I was doing a Hop N Pop last week and two of my staff decided to express their opinion of me. (So much love) In their defense I rolled over on my back and flipped them off first.
As many of you know, I own and run a skydiving school just east of Minneapolis called Skydive Twin Cities. My wife and I have owned it for 22 years and it is probably one of the most mellow and serene jobs one could imagine. NOT!
Managing a dropzone (DZ) is a crazy way to make a living. From the time I get up in the morning my day is filled with every kind of complicated challenge imaginable. There’s the normal mundane stuff that every small business owner must face. Staffing , accounting, payroll, advertising, normal boring stuff.
Then there’s the life or death decisions that I have to make every day. How’s the weather? Will someone die because the wind picks up and they get blown into the trees? Do I have to fire that jumpmaster because he isn’t good enough to save an out of control student in freefall? Or is a tandem instructor who’s landings are so bad that I’m afraid someone will get hurt? Or did they already hurt somebody on a landing but I’ve been friends with them for 30 years and just can’t bring myself to ground them? Is the plane making a funny noise? Did we run out of toilet paper? Did someone’s dog crap in the landing area? Is that line of powerful thunderstorms going to hit us and should I spend the money to fly the plane to safety or tie it down and take my chances? The list is endless.
There’s not enough room on the internet to cover every decision I’ve made this year so I’ll just give you the high points of the 2020 skydiving season so far.
Looks like and early spring. Call the company we lease the Cessna Grand Caravan jump plane from and tell them to send us the plane early. But they can’t. The plane is getting a new hot section (engine) and won’t be ready for weeks.
I was right. The snow has melted off the runway and we could have been jumping in late March. But it doesn’t matter because the COVID -19 pandemic has shut the world down.
Some of the jump staff haven’t saved enough money to live on and we have to give them advances on their pay. (beer isn’t free you know)
Wisconsin’s lockdown ends unexpectedly but we still don’t have our big 18 passenger turbine jump plane. But our little 4 passenger Cessna 182 is available. Can we start jumping? Can’t social distance by putting 5 people in a small plane. The skydivers don’t care, let’s jump!
The battery on the 182 is bad and we’re forced to jump start the plane almost every time.
The big plane is here! It’s the end of May and we’ve lost 1/3 of our season but we can start jumping. Opening day, the weather is great and the plane is filled with paying customers. We might actually survive the season!
We make it four hours before our first injury of the season. Ambulance on the runway to cart off a tandem passenger with a back injury.
Back to jumping.
Stop jumping. The pilot calls down with a flight control emergency. He has a broken elevator trim wheel and the plane is stuck in a nose down configuration. He lands safely and we discover the shaft on the trim wheel has broken. No one has ever seen that happen before. Back to the small plane. Send most of the jumpers home.
The plane is fixed! (Don’t ask me how)
Another great weather day! The dropzone is filled with jumpers again and things are looking up!
One of the instructors calls in and tells us he’s tested positive for COVID-19. Great, I tell the staff they all have to get tested. The instructor calls back. It turns out that he doesn’t have COVID-19 after all, just his girlfriend.
Last load of the day. Thunderstorms are coming and we have to hurry to get a student one last jump. I go along to make a jump just for kicks. Halfway up the pilot calls me into the cockpit. He has a chip detector warning light on the instrument panel. This warns us that there might be metal in the oil. (very serious) We all jump, leaving the pilot to deal with the potential engine out landing.
The plane is grounded.
How’s your spring going?
I know I’ve said in the past that Greenland is my favorite place in the world to fly. That was something of an overstatement. What I meant to say was that it is one of my favorite places to fly. Greenland is indeed beautiful. (You literally can’t take a boring picture when flying over Greenland) It is also a part of the world filled with the sense of adventure that I crave when flying. (you’re not in Kansas anymore)
But is it my favorite? Well, I don’t know. I never thought about it like that. So dear reader let’s explore this together. Over the next few days (months, years? You know how I can be) I will select a part of the world that I’ve flown over and we can examine the pros and cons together.
