Stories from around the world.
For most of the jump pilots that will transition from a piston to a turbine, this will be your airplane. Most of us pilots did our training in a high wing single engine Cessna which makes the Caravan the easiest turbine to transition to and another reason why DZOs love it.
Capacity - 17 skydivers
Empty Weight - 4570 lbs
Maximum Take Off Weight - 8750 lbs
Useful Load - 4180 lbs
Fuel Capacity - 332 gallons / 2224 lbs
Powerplant - Pratt & Whitney PT6A-114A 675hp
TBO - 3600 hrs
Time to Climb - approx. 15 mins
Before Take Off
The loading of the Caravan is similar to most other turbine jump airplanes. There are 2 benches that the skydivers straddle and face the back of the airplane. Make sure that no one sits in the very back near the back wall, and trust me, they will try and sit there no matter how many times you tell them not to. It’s not quite as big of a deal if you have a light load. But I have definitely noticed some CG issues on that with heavier loads.
One of the most critical parts of any Caravan pilots day is avoiding a “hot start”. A hot start is when temperatures rise above 1090 degrees Celsius in the combustion section and cause internal damage to the engine on start up. You may have a hot start if you have a weak battery, if the emergency power lever is not stowed or if the bleed air switch was left on. Most hot starts are the fault of the pilot, it is very rare for a Caravan to have a true hot start. If you cause one, you more than likely will be looking for another job in the near future. The engine will need to be removed and tore down for a complete internal inspection at the very least.
After start up, be sure and check to see that you do not have a fuel imbalance greater than 200lbs. If you do, turn the lighter tank switch off, in order to burn off fuel from the heavier side. You should burn enough fuel during your taxi and run up to equal things out a little. Monitor that fuel imbalance in the air as well. I’ve flown a Caravan that liked to drink from one tank more than the other and I had to constantly monitor that.
I know a lot of us jump pilots fly from rough airstrips, so be sure and make use of the Inertial Separator while taxiing. It will minimize ingestion of foreign matter into the compressor. Just be sure and stow it before take off or you will notice a great reduction in take off power and it is very hard to stow with full throttle.
As part of your GUMPSFITS check, add 20 degrees of flaps for take off. Advance the throttle slow and steady. As with most airplanes, it will let you know when its ready to rotate, but it’s usually around 70 KIAS because we’re usually heavy. Obviously, when we’re lighter, it will want to get off the ground sooner or at a lower airspeed. Climb out initially at around 90 KIAS and then lower the nose to 100 KIAS, which is slightly less than Vy (104 KIAS). That speed seems to work the best for the C208B. As with any jump plane you fly, initially you should experiment with different airspeeds while timing yourself. Your torque should be Max. until ITT or Ng limit. Retract flaps 10 degrees at a time starting at 1000 ft AGL. Check in with ATC.
Once on jump run your airspeed should be at 85 KIAS, your flaps at 10 degrees, torque between 600-900ft-lbs and prop RPM at 1850. It will be possible to lower that airspeed and RPM slightly as you get more comfortable flying this airplane. At about 2 miles out turn the red door light on. Make your 2 minute call to ATC and then a 1 minute call on CTAF. Turn on the green jump light. While the jumpers are exiting, make sure that your tail never gets low. I have personally never had a skydiver strike the horizontal stabilizer of the Caravan, but I have heard of it happening.
It is important to note that a lot of Grand Vans have a front float step and you will notice that if someone is on it they will be very close to the left flap trailing edge. I have had inexperienced jumpers on that front float step bend the corner of the flap with their rig. Brief your video and fun jumpers not to lean up against the flap. Luckily most DZs will only allow experienced jumpers to use the front float step but even some of them do not realize how easily they can bend it.
