Flying a skydive plane might look like a fairly routine exercise from the ground: plane goes up, skydivers jump out, plane comes down. But it’s not until you actually fly a jump sortie that you realise how grossly over-simplified that statement is. Derek Royal joins pilot Ty Hanger from Skydive the Beach to see what all the fuss is about.
Illawara Regional Airport,
Albion Park Rail, NSW
It’s 0800 and Skydive the Beach pilot Ty Hanger is busily preparing for the upcoming day. For the last 45 minutes, Ty has been checking emails and tidying up bits and pieces of admin in the company hangar at Illawarra Regional Airport. Office work complete, he then prepares to preflight his ride – a Cessna Caravan 208 – which, according to the 43-year-old, is “the best aircraft I’ve ever flown”.
Ty’s first load of skydivers are due to arrive at around 0900 and he’s expecting 14 passengers (or seven pairs comprising a tandem instructor and customer). He also has a co-pilot who is training ICUS (In Command Under Supervision), so it’s a full load. Ty (and his co-pilot) will be flying five loads, “a slow day,” he says, before explaining that during the summer months things can get so hectic that it’s not uncommon to fly more than 20 loads a day. “My record is 24 loads,” he says, “that was an incredibly busy day.”
Ty checks the weather and Notams on his iPad and he discovers that apart from a slight northerly wind, conditions for his first load are CAVOK. “Clear blue skies, no cloud and minimal wind, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he says. The conditions are perfect.
Meanwhile, 24-year-old waitress and photographer Huni Oz is driving from her Sydney home to Skydive the Beach’s North Wollongong dropzone. She’s about to complete her second skydive in as many years. A self-professed adrenaline junkie, Huni has been excited about this day for a long time and can’t wait to jump. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” she says. “I’m so excited, I can’t wait to jump.”
North Wollongong, NSW
After an hour on the road, Huni arrives at the dropzone. She parks her car and strolls to the Skydive the Beach office where she signs the requisite paperwork and jumps onto a set of scales. The scales read 49 kg. “Oh man,” she exclaims, “I thought I was 50! Damn, I’ve already lost a kilo.” The girl behind the counter laughs and enters Huni’s details into her computer.
The weight of every skydiver and their tandem instructor is entered into the system and the data is accessible to the pilot, who needs to complete weight and balance calculations before takeoff. Like any flying operation, weight and balance is critical to the safety of the flight, so the pilot’s judgement has to be spot-on. The combined weight of this group of skydivers, plus the two pilots, is around 1,400 kg, well within the acceptable parameters of the aircraft.
“This computer technology is amazing,” Ty says. “Back in the day everything used to be printed on paper, but nowadays the data is available to the pilots via the onboard iPad as soon as the girls download it to their computers. A fully synchronised computer system makes life so much easier for everyone.”
After the formalities of the paperwork and weigh-in, Huni is given a pair of pants to slip over her jeans, and a warm jacket. She’s then strapped into her parachute, her eyes sparkling as she talks excitedly about the adventure that lies ahead. As the skydivers don their equipment, the instructors arrive and call out the names of the jumpers to whom they’ve been assigned.
Huni’s name is called and she meets instructor Ben. They shake hands and after a quick chat, he starts filming an interview on his Go-Pro camera.
“So, what’s happening, Huni?” asks Ben.
“I’m really, really excited,” she replies, a dazzling smile lighting up her face. “I just can’t wait to get on the plane.”
“Been skydiving before?” Ben asks.
“Yeah, this is my second time, my fiance Sean and I did one on my birthday two years ago and it was so much fun.”
“Awesome,” Ben says, “I reckon you’re gonna have a great time.”
Back at the airport, Ty has completed his preflight inspection of the Caravan, including a compressor wash and he’s now cleaning the aeroplane’s windows, both inside and out. “The glamour of being a skydive pilot,” he laughs.
A plumber for 20 years, Ty has been with Skydive the Beach for three-and-a-half years and with 2,200 hours in his logbook, has risen to the position of senior pilot NSW. So why the “late” interest in aviation?
“I’ve always been involved or participated in fun and exciting sports so after sitting in the right-hand seat from when I was a kid flying with my dad (a private pilot for over 40 years), I thought it was my turn to have some fun of my own.”
Indeed, as a married father of three children, this skydive gig is perfect for Ty. “I get to go home every night, which isn’t always possible in aviation,” he says. “And being a family man, that’s perfect for me.” Ty also loves working in an environment surrounded by vibrant, energetic people who love their job.
“Look, I reckon I have the most fun flying job in the world,” Ty says. “Airline pilots might earn more money than me but there’s no way they have as much fun. The skydivers are always so upbeat that’s it’s impossible not to be swept away by their enthusiasm. They love their job as much as I do and they do their absolute best to make the experience an unforgettable one for the customers. Working in such a positive environment is great fun and makes it easy for me to appreciate what I do.”
So beyond the jibes, the laughter and the high jinks, what’s the real rapport like between pilots and the skydiving crew?
“When you go to a new dropzone it takes a while to earn the trust of the skydivers, and rightly so because their lives are in your hands,” Ty replies. “But once you have their trust you soon build a strong mateship with them.”
En route to Illawarra Regional Airport
Huni and her fellow skydivers sit on a minibus speeding towards Illawarra Regional Airport, a 20 minute drive from the dropzone. A rock band is playing music on a DVD but the passengers are largely ignoring the small screen and gazing outside, pondering the moment of truth that awaits them 14,000 feet above planet Earth.