Transportation Safety Board of Canada Says IFR Approaches Are Confusing
Among the issues identified during a 2018 overrun investigation was, “The rules governing instrument approaches in Canada are too complex, confusing and ineffective at preventing pilots from conducting approaches that are not allowed, or banned, because they are below the minimum weather limits,” according to Canada’s Transportation Safety Board. In other parts of the world, a flight crew is not allowed to begin an instrument approach if the reported weather is below published minimums for a given approach except in Canada, where “flight crews are permitted to conduct approaches in visibility conditions that are below what is published.”
The TSB recently issued these findings as part of its report of a February 2018 accident in which a chartered Beech King Air A100 ran off the end of the runway at Havre-Saint-Pierre, Quebec. The airplane was substantially damaged but luckily all occupants escaped with only minor injuries—or none at all. As part of the report, the TSB asked Transport Canada to simplify approach and landing minima as presented in a TSB video.
The King Air A100 was conducting a charter flight under instrument flight rules, from the Sept-Îles Airport, Quebec, to the Havre St-Pierre Airport, Quebec, with two crew members and six passengers. “Prior to departure, the weather at Havre St-Pierre aerodrome indicated a visibility of 3/4 of a statute mile in light snow…enroute, the crew received updated weather, which indicated the visibility had deteriorated to just 1/4 mile in heavy snow—well below the minimum visibility allowed to conduct the approach. However, the pilot believed he could continue the approach safely.” When the pilot did manage to catch sight of a small patch of runway, he continued the landing, touching down just 700 feet before the end of the runway. The aircraft overran the end and came to a stop in a large snowbank approximately 220 feet beyond the end of the runway.
The TSB said, “Flight crews have to consult multiple reference documents and consider a variety of factors to determine if an approach is allowed. The current rules also make it difficult for ATC to determine whether an approach is authorized. As a result, ATC will clear an aircraft for an approach regardless of the published minima, leaving the ultimate decision to conduct the approach to the flight crew.” The TSB added that, “based on the pilot’s interpretation of the various factors and exceptions relating to the approach ban, the pilot incorrectly believed he was allowed to conduct the approach.”
So to recap. A couple of dumbshit pilots decide to go “take a look” Nothing wrong with that. I’m all in favor of shooting an approach where it looks doubtful but possible. I’ve made it work a few times myself. No, I didn’t go below minimums. That would be dangerous and wrong. And you can’t prove anything.
The trick is that you have to fly a nice stabilized approach. And if you don’t get lucky you got to go around. The very last thing you want to do is go trolling around for the runway when the conditions are well and truley dogshit. But no, these two clowns had to go and wreck it for everyone. Now Canada says no more. If it’s not a nice sunny day stay home and play cards. Or words to that effect. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Ouch, That’s gotta hurt. This was sent to me from the company that we lease our jump plane from. I’m not sure exactly what happened but my guess is that someone got distracted while taxiing or they thought they had the brakes set when in fact they didn’t. Either way I can’t even imagine what the bill for that little oopsie dasiy is going to be.
I’ve lost far too many friends to skydiving and flying accidents. The current count is somewhere in the 17 – 18 range. (It hurts too much to really sit down and count) The latest was and young man who I taught to skydive. He’d decided to change his lives direction and become a helicopter pilot. It was and admirable goal as well as an expensive one to undertake as a civilian. If you think renting an airplane will hit you in the pocketbook try looking at your receipt after helicopter lessons. But he persevered and not only got his helicopter license but his commercial rating as well.
He somehow managed to actually find work as newly minted helicopter pilot with no military experience. (It can be tough to compete with Army pilots who have hundreds or thousands of hours flying the most complicated machines in the world.) The young man got hired by a helicopter company that did a little bit of everything and that’s just what he did. Powerline patrol, survey work and giving rides. He even gave a Valentines day ride to good friends of mine and spent a week with an old Army buddy surveying damage from the spring floods in Missouri last year.
