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Aviation Careers: Jeremiah Johnson, Skydive Jump Pilot

Jeremiah Johnson flies a Cessna 182 as a skydive jump pilot for Roaring Fork Skydivers, located in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Jeremiah currently has 470 hours of flight time, with about 120 of those hours coming from his work as a jump pilot over the summer. Best known for its scenic drop zone with views of the Rocky Mountains, Roaring Fork Skydivers is a seasonal skydiving company located at the Glenwood Springs Airport (KGWS). Welcome to the Boldmethod community, Jeremiah!

Jeremiah Johnson

Why You Should Be Interested

It's incredibly fun, that's the best adjective for this job. Skydiving is exciting everyday because everyone who's there really wants to be there. We do a lot of tandem skydiving, so for most customers, it's their first jump. They're excited, scared, and freaking out a little bit. That makes it fun for us. Everyone who's involved is pretty enthusiastic everyday. It never feels routine or like a chore. I got into skydiving as I began flying, so as a skydiver, it's something that interests me anyway. From my experience, most jump pilots are skydivers too. If you don't begin as one, you'll end as one because you're around it so much and it's pretty addicting.

The Typical Flight

An average jump run from start to finish is about 30 minutes. You're shooting for tac times of .5 to .6, but it can be more depending on the weather and wind conditions. Glenwood Springs has been called by AOPA one of the most challenging airports in the country, due to its location in a valley. It's a one way in, one way out airport. We tend to take off on Runway 14 and land on Runway 32; we take off to the South and circle over the town of Carbondale up to our jump altitude of 8,000 feet AGL (just under 14,000 feet MSL). You couldn't pick a more beautiful place to fly; it's great for the customers as they get a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains and the Roaring Forks Valley during the ascent. We usually do the jump run North to South (depending on the weather). I usually fly into the wind if possible, to slow down as much as possible for the guys exiting.

One thing I've found from this job in particular is that it really hones your stick and rudder skills. It's a great first piloting job because you really can't be slack in your procedures, especially when we're on a jump run, which is what we call the portion of the flight when the doors are open while we overfly the field. There's a whole lot of multitasking involved from the pilot's position. I have to compensate for the wind to make sure the jumpers will be on course to land safely at the airport. When the door is open, it's really loud and can be stressful at first. On top of that, everybody's screaming of course. You get skydivers climbing out on the wing struts which creates a bunch of drag, so you have to maintain your spot, altitude, and airspeed. We fly at about 80 knots during the jump runs, so you have to pay extra attention to not stalling the plane while you're distracted by all of the commotion inside the cabin. As people exit the plane, your CG moves around a lot, so you have to be constantly adjusting pitch and trim to stay level. It's busy and a ton of fun, but of course, safety is the primary goal. Unless there's some kind of problem where we have to abort the jump, I'm always landing alone.

The second half of the flight is so much different from the first half. During climb-out, you need to be constantly adjusting your speed to maintain maximum climb performance. Everyone's talking and tandem instructors are reminding the students how and when to perform different tasks. I'm in the front looking for traffic and monitoring all of the engine gauges. The workload is huge, but after the loud, exciting jump run, the plane goes silent. The goal is to get down as fast as possible, to keep the tac times low. At the same time, you have to be really conscious of shock cooling the engine. I keep in about 15 inches of manifold pressure to keep the engine producing heat while forward slipping the plane, to get it down quickly, without increasing airspeed. A big part of becoming a jump pilot is learning how to maintain proper engine temperature. There's definitely a pressure to keep tac times low, but you have to balance that out with keeping the aircraft operating safely and properly.

The Passengers

When it comes to skydiving, you have a mix of people. You normally see one of two kinds of people. We primarily see a lot of tandem skydivers, which are first time (or new) jumpers that are attached to more experienced instructors. Some drop zones cater to more experienced skydivers, but we're definitely more of a first-timer operation. The majority of the time, it's me + 4 people in the plane (me and a pair of tandem jumpers). We also see some experienced jumpers, but require a "C" license or greater for safety purposes due to terrain; landing at Glenwood Springs Airport takes a jumper with a lot of experience.

By nature, this is a daredevil group of people. I've had a lot of skydivers ask for me to do things that are either illegal or unsafe, so I'm often found sticking to my guns as PIC. For instance, we don't have oxygen, so I have to keep the plane below 14,000 feet. Guys say "Come on, give me 500 more feet, let's get a little higher." You just have to put your foot down in situations like those.

A Day At Work

When it comes to flying in Glenwood Springs, flying earlier is always better than later. The field is notorious for having really bad wind conditions after 2pm, so we normally try to finish up operations before then. I'm the chief pilot here, well really the only pilot in the company, so I take care of a lot of the housekeeping duties. Every morning, I pull the plane out of the hangar, pre-flight, make sure everything looks safe and airworthy, check the weather, check the manifest to see what's scheduled for the day, and plan aircraft loads according to the passengers' weights. I try to put heavier people on the later runs, so that the fuel burn will kind of compensate for the weight difference. Basically, I would do two loads, fuel, another two loads, and fuel again. You get to be really good at weight and balance calculations and fuel management. You've got to keep things safe and light at the same time.