Huni’s tummy is doing somersaults and her excitement has gently receded to a minor level of nervousness and apprehension. “I haven’t eaten today and I’m feeling quite hungry,” she says. “I’m also a bit nervous.”
The minibus pulls into the car park outside the Skydive the Beach hangar and one-by-one the skydivers exit the vehicle, high-fiving the driver as they do so. They walk through the hangar and out to the plane, laughing and talking as their instructors record the action on their Go-Pros. As the skydivers board and make themselves comfortable inside the belly of the plane, the chit-chat and banter continues non-stop.
Meanwhile, Ty and his co-pilot sit in the cockpit going through their preflight checks, oblivious to the noise of the new arrivals. Ty welcomes the skydivers on board and a few moments later he hits the ignitors. The Caravan’s single engine roars to life, sending a shudder through the cabin. Ty then adds some power and smoothly taxis the plane to the runway. He points the Caravan’s nose towards the south, checks that the way is clear and eases the throttle forward. The Caravan’s 675 horses kick in, sending the aeroplane hurtling down the runway.
Once the ASI reads 80 knots, Ty eases back the control column and settles into a climb of around 90. An automated voice raises a terrain warning and cries: “Terrain ahead! Terrain ahead! Terrain ahead.” Ty clears the ground without any fuss and manoeuvres the aircraft in an easterly direction towards the Tasman Sea. The skydivers are now at the point of no return.
Skydive pilots are exposed to unusual noise and movement in their aircraft and for newbies unaccustomed to such an environment, it’s easy to become anxious as the skydivers start moving around, upsetting the trim as they check buckles, clips and straps in preparation for the jump.
Today, the skydivers are huddled in the cabin of the aircraft facing rearwards, each of them attached to the front of their instructors like babies linked to a mother’s umbilical cord. Some sit on benches that line the cabin, while others are seated on the floor. Ben and Huni are on the floor.
“Hey Huni!” Ben says. “Do you know why we’re sitting right next to the door?”
“No,” she replies.
“We’re jumping first! Whaddya reckon? Are you up for that?”
“Oh really?” she replies, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. “Um, that’s really awesome, I can’t wait!”
Despite her bravado, Huni’s still feeling a little seedy and privately, she’s thinking, “Jesus, what am I doing? I’m so nervous.” But there’s also a part of her that’s excited, the daredevil part, that whispers in her ear and says: “You know you love it, babe, just do it!”
The South Coast of NSW is a gorgeous part of the world, with its stunning beaches in particular a popular tourist attraction throughout the year. But as the aircraft continues its climb to 14,000 feet, the skydivers are oblivious to the beautiful scenery below. Hearts pounding, perhaps they’re all thinking about why they’ve decided to jump out of a perfectly safe aeroplane.
As Ty continues his climb, he keeps the tandem instructors updated on wind strength and direction at various altitudes; time to the drop, and ground speeds. In an ideal world, the plane will reach the jump altitude about one mile away from “the spot” – the best point (after all the elements have been considered), to drop skydivers to allow them to hit the target on the ground. With the red light already on (3 nm) Ty intercepts the jump run at one nautical mile to run, turns on the orange light and with 10 degrees of flap, correct torque and prop RPM, he’s flying at an airspeed of around 85 knots. The Caravan reaches its target altitude and Ty has recieved the all important drop and descent clearance from ATC. He then turns on the green jump light as a fresh northerly whips through the Caravan’s open door. The jumpers are about to exit the plane.
Huni, who has helped Ben push open the roller door, now hangs precariously outside the plane 14,000 feet above the ground, and as she drops from the Caravan with Ben in tow, she lets out an almighty scream. But it’s not a primal scream of abject fear; it’s one of pure, unadulterated excitement. The pair freefall for 60 seconds and Ben taps Huni on the shoulder. She doesn’t respond, so he taps her again. This time she responds and spreads her arms wide. Ben pulls the rip cord and with a whoosh, the parachute opens, jerking the pair skyward. “Oh my God,” Huni screams as they gently descend to the ground, the gorgeous coastline spread out far below. “Oh my God,” she continues, “this is so amazing. Oh my God …”
As each of the skydivers drop out of the aircraft, the handling of the plane has changed completely and it’s Ty’s job to settle the machine down and to head back to the airport in time for the next load. “Usually when you’re flying, the weight of the aircraft only changes by the fuel you burn,” Ty says. “But with skydiving … thirteen or fourteen hundred kilos leap from the plane and suddenly the thing is as light as a feather. Maintaining stability immediately after the skydivers have gone can be a big challenge, especially in solid IMC.”
Back to Base
As expected, Ty brings the Caravan under control and like the seasoned pro that he is, returns to base without any fuss. He shuts down the aircraft and starts preparing for the next load of skydivers.
So what qualifications do pilots with ambitions to fly at Skydive the Beach need on their resume’? Ty says a minimum of CPL with between 400 and 500 hours; jump pilot authorisation and a single engine instrument rating. But more importantly, he reckons pilots need to be team players with a ‘can-do’ attitude and the ability to relate to others.
Meanwhile, Huni is feeling energised, adrenaline coursing through her veins as she drives back to Sydney. Satisfied after eating some breakfast, she can’t stop reliving the skydive and grins like the perennial Cheshire cat. “I did it,” she whsipers to herself. “I BLOODY WELL DID IT, hahahahaha. I did it and it feels soooooo good! Oh, how awesome was that!?”
Awesome indeed. That’s what this skydive gig is all about. Awesome job. Awesome crew. Awesome fun. What a way to earn a living.