His last job was flying a DNR biologist around doing raptor counts. Now I know what you’re thinking. Flying low and slow, turning tight to see what kind of hawk is in some tree is how my friend died. Nope. He died on the way home. On a beautiful sunny afternoon in western Iowa. Flying low over pool table smooth, farmland he struck a set of power lines and two lives were snuffed out in an instant.
Why was he flying so low? We’ll never know for sure but I’ll bet he thought it was fun. Right up to the end.
This is just one more case where I wish I could have been there. So many times I’ve wished I could have given a bit of advice, shouted a warning or grabbed the controls. In most cases ten seconds or less would have made all the difference. But I can’t be there. All I can do is tell my pilot friends and family of the times I did stupid things and got away with it. Because you have to learn from the mistakes of others. You’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself.
whole reason I started this post was because I read this article. I intended to just post the link but felt more needed to be said.
More from the land of Green.
In the spring of 1997 my boss Pete Demos and I were ferrying 2 Piper Seneca’s from St. Paul Minnesota to Cairo Egypt. Along the way I got the opportunity (If you want to call it that) to perform a zero ceiling, zero visibility takeoff. It was many years ago and I’d almost completely forgotten about it but once something jogged my memory I had to add it to my book. Here’s the story.
After a brief stop in Iceland Pete and I took advantage of some unusual good weather over the British Isles and pushed on to Jersey, one of the channel islands off the coast of France. After a forgettable english dinner the two of us retired for the night without the usual three or four nips from our travel bottles. We hoped for an early start so we could get into Rome early enough to enjoy a nice Italian dinner with Ricardo.
When we left the hotel the next morning our hopes for a quick getaway were dashed. A heavy fog had rolled overnight and the weather office threw out comments like persistent and mid-afternoon. The two of us went to the airport cafe for some coffee and sulking. If we were stuck on the ground until even late morning our gourmet meal and an evening in Rome would be replaced with Spam and crackers and Pete in his saggy whiteys.
As we sat and stewed there was one topic that we both failed to bring up. The possibility of a zero zero takeoff. The wet blanket of fog that hung over the Channel Islands was so thick and low that landing in those conditions would nearly impossible and highly illegal. On the other hand there was nothing that said that we couldn’t attempt a take off. OK, there was something that said we shouldn’t takeoff. Common sense.
A zero zero takeoff, while legal, was pretty damn dangerous. It wasn’t the takeoff part that was difficult. (Any dummy can follow the dotted line down the runway.) It was what happened immediately after you broke ground that was the tricky part. Because the second you left mother earth you had to go on instruments, and if you so much as sneezed and dropped the nose for a moment you’d find yourself back on the ground, with predictably unfortunate results. What if you had some sort of problem that would normally require you to return to the airport? Well good luck. Hope you can keep you disabled aircraft in the air long enough to make it to an airport where a landing might be possible. it could be a long way. And then there’s the worst possible situation, engine failure after takeoff. Normally if a pilot finds himself in going down shortly after takeoff he at least has the luxury of seeing what he’s about to crash into. Not so with a zero zero takeoff. With the fog right down on the deck you get to see what you’re going to hit about one second before actually hitting it. Exciting.
So yes, a zero zero takeoff was dangerous, foolish and unnecessarily. We’re ferry pilots not bomber pilots. And we’re delivering expensive toys to rich boys, not saving the world. So there’s no reason to take such a risk. Except for the fact that I really wanted to do it! But I couldn’t tell Pete that. I couldn’t even hint at it. Because to do so would challenge my fellow pilot’s courage. And that’s not cool. I wouldn’t want to influence Pete into doing something beyond his comfort level. But Pete’s no wilting flower, he’ll do what he wants to do. I took another sip of coffee and for Pete to make the first move.
“What do you think McCauley?”
Aha! I told Pete that I could maybe be persuaded to possibility go out to the airplanes and have a look see. I pointed out that we were both pretty damn current on instruments and that our planes had been performing flawlessly. I told him casually as I could that yes, I’d be willing to give it a whirl. For the sake of the team mind you. Not because I had some personal dragon to slay. And certainly not because I wanted to go to dinner in Rome. Pete agreed that he too could be persuaded to go have a look.