The biggest day we had over the summer was 13 loads of jumpers. On a busy day like that, you really have no rest. We do hot-turnarounds, meaning we leave the engine running as new passengers board the aircraft (except when it's time to fuel up). The skydiving instructors pass me bottles of water as they get in, to make sure I'm staying hydrated.

The Pros

This is a great entry-level job. If you're looking for a job and you just got your commercial certificate, this could be a great path for you. The skills that you hone in this job will help you become a better, safer pilot for the rest of your life - whether you stay as a jump pilot or not. With each jump run lasting about 30 minutes, you're doing 2 takeoffs and landings per flight hour. It's no surprise that you get really good at landing! I got pretty good at judging the weather, predicting how approaching weather and clouds would influence my flight. We have one of the most beautiful drop zone locations around, so the view out of the window is pretty incredible.

The Cons

This job can definitely get tedious. You're flying anywhere between 5-12 flights per day, all the exact same route. I consider myself lucky that we have a drop zone with an absolutely spectacular view. However, even that being the case, you're flying the same track over the ground over and over again. That can get kinda boring and can lead to you becoming complacent. It's easy to space out and stop looking for traffic, at the engine instruments, etc. I make a point of staying focused and not letting my mind wonder. There is zero instrument work involved in jump pilot work; I feel like my instrument skills have suffered a bit. If you're not managing the fuel, weather, and weight properly, it will come back to haunt you. That can be a good thing though, keeping you on your toes. Skydivers are a fun bunch but they can push you to do some things you're not supposed to do. I've gotten frustrated with those guys before, but never let it stop me from making the safe decision.

Pilot Retention And Qualifications

All you really need is your commercial single-engine certificate. I was hired with about 325 hours total flight time. You undergo specialized training with an experienced jump pilot before you're allowed to fly loads for real. This is something I want to do for awhile. I know a lot of jump pilots who use this job strictly to build hours, and once they've gotten them, move onto the next job. I personally don't see a problem with that, but it's not what I'm interested in. While I do want to expand my professional flying career, I can see myself flying as a jump pilot for years to come.

Salary Ranges And Benefits

Jump pilots are not traditionally paid that well, and I knew that coming into it. I'm paid the industry standard, about $15 per jump run (that's roughly $30 per flight hour). Since I'm the only pilot in our drop zone, the owner guaranteed me $300 per week regardless of what we flew. On top of that, if we flew more, I would earn that extra $15 per jump run. One huge unofficial benefit was being placed as an aircraft manager. During training, I hadn't been exposed to the aircraft management side of things. For me to maintain the aircraft and make sure it was all caught up on maintenance has been an awesome experience.

Roaring Fork Skydivers

The Company

Roaring Fork Skydivers is largely a tourist-based company, operating from March to November. Although some skydivers are local, most customers travel from the Front Range, Denver or Boulder, to come skydiving here. We used to be named "Independent Skydive Company" and were located at the Boulder Airport. The switch to the Glenwood Spring Airport was a great one. We're a part of this tight-knit grassroots aviation community out here, and are loving it!

The Airplane

The Cessna 182 is a great jump ship. It's sturdy and pretty forgiving if you have a hard landing, like most Cessnas. When you convert it to a jump ship, it can seat the pilot + 4. We're a small company and aren't looking to be a huge drop zone with turbine aircraft. Though the C182 doesn't get all of the glory in the skydiving world, if you use it in that context (in a smaller environment), it's great! The only disadvantage the aircraft has is that its high altitude performance isn't fantastic. Glenwood Springs has a high-elevation of 5,916 feet, so the aircraft has a pretty unspectacular climb rate, especially during the warm summer months.

Specific Qualifications

Other than the jump pilot training, you certainly need to have a sense of adventure and be somewhat social to do this kind of job. Lots of the passengers are nervous about skydiving, so the instructors and I try to put the jumpers at ease and give them a good experience. For a lot of people, to be stepping into a small general aviation aircraft for the first time is nerve-wracking, not to mention one with the seats taken out and seat belts being fastened to the floor. In general, you need to be very customer service oriented. Our passengers have traveled a long way and are paying a lot of money, so we want them to have a great experience

Advice

Expose yourself to lots of different aspects to aviation. Be open to what your first job might be. I personally wasn't excited about the CFI route, it just wasn't something that interested me. This job has been a great way for me to gain experience fairly quickly.

Jeremiah, it sounds like you're really enjoying your first job as a commercial pilot - congratulations! This sounds like a great way to get moving on a professional pilot career if you've just received your commercial certificate. Make sure you also check out Jeremiah's aerial photography website: High Lines Aerial Photography.

Is this a job you'd like to have?

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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