually means the activities at Tecumseh can be controlled from Lansing or even Cleveland.
The plane is usually a Cessna 182, which she called “the jump plane of the nation.” However, the DeHaviland Otter is the new kid on the block with its wide doors and turbine engines. “The Otter can go to 14,000 MSL,” she said. “Of course MSL doesn’t mean beans to a skydiver. Everything is AGL.”
Contrary to popular myth, jumpers do not go out one at a time. Instead, they go out in a cluster. They climb out and hang on your door and struts. Three get out there with the fourth in the door and the fifth right there, too. And the leader yells “Ready set go” and in five seconds they are all gone. Obviously, the pilot is focused on flying the plane with all that parasitic drag on one side. The plane noses down to maintain airspeed and to lift the tail of the way of the jumpers. Once the team jumps, the physics of the situation forces the plane into left climb with about 30 degrees of bank. And you have to kick the rudder to close the door. Since the plane is upwind of the airport, the jumpers drift in to the landing site.
The typical jump is a free fall from 10,000 feet or more down to the 5000 to 2000 range, depending on the skill of the jumper. The main chute begins with an anchor, a small, zero-porosity drogue that pulls the parachute from the pack. The parachute itself is an airfoil with the same characteristics as an airplane wing. Using the lines, the jumper has a lot of control. Of course, there is an emergency chute. The jumper packs their own main parachute and the emergency rig is the responsibility of a packer who is certified by the FAA. Repacking the emergency chute costs $35. Being licensed to pack emergency chutes is one way that jumpers lower the cost of their hobby, she said.
A main parachute pack will run from $3000 for a midgrade model to $4000 or $5000 for a state-of-the-art rig with automatic altimeter release and other bells and whistles. You can find a good used rig for about $1500. Your first jump will cost $100 to $250 depending on how you want to proceed. With accelerated free fall, you go through the ground school and instead of jumping with a static line, two instructors jump with you to make sure you can pull your own ripcord.
Brenda O’Brien’s presentation was itself something of controlled freefall descent. She worked without notes, and she let our questions and discussion set the direction and pace of her presentation. Yet, she was always in charge of the group and she covered all the material.
Michael E. Marotta