The man in the weather office raised an eyebrow when we informed him that we were leaving but accepted our flight planes without comment. Pete gave me the honor of going first. “After you” I believe he said. I lined up on the runway as straight as I could using the only two runway center line markers I could make out over the nose of the Seneca. There might have been a momentary hesitation in my hands before they shoved the throttles forward but soon I was speeding down the runway. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I could barely make out the edge of the runway and the centerline stripes came at me faster and faster. My feet danced on the rudder pedals as I fought to keep the plane going straight down the runway. If things started to get away from me I’d have to jam on the brakes quickly to avoid running off the side of the runway. But I had it. The centerline stripes were coming at me faster and faster, straight and true. As my speed increased I lifted the nose of the plane slightly prior to takeoff, but when I did that the nose blocked the few centerline stripes that were my only visual cues to keep going straight. I was speeding down the runway with my main wheels still firmly planted on the asphalt blind as a bat. Crap. I hadn’t thought of that. I was going too fast to stop so I locked onto the directional gyro compass and used that to hold my heading. An odd sense of calm came over me as I roared blindly down the runway. It was as if I just accepted the situation as unchangeable and could only do what I could do. Instead of trying to haul the plane off the ground early I let the speed build up normally and smoothly rotated into the air. I didn’t feel the plane hit any runway lights so I assumed I’d managed to keep the plane going straight enough for government work. When I saw the altimeter start to climb I raised the landing gear and let out the breath I’d apparently been holding. Dinner was excellent.
So we had a plan and the mission was a go. Cory had been getting position reports on the boat from the U.S. Coast Guard. The Normin’s crew had activated their emergency beacon and the Coast Guard was receiving up to date location data via satellite. Cory called to get the boat’s latest latitude/longitude position while I got the plane ready to go.
As I was preflighting the Cessna, Rocky, the owner of the local FBO, came up and offered me the use of his hand held GPS. I immediately accepted because it was brand new unit and much better than the old one I was going to use. I mounted Rocky’s GPS on the yoke, punched in the Stormin’ Normin’s coordinates. I tossed my old one into the glove box as a backup.
It was at that point that John decided to come along to video the adventure. I told him no at first because the added weight would cut down the Cessna’s speed and range. And why risk another life unnecessarily? But then I changed my mind. Because if it’s not on video it didn’t happen. So with little fanfare, and even less preparation, we took off to rescue the Stormin’ Normin.
The 300-mile flight would take 2.4 hours one way and would require 62 gallons of fuel for the round trip. Luckily this particular 182 had long range fuel tanks that held 84 gallons. That gave me a reserve of just a hair over one hour of flight time. Not as much as reserve as I’d like but there never is.
As usual, it was a beautiful day for flying in the Caribbean. The turquoise waters surrounding St. Croix soon gave way to the deep blue water of the Gulf. As we got farther and farther from the safety of the islands my passengers became more and more nervous. Well, John at least. Cory seemed oblivious to the dangers of being out over a great big ocean in a small plane with only one engine. As a matter of fact, he fell asleep shortly after takeoff. But John and I had talked at length about just what we were getting ourselves into. We were not only flying far from land, but far from any help. The Stormin’ Norman lay smack dab in-between Haiti and Venezuela. The chances of getting help from either of those countries if we ran into trouble were slim. But hey, if we went down and ended up in the raft it would at least be nice and warm. Kind of like taking a cruise. Sort of. Probably should’ve brought some rum.
After almost two hours of flying we arrived at the Stormin’ Normin’s location. I set up the perfect bombing run on the boat, dropped the fuel pump right on target and we were back home in time for happy hour. At least that was what was supposed to happen. What we really found when we got to where the boat was supposed to be was . . . nothing. Empty ocean.
I was mildly disappointed, but not terribly surprised. The lat/long position I’d entered into the GPS was at least three or four hours old by the time we got there and we’d been told that the boat was drifting to the east at about three knots. According to my monkey math, the Normin could be up to 12 miles east from our current position. Problem was, the visibility was near perfect and from our lofty perch the three of us could see at least 25 miles in any direction. And we didn’t see a thing.
With cautious hope, I turned the Cessna eastward and started searching for the lost boat. I wasn’t too worried. After all, we were only hundreds of miles out to sea with almost a full hour’s reserve fuel to play with. Kind of makes you feel all warm and fuzzy having that kind of buffer between you and King Neptune.
After 15 minutes of searching for the Normin I really started to get concerned. With my excess fuel rapidly running out, I needed to find her soon, or admit defeat and head for the barn. Then something occurred to me. Cory had received the boat’s coordinates from the U.S. Coast Guard. If I could somehow contact them maybe they could give me a current position report. I was too low and too far from land to reach the Coast Guard station on Puerto Rico, but if I could get a passing airliner to help it might be possible. I tuned my radio to the guard, or emergency frequency that every plane is supposed to monitor and put out a blind call for help.
A captain on a united flight passing overhead immediately offered to help. I gave him the details of what we needed then continued my search pattern while waiting with crossed fingers. The minutes slowly dragged by, and just when I was about to give up hope, a scratchy voice came up in my headset. He’d done it. The captain quickly read off the fresh set of lat/long coordinates for the Normin before he flew out of range. It was a close thing because I lost contact with him while saying thanks. I quickly punched the new numbers into Rocky’s GPS, hit the GO TO button and looked at the results.
That’s weird. This says the boat should be just north of us.
According to the Coast Guard’s report, the Stormin’ Normin was less than five miles from our current location. I pointed the Cessna north and told John and the owner where to look while I put the new numbers into the GPS a second time. Same result. No new heading and no fishing boat.
There’s no way we couldn’t see it if these coordinates are correct. And knowing the Coast Guard they’re probably correct. So what the hell?
I started at Rocky’s brand new GPS and tried to think what might be wrong.
Wait a minute………New GPS?
Latitude/Longitude coordinates are traditionally expressed in hours, minutes, and seconds by pilots, sailors, and anybody who really knows how to use them. But apparently thinking in terms of hours and seconds is too hard for your average Joe, so somebody decided to make an optional method using degrees. It was a simpler method for simpler people.
What if Rocky had his GPS set to display the degree method instead of the traditional minutes and seconds? That seemed unlikely. Rocky was a professional, he wouldn’t do that. But then I remembered that the unit was brand new and that he hadn’t even used it yet. I quickly brought up the setting screen and sure enough, the damn thing was set to degrees. Unbelievable! I changed the GPS to minutes and seconds, brought up the navigation screen again and, voila! It now said that the Stormin’ Normin should be 50 miles west! I swore to myself as I banked hard over to the west.
I looked at the fuel gauges as we flew to what I desperately hoped would be the correct location and didn’t like what I saw. We’d burned up almost all of our reserve screwing around in the wrong location and what we had left was going to be uncomfortably low by the time we got back to St. Croix. Oh, and the sun was starting to get a little low on the horizon as well. Keep going or play it safe and head back now? Wasn’t really much of a choice.
We’d been flying at 10,000 feet to give us better visibility and longer range. I throttled back and started a slow fuel saving descent to what, I hoped, was the disabled boat’s location. If it actually was in this new location, then I’d be set up to make the drop right away. If we got there and there was no boat, well…can’t say we didn’t try.
After a few minutes a small white dot appeared on the horizon. The dot grew and grew until we could tell it was what we’d been searching for. We’d finally found the Stormin’ Normin.
I made one circle over the boat so Cory could positively confirm our target then flew out to set up the bombing run. My scan in the cockpit got busy.
Heading, altitude, descent rate, distance to target, fuel, airspeed, crew.
I turned around in my seat to see if the bombardier was ready to make the drop and saw that he was holding the dummy bomb we’d brought along so we could make a practice run.
“Put that down and get the real one ready” I shouted. “We’re running low on fuel so it’s going to be one pass and haul ass!”
I continued the descending left turn I was in, and lined up on my target. It felt like I was flying a WWII Dauntless setting up to dive bomb a Japanese aircraft carrier at the battle of Midway. Everything was all set. John was sitting on the floor with his back to the instrument panel, video camera already rolling.
I yelled over my shoulder. “You all set?”
I reached down and pulled the locking pin allowing the in-flight jump door to swing up and latch under the wing. The warm ocean air swirled violently around the cabin as a few stray bits of paper flew around before being sucked out the open door. The profile of the Stormin’ Normin grew in the windshield as we raced across the water. I dropped down to less than 50 over the wave tops, which was extremely hard and dangerous because it’s difficult to accurately judge your altitude over open water. Pulling back on the throttle I slowed the Cessna down as much as I dared and bore down on my target.
Lineup, altitude, airspeed, distance, target, crew.
I quickly glanced back over my shoulder to see if everybody was ready and was horrified by what I saw. I was expecting Cory to be up on his knees, styrobomb at the ready with the long nylon rope neatly coiled in front of him. Instead, he was sitting on his ass with the package in his lap and the rope a jumbles mess, with loose coils and stray loops spilling out everywhere!
That was EXACTLY what I didn’t want to see! If just one of those coils of rope caught on part of his body or part of the plane when he tossed out the fuel pump we’d be in the water before I could do anything about it.
No time or fuel to close the door and go around.
“Get up on your knees!” I yelled. “And get control of that damn rope! John help him!”
Lineup, airspeed, altitude, distance.
Watch what you’re doing dumbass! Don’t get distracted and fly into the water!
Lineup, altitude, distance.
Getting a little slow, add a touch of power.
A quick glance back. He’s up on his knees. The rope is sort of contained.
Should I go around and make another pass?
No. Screw it. Keep going.
The ship is approaching rapidly. Its antennas are taller than I anticipated. I pull up. Just a little.
Not yet………Not yet………Almost there………
“DROP! DROP! DROP!”
I winced as Cory tossed the jumbled mess of styrofoam and yellow nylon rope out the open door. Moments later the Stormin’ Normin flashes by underneath. Nothing snags on the plane, the package is on the way. Pulling up hard, I bank the plane to the right as the three of us lean out to watch the drop. The small bright orange comet with a long yellow tail streaks over the ship just missing the mast and splashing down on the far side. As I crank the Cessna in a tight circle, we see a crew member dive over the side of the boat to retrieve the package. We hooted and hollered at our success. High fives all around as I slipped the plane hard to close the door and head for home.
I could go on and on about how the trip back to St. Croix was fraught with peril as the sun disappeared below the horizon. About how the fuel gauges were bouncing on empty as the lights of the island came into view. Or how our fuel ran out just as the wheels squeezed onto the runway. But I can’t. Because it didn’t happen that way. I mean, it was close, of course, but isn’t it always?
A long time ago, on an island far far away, I opened a small skydiving operation on the beautiful Caribbean paradise that is known as St. Croix USVI. It was a great adventure if not a lucrative one. We jumped, we dove, we drank on the beach. We did just about everything but make plane loads of money. Oh well, you can’t have everything. It also led to on of my favorite stories, the rescue of the Stormion’ Normin.
THE RESCUE OF THE STORMIN’ NORMIN
Never fly in the cockpit with someone braver than you.
By 1997 things had started to slow down in the ferry flying business and I was only making two or three trips a year. Three years after the mid-air collision, the St. Croix Valley skydiving club broke up. A married couple bought most of the parachute equipment and opened up operations in Hutchinson Minnesota. At that time I decided that it was my opportunity to start a business supplying aircraft to this new drop zone. I borrowed some money from my grandmother, bought a Cessna 182 jump plane, and Skerry Air was born.