We jump pilots are basically doing an emergency descent on every flight. As soon as the last skydiver exits, put the flaps up, power to idle and jump light off while simultaniously lowering the nose. Constantly scan for other air traffic that might be in the area and/or any skydivers that might have pulled high. The maximum cargo door open airspeed is 155 KIAS. Your descent rate will be around 5000 ft/min. If it’s your last load of the day, be sure and thank ATC for all their help. They appreciate it and it’s the least we can do, considering that they look out for us every day. For landing, use full flaps unless it’s windy. After landing, again, if you’re on a dirt or similar airstrip, use the inertial separator.
If your’re a new turbine pilot be sure and read the book The Turbine Pilot’s Flight Manual. Most pilot’s that have moved up to the turbine world have read it and highly recommend it. Also, for the new Caravan pilots, be sure and read Caravan - Cessna’s Swiss Army Knife with Wings.
After more than 6 years of flying skydivers I thought that I would write an article for anyone that is thinking of becoming a Jump Pilot. I will start by telling the story of the day that I first heard of this world, my first day on the job, followed by a lot of information that you need to know about this exciting job.
So I had just finished up the training for my Commercial Certificate and I was hanging out at my pilot school and I ran into Cody my flight instructor. The jokster that he is, said "What are you doing here?", "Why aren't you out getting paid to fly, that's what your Commercial is for!" We laughed and I said, "I JUST got it, plus no one is hiring anyway".
He informed me that I was wrong and that I should check out a certain website and how "at this time of year they're hiring Jump Pilots big time!" To which I said, "What is a Jump Pilot?" Again we laughed and he informed me that Jump Pilots fly skydivers up to altitude and kick'em out! I was instantly intrigued.
That very night I checked out the site he mentioned and sure enough, I found drop zones (places where skydiving operations are conducted) all over the country that were hiring! Some of which were ONLY requiring 300TT and a high performance endorsement! I started calling the phone numbers and the first 3 ads that I responded to ALL hired me over the phone!! Not only that, but they were asking me "When can you start?" I was like... ummm... can I call you back?...lol This was all happening SO fast! But then again, I like fast! So after thinking about the pros and cons of each drop zone , I decided to fly for Capitol Skydiving near Austin, TX. Within ONLY one week of Cody telling me what a Jump Pilot was, I was in my car with everything I could fit in it, moving half way across the country! I will never ever forget how excited I felt driving to my first drop zone! You can not put a price tag on that joy.
As I drove through and past the city of Austin, following the directions to the drop zone, I quickly realized that (unlike L.A. where I'm from), after you get 10 minutes out of any city in Texas you can QUICKLY find yourself in cow country! I was like "What the..." I even pulled off the road thinking that I had made a wrong turn or something. I called the DZO (drop zone owner) and told him where I was and he said, "You're on the correct road, just keep going down that road until you see some big red balls on a power line and that's where we are." I was thinking, oh crap, did he just say "balls on a power line"? That's never good. Did they belong to the last pilot?...lol
I drove up, walked in the door and the man said, "You must be Chris?" I said, "Indeed I am and you must be Mike!" Within 10 minutes of small talk greetings he walked me out to the Cessna 206 (with the cargo door removed) and said, "Now show me that you know how to fly this airplane!" I was like (hard swallow), "alright". Now, I MUST explain something first, I had never been in a situation even remotely close to this one. This was a private airport (TE96), with a dirt runway, 2600 feet long by 30 feet wide! With power lines running across the threshold of the runway! Remember? The ones with the big red balls on them?...lol PLUS, I quickly discovered why that airport is called "Crosswinds" airport! Yikes! I was use to flying at Long Beach airport, runway 25L is roughly 5000 feet long by 100 feet wide! No dirt, no power lines! By the way, this is a good point in my story to tell all the younger pilots, during your training, go out and explore small, distant airports! I wish that I had done more of that in my training. Always challenge yourself, never ever get complacent.
So, my new boss Mike asked me to fly him to a local airport and do some touch and goes. To get familiar with the C206 on a hard surfaced runway before landing at his grass strip airport. As we flew to local Taylor airport, I looked down at the ground and realized, yikes, there's not very many landmarks down there! It looked like a giant quilt... farmland. I hope you're starting to understand why flying to unfamiliar airports during your training is so important. I'm flying my new boss in his airplane, thinking, he is going to ask me to fly him back to Crosswinds airport and I don't think that I'm going to be able to even find it! And no, there was no GPS in the airplane at that time. I nailed my touch and goes and then, sure enough, he said "Now take me back to Crosswinds".
Luckily I had noticed 4 large grain elevators kinda near the approach end of the little airport. I was scanning for those sucka's big time! I wanted to show him that I could get us back there without asking him or ATC (he told me not to bother them). I found the grain elevators! To this day, I have never been SO happy to see some grain elevators! They led me to the airport! Now, I had to deal with the dreaded power lines! All Mike said was, "I don't care if we have to go around, just don't flirt with those power lines, I lost one pilot to those already". Yeah, that wasn't distracting or anything...lol It sure wasn't funny at the time, but it is now.
So, I am happy to say I nailed 3 touch and goes there as well! I parked the airplane and tied it down. He said, "I'm very happy with your flying", "I want this airplane pre-flighted by 8am, you'll have your first load of skydivers at 9am." and walked back into the office. I'll never forget that shock! The words that came out of my mouth to him were, "Sounds good!". But inside I was like... wait... what about... what the... did he just say? Again, this is hilarious now, but at the time it was straight craziness!
Needless to say, I didn't sleep much that night and not just because I was in a completely new environment. I remember thinking, "Am I really gonna drop people out of that airplane tomorrow?", "Like really?", "Are the skydivers going to be nervous that a rookie is flying tomorrow?" By the way, the answer to that question is... hell yes!...lol Most skydivers are sketchy of new pilots. Yes they do make them nervous, which is completely understandable. Most TI's (tandem instructors) and Videographers have spent many more hours in airplanes than rookie Jump Pilots and they will watch your EVERY move. But it's smart of them to do and I'm glad they do it. They tend to sit a little bit closer to the door when a newbie pilot is flying. If you're a good pilot and you have a good personality you will be welcomed into that drop zone family fairly quickly, and it truly is a family too! We all work together... I mean "fly" together, look out for each other, go out to dinner together and play together. You TRULY get to know each other. Some of them will be lifelong friends of yours.
Most of the Jump Pilot hiring is done in the months of March and April. You will find a few drop zones that will hire you with a minimum of a Commercial Certificate, 2nd Class Medical and 300TT. That number, by the way, is a bare minimum and most drop zones require at least 500TT due to their insurance policies. They will also have a pilot on hand to train you how to fly skydivers. For more information on training check out my Training Page.
Not all pilots will cut it. Through out the years I have had to let a few pilots go that simply could not get it. I even remember one of them that was too freaked out that we have to open the door during flight. Um... yeah... we HAVE to open the door or they can't jump out silly...lol NEXT!
There are a few drop zones that will hire you into a Caravan or PAC 750 if you have at least 1,000 TT plus 25 hours in type, and jump pilot experience, again per their insurance requirements. I love the Caravan and have created a site to help Caravan Pilots, Mechanics and Owners, you can find it here. The Caravan is the most popular turbine jump airplane worldwide. Check out my Skydive Aircraft list here for more information about all of the various jumpships!
Pay and Perks
You will fly approximately 100 hours per month. The amount of hours flown per month varies depending on what month it is (June-August is peak), whether you are the main pilot or a back-up, if your drop zone is newer or older and established. Weather will obviously also play a role. A Cessna 182 (the most popular jump plane worldwide) can do 2.5 loads per flight hour up to 11,000ft MSL. If you are flying less loads than that per flight hour you are doing something wrong. By the way, my record amount of loads in a C182 is 23 loads in one day! Crazy huh? At $15/load, not a bad payday.
During the off peak season you will be flying less than half of what you were during the Summer. So I highly recommend that you have some supplemental income coming in. Most northern drop zones are closed Oct - March. Drop zones in northern states that have larger aircraft ie. Caravans, PAC 750s or Twin Otters lease those to southern drop zones that only have 182s or 206s. When the larger aircraft are leased to other companies, the leasing company usually provides the pilot not the leasee. I've worked for companies on either end of the spectrum. And that is another huge perk to this job, if you happen to be flying a smaller jump plane at a drop zone that decides to lease a larger one, you can get your hands on that larger aircraft at zero cost to you! Before I was hired to fly them, I had flown many Caravans and Twin Otters from the right seat during skydiving operations. The pilot's will usually instruct you while you fly it. Side note: It would be in your best interest to buy that pilot a "beverage" or two at the end of the day. That is, only if you would like to sit right seat again.
Flying skydivers is very challenging and weight and balance is one of the most challenging parts of it. You should already know not to take-off with an airplane that is heavier than it's Max. Take-Off weight limit. For a C182 I believe that it's 2950lbs. Plus you have the whole weight shift during flight issue, when they move from a seated position to an exit position. In a Cessna 182, you will often have 2 skydivers hanging from the right wing strut plus 2 more hanging out of the doorway. Talk about parasite drag! When they are hanging on the strut and in the doorway, the control wheel is fully to the left and opposite rudder. You MUST watch your airspeed! Skydivers have been killed because the pilot stalled the airplane with skydivers in the doorway. They lose their grip on the wing strut and end up getting struck by the bottom of the wing or the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer.
After they drop away, its neutral control wheel and full left rudder to get the door to drop down enough for me to grab and latch it. Tell ATC, "Jumpers away", close the cowl flaps and then I would put the airplane in a left bank, keeping an eye on the divers the ENTIRE time and then I put it into a slip. Alternating between right and left slips. This can be accomplished without over stressing the airplane. We slip the airplane to descend faster and to avoid shock cooling. There have been debates in my Jump Pilot group on whether or not we should slip the airplane on the way down. I can tell you that I've flown over 6,500 loads of skydivers and it worked great with zero problems. But if the DZO doesn't want you to slip it, then don't do it. You do not own that airplane and you should respect their property.
I keep the airspeed within the yellow arc. The VSI is pegged, but I'm guessing around 3,000 fpm. It is very important to keep your eye on the skydivers the entire time, while scanning for other traffic. Also, don't forget to tell ATC: "Jumpers on the ground", they usually appreciate that. Do them favors whenever you can, they help us every single day and I believe that most pilots take them for granted.
Whenever I've been hired at a new DZ, I have always arranged a meeting with the local ATC facility. I feel that it is important to personally meet the people that protect us everyday, thank them and shake their hand. It is also important to ask them what we as Jump Pilots can do to make their jobs easier. Maybe I have an "old school" approach but I believe that it's a school that's respectable and always appreciated by the Controllers that I meet.
I must add the fact that I love the positive energy at drop zones! Everybody is having fun and most skydivers are passionate about what they do as I am about flying them! According to my log book, I have flown over 6,500 loads of skydivers and I have smiled EVERY single time they have jumped out! After more than 6 years of flying skydivers, I still think... dude, those people just jumped out of your airplane! As I hear their screams fall away...lol How can you not smile about that? I hope this article helps a few young birds decide if they want to become a jump pilot! It's definitely not for everyone. It's only for cool pilots!
~Blue Skies, Christopher Rosenfelt
If you have any questions about this or any of my other articles, feel free to email me anytime at email@example.com
This article is in no way a guide to being a jump pilot, this is written to show the rotary side of jump flying for both pilots and jumpers as the helicopter is a rare visitor to the drop zone. In this article I've tried to guide the reader through the various stages of arrangements, phases of the flight and the individual problems and pitfalls of helicopter jump flying. If you want to learn to become a jump pilot go ahead and contact your local parachute authority as they'll have the relevant material to cover for jump pilot training. I hope the below helps both pilots and jumpers understand the principles of helicopter parachute operations as I've found there's a severe lack of resources and training material for the helicopter jump pilot!
irst of all, a little bit about the helicopter and why the appeal to use it as a jump platform? Most fixed wing guys would describe them as 'the dark side of aviation', 'a million bolts flying in lose formation', and I've even been told by the guy who taught me jump flying that by flying rotary I'd be going straight to hell! Joking aside if you ask any rotary pilot they'll explain to you the attraction of the helicopter, the ability to lift vertically, hover and manoeuvre laterally. But the appeal of the helicopter as a jump platform isn't about what the pilot likes, it's the jumper! From the jumpers point of view it's a toss-up between the appeal of jumping an unusual aircraft, and the unique exit experience a helicopter gives. With the low airspeed on the run-in, this gives the jumper the sub-terminal exit more commonly experienced from a base jump.
To make a start we've all heard the saying 'the weight of the paperwork has to match the weight of the aircraft before you can go', this applies just as much here! Before any jumping has even been thought of, it’s important to make sure the relevant paperwork and authorisations are in place before you carry out helicopter parachute operations. What's needed may vary from country to country depending on your Civilian Aviation and Parachute authority. I'd advise researching heavily into what applies to you the pilot, the aircraft and the parachutist before you think about carrying out any kind of drops. For a pilot in the UK he/she must hold the appropriate licence/rating to operate and to be in command of the aircraft, be a BPA approved jump pilot and cleared on the aircraft he/she is going to be operating for the parachuting role.
With reference to the helicopter or any aircraft carrying out parachuting it must be approved to carry out such operations, normally in the form of a flight supplement which has been prior approved by your relevant civilian aviation authority. This supplement may state any modifications made to the aircraft, door removals, and thus any airspeed or flight conditions that must be adhered to during the jump role. Finally for the jumper most drop zones put a licence and jump limit on anyone taking part in helicopter jumping, this is quite rightly so due to the complexity and the extra skill needed to carry out a helicopter jump. After the above has been said I'd just like to again emphasise that you must research the exact requirements needed for your particular location and operation, I've deliberately kept away from exact details as this article is more about an insight into helicopter parachute operations rather than definitive rules and regulations.
One final thing to be said about paperwork is the all-important weight & balance, look closely into the weight limits and envelope of your particular helicopter and any changes that'll occur through all phases of the flight. I'm not suggesting W&B is more important in the rotary world compared to fixed wing as it's vitally important in both roles, but in the rotary role the limits are very much more restricted and envelopes very much smaller. Thus 4 jumpers exiting from a Jet Ranger will have a larger effect on CofG and control forces needed to counter it, than it would in a fixed wing aircraft. The other aspect to think about in rotary operations is lateral CofG, this is where smooth jumper exit and exit order come into play. For example on a B206 with the pilot sat right seat and 2 jumpers exiting on the right side might be within CofG limits but would cause severe control inputs while they're at the door and upon exit, unable to guarantee a smooth and stable jump run.
To put simply the helicopter pilot really gets to feel the difference between a light and heavy jumper and the control inputs needed on exit! It's important to sit down prior to jumping and work out suitable exit orders to ensure the safest and most stable way for all jumpers to exit the aircraft, this will vary on type, number of jumpers and pilot judgment. Also with some helicopter types there will be CofG and airspeed limits when the doors are removed. This is due to the way the air flows around the fuselage with the doors off, the rearward CofG, the effect on the directional stability of the airframe, the compensatory effect then needed from the tail rotor and cyclic inputs needed. As a result directional control may not be possible above certain air speeds and at certain CofG positions! With all this said I'd recommend running up w&b schedules for all possible jumper/fuel configurations through the day, this way you'll know what you can and can't do as things will typically change throughout the jumping day.
With the paperwork in order and your weight and balance figured out, what now? A very important source of information for both the pilot and the jumper is a proper briefing. This is an excellent opportunity to pass your requirements ascertained from your weight & balance calculations as to jumper numbers and types of exit. This is also a chance to run down the all-important safety briefing, what the jumpers do in an emergency may vary greatly between fixed wing and rotary and they must be completely clear as to what they should and shouldn't do. The briefing should include both what to do in an emergency and normal operations, for example how jumpers enter the aircraft during rotors running boarding, sounds simple but it's all too easy to walk into a tail rotor which is conveniently placed at head height! This is also a good opportunity for a question & answer session between the pilot and jumper, you'll more than likely get the typical questions like 'can we hang off this?', 'can we hang off that?', it's essential that you make everybody clear as to what they can and can't do as you don't want questions being asked while the pilots busy on the jump run.
Typically with a helicopter a jump light system may not be installed so a system to notify the jumpers as to when they're on the jump run, when to climb out and exit the helicopter needs to be agreed on. With the pilot normally sat in close proximity to the jumpers verbal warnings usually work, but everybody needs to be clear exactly what the verbal warnings will be and when they'll be given to save any confusion once airborne. Before the jumper gets into a helicopter to do a jump, it's probably a good idea to look over the aircraft while it's on the ground and shutdown. This will give them a chance to appreciate the major differences between rotary and fixed wing. The first thing a jumper may notice is the severe lack of space! Unless you happen to be really lucky and get jump a chinook, you're more than likely to be jumping a 4-5 seat light helicopter, maybe a B206 Jet Ranger or R44. I'd recommend sitting in the helicopter prior to jumping with a rig on to get used to your sitting position and how to operate the seat belts. Once you've figured out the basics think about where the handholds are and how you'll transfer yourself from sat in the door to your exit position, this might sound easy but when the time comes to exit it'll be the difference between a smooth exit and what's technically known as a cluster f**k! Ruining the experience for yourself, your fellow jumpers and not to mention making the pilots job a whole lot harder as you faff about in the door!
A very important point to note are the additional snag-up points with a helicopter, door fixings, earthing points, skid supports and skid wheel attaching points are to name but a few! This emphasises the point about looking over the helicopter before the jump, chat with the pilot as he'll be able to point out the most obvious hang-up points and the parts of the helicopter you should be looking for and avoid during the exit.
Once you're familiar with the seating, seatbelt usage and snag points it's time to think about the exit. Once again sit in the helicopter beforehand and plan the exit strategy and order. Will it be a single jumper exit, multiple exits, in what order and what type of exit? This will vary hugely on the type of helicopter you're jumping for reasons I'll explain later. My best advice for this is to speak to the pilot, he'll know the limits of the helicopter type and the preferred exit type and in what order to maintain a balanced and controlled exit for yourself and the aircraft. During the exit for smaller helicopter types it's vitally important jumpers are aware not to 'push-off' from any part of the airframe, it must be a 'fall away' exit. This is due to the fact the helicopters fuselage is supported under the rotor disc just like a pendulum and any outside force pushing on the fuselage will create a swinging motion and control problems for the pilot and an uncomfortable exit for following jumpers. Smooth exits are the order of the day when it comes to helicopter jumping!
Having dedicated ground crew may also be a good idea as invariably jumper loading will be done rotors running, having someone to guide them on and get them strapped in helps greatly. Due to the smaller fuel capacity and likely weight restrictions hot refuels may be needed, a ground crew will help with this and save valuable turnaround time. Whatever your ground handlers job he/she needs to be briefed just as much as the jumpers, particularly in emergencies and any relevant hand signals used during the ground handling phase.
Ok, so the paperwork, weight & balance and briefing are all complete and everybody is clear as to what do to and when. Time to start up, as with all jump flying you're more than likely be departing close to the helicopters MTOW. Careful thought needs to be taken as to the type of departure you'll be making depending on the conditions at the time, wind, temp, a/c weight, local obstacles and noise abatement need to be taken account of. Check your flight manual and make sure you're aware of your machines torque/power limits at all phases of flight, this is especially important for the helicopter when lifting/maneuvering at low level on the airfield. This is due to the power required to keep a heavily laden helicopter hovering at slow speed, and the additional power requirements needed to make turns with the tail rotors requirement of engine power. I personally try to ensure the pickup point is into wind and clear of obstacles for a straight out departure, thus easing the workload on the engine and making my job a whole lot easier! For a rotary departure it's important to try and remain clear of certain parts of the Height/Velocity curve. Any helicopter pilot will explain to you that during single engine operations, certain Height and Airspeed combinations will give unfavourable conditions for an autorotation in the event of an engine failure. Remain clear of these combinations as much as you can giving yourself the maximum possible chance to recover in the event of an engine failure, I'd also recommend scouting the airfield surroundings for ideal set down points if you have an engine failure or other technical problems on the departure phase.
Once airborne and climbing it's important to have a predetermined pattern to follow to reach the jump run and exit point, this will hopefully keep you clear of other air traffic and possibly other jump ships and drops running alongside your rotary parachute operations. After all parachutists under canopy and helicopters don't mix! This is best arranged with a prior briefing amongst yourself, your fellow jump pilots and the DZ controller so you all work efficiently together through the day. On the climb-out and the doors off it's tempting for the jumpers to dangle legs, cameras etc out of the door, this should be discourage wherever possible, this is to avoid anything departing the aircraft and hitting the tail rotor with obvious serious consequences such as tail rotor failure! It's also worth mentioning that parachutist line checks must be strictly adhered to before climbing into the helicopter for the very fact doors are open during flight and thus the increased danger of premature canopy deployment and hang ups.
Although a premature deployment and hang up is a serious situation in both fixed and rotary I'd argue that it's more likely to lead to an incident when on a helicopter with the additional rotating aerofoils and the proximity to these and the jumpers. In this situation the helicopter then has the reduced ability to maintain aircraft stability compared to fixed wing and should a canopy be cut away you then pose the risk of a main/tail rotor strike and failure. In this event it's important that any remaining jumpers smother the pre-deployed canopy to reduce the chance of any part of the canopy exiting the aircraft, leaving anything hanging outside the aircraft is strongly discouraged for the above mentioned reasons. Simply said with hang ups and premature deployment prevention is better than cure, parachutists check your gear before boarding and pilots ensure everybody is properly briefed on airframe snag hazards!
As with both fixed and rotary both types face the chances of an engine failure, this can happen at any phase of flight and the pilot must be happy he can deal with this as per his emergency drills at all times. While most fixed wing pilots might think that when the helicopter experiences an engine failure it just drops out of the sky like a brick.....fortunately for rotary pilots and their passengers this isn't so! While the procedures for engine failure on rotary aircraft differ to fixed wing the basic principles remain the same, maintaining control of the aircraft and find a suitable place to land the aircraft safely. In this fact helicopters have an easier time than fixed wing with the ability to set down in relatively small and confined areas. With an engine failure in a helicopter the procedure is called an Autorotation, a short explanation of this is where the helicopter uses the airflow from the decent to maintain rotor RPM, thus it's the airflow rotating the rotors rather than the engine. This is completed at the end with a flare and a hopeful smooth set down, with the pilot keeping careful control of the rotor RPM throughout all phases of the Autorotation. Another situation unfamiliar to fixed wing pilot is a tail rotor failure, which at some phases of flight can be worse than an engine failure! The purpose of the tail rotor on a helicopter is to counter the engine/rotor torque and give directional control, with this said I'm sure you can understand how serious is can be should it fail. Depending on the phase of flight this can be dealt with in a variety of ways, one of which is to enter an autorotation.