Skerry Air was an all encompassing aviation company that included aircraft leasing, skydiving instruction, and pilot services. Within three years I had a fleet of four Cessna jump planes and was actually making some sort of a living. Despite having a full time job and raising our two kids, Cathy took over management of the business, leaving me to do all the fun stuff. I definitely got the better end of that deal.
One day I was hanging around the drop zone talking with John, a fellow instructor, when one of the pilots told us that his mother had a condo on the island of St. Croix. I don’t remember whose idea it was to start doing tandems down there but before I knew it we’d hatched a plan to start a small skydiving business on the island. Pushing tourists out of planes and landing them on the beach sounded like tons of fun. What could be better than spending all day skydiving and flying over beautiful turquoise water and all night drinking rum on the beach.
Because both John and I were full time skydivers, and had wives with real jobs, opening a winter skydiving operation seemed like the perfect gig. Jump in Minnesota during the summer and in the Caribbean in the winter. Who could possibly find fault with that plan? It turns out our wives could. Being the classic naive and clueless husbands we thought that our better halves would have no problem with our plan to spend the winter in paradise while they held down the fort with the kids and the cold weather. They weren’t super excited but somehow, unbelievably, they let us go.
So we loaded up one of my jump planes, a Cessna 182, with all the skydiving gear needed to run the operation and headed south to seek fame and fortune. We didn’t expect either but we were pretty sure we were going to have good time.
We set up shop at the St. Croix International airport in what was essentially a large closet in the corner of a large maintenance hangar. This tiny room became not only our office but our dorm room as well. John and I bought a couple of folding beds to sleep on that we could move out of the way during business hours. It was all very professional-ish.
The skydiving business on St. Croix was so-so, at best. John and I handed out flyers, we made deals with all the local bars to advertise for us, we had stickers made and placed brochures in all the hotels. Nothing worked. It turned out that the cruise ships, that we’d hoped would provide most of our customers, rarely spent the night there. That meant that the tourists didn’t usually have the time it took to go skydiving. We did make enough money to keep the doors open by taking the locals and ex-pats for jumps over the beach. The Americans who moved to the island were especially glad to see us. It turns out you can only relax on the beach for so long before yearning for a little excitement to break up the monotony of paradise.
I loved island life. John and I traded a couple of jumps for scuba diving lessons. After that whenever we weren’t going up, we were going down. We also got to know a bunch of the locals who hung out at the beach bar each night watching the sun set. It was heaven.
It didn’t take long for things to fall into a routine. Make a few jumps in the morning or early afternoon. Then a quick scuba dive before drinks on the beach with the laid-back club. I was starting to think that I could really get used to a life like that. It had been literally months since someone had asked me to risk my life flying in some hunk of junk over the ocean. So of course that had to change.
One day a man drove up to our office and asked John and me if we were the skydiving guys. We admitted as such and he introduced himself and said that he needed our help with a rescue. Now skydivers are not often asked to rescue anybody, so I was intrigued. I mean, what could we do? I suppose if his cat was stuck in the top of a tall palm tree I could land on it. But aside from that I was at a loss. His name was Cory and he told us he was the owner of a long line fishing boat that had become disabled out in the middle if the Caribbean Sea. The ships name was The Stormin’ Normin, and it had lost all power when its main fuel pump gave up the ghost, stranding them hundreds of miles from land. He said that the boat was in international waters so the US. Coast Guard wasn’t responsible and none of the South American countries were interested in helping either. The fix was simple, install a new fuel pump. The problem was that not only was the Stormin’ Normin stranded, it was stranded smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, about as far from land as you can get.
So why was the owner of a disabled fishing boat approaching a couple of skydivers? Because we had a plane that you could drop things from, like people, or, in this case, a fuel pump. While John and I stood there in the parking lot with our arms crossed Cory proceeded to tell us his big plan.
Cory’s plan was simple. We’d hop in my jump plane, fly out to the Stormin’ Normin, and drop the replacement fuel pump to the crew. Easy peasy. Cory even came prepared; he opened the