All of the above can be complicated even further by the fact you may have jumpers inside/outside of the aircraft so make sure you're comfortable with you emergency procedures. Once on the jump run the helicopter needs to be set up ready for the jumpers to climb out and exit, for the rotary pilot this is normally speed and power adjustments as the doors are normally already open/removed and flap configurations don't apply. As with the departure, power limits and requirements need to be carefully monitored due to the helicopter slowing and needing more power to maintain this flight configuration. It's also worth mentioning at this phase of flight pilots need to be aware of the condition known as LTE or Loss of Tail Rotor effectiveness, this occurs when the helicopters tail rotor is unable to counteract the main rotors torque effect, LTE is commonly experienced during low-airspeed high-power conditions which are both experienced during the jump run. As with most aerodynamic effects the chances of LTE will change depending on atmospheric conditions, most helicopter jumps in the UK will be done anywhere between 5000-6000ft AMSL and conditions similar to standard atmospheric conditions. Should you be operating anywhere Hot & High check your flight manual to ensure you're operating within performance limitations.
With reference to the run in speed on the helicopter unless you're flying/jumping a large twin turbine you won't be hovering (much to the jumpers disgust!) and this is due to the fact high hovers require large amounts of engine power and should the engine fail at this point it would drastically reduce the chances of recovery. For this reason the run in will be done at a speed suitable for autorotation should the engine fail, with most light singles this is typically around the 50kt mark. I've been told that at 50kts and the combination of the rotor down wash the exit experience is as if you're making a still air exit from a building or as in a hover.
Once the helicopter is configured, stable and you've received the 'clear-drop' from the DZ controller it's time to notify the jumpers it's time to climb out. Hopefully with the practice they've had on the ground and knowing the hand holds the jumpers will climb outside as smoothly as possible, as previously discussed the exit order and movement around the helicopter needs to be carefully rehearsed due to the pendulum effect of having the fuselage hung under the main rotor disc. As the jumpers exit (making sure they 'fall off' rather than 'push off') be prepared for shifts in CofG and the cyclic movements needed to adjust for this, after my first few lifts I soon became able to pre-empt the cyclic inputs needed as the jumpers exit the aircraft. Also be cautious with the sudden reduction in helicopter weight as they exit, unless you're quick with the collective this may lead to a sudden climb and if you're sat just below cloud level a chance of inadvertent IMC. Take your time of the first few jump runs to get used to the feel of the aircraft as they exit, it may also be a good idea to sit with an experienced helicopter jump pilot while doing a light load before you chuck yourself in at the deep end with a 20 lift cycle first time around!
Once the jumpers have exited the helicopter it's time to descend and pick up the next load, as with all helicopter control inputs try to make this as smooth as possible. On two bladed teetering hinge rotor heads you have to be careful not to cause 'mast bumping', which may occur during the descent or when arresting an inadvertent climb after the jumpers have exited. This is where in low G conditions (typically arising from excessive forward cyclic inputs during a descent) the fuselage and rotor hub exceed angle limits causing the hub hitting the rotor mast resulting in damage and potential main rotor separation! For this reason use the collective to initiate the descent and the cyclic to control pitch and airspeed, this brings me to my next point. With some types you'll have airspeed limitations when the doors have been removed, adhere to these strictly as it's all too easy to forget this when trying to hurry the descent and pick up the next load. Ignoring these airspeed limits can lead to directional control problems as previously mentioned.
As with the climb out make sure your descent and airfield joining pattern doesn’t clash with local air traffic, other jump ships on jump runs and jumpers under canopy. Keep the lookout going all the way through the descent as you're more than likely operating with a lot of activity happening in a small amount of airspace. Once you're on finals and positioning to pick up the next load be cautious of ground obstructions and personnel, this is where it's a good idea to have a designated loading area for rotors run refuels and loading jumpers under the safe control of a ground handler.
With all the above said, helicopter jumps are novel and challenging for both the parachutist and pilot. As with all types of flying, caution and a professional attitude are needed from all parties involved. I’m hoping from the information in this article it’ll allow the fixed wing pilot more information into what a rotary pilot goes through, the rotary pilot more information and a starting point on helicopter jump piloting, and the parachutist an insight as what he/she will experience on a helicopter jump. I encourage any pilot to research the above further before he/she takes up helicopter jump flying as I’m in no means an expert.....but this should give you an idea where to start and what to expect!
Thanks to John O’Connell & Alex Law for their Technical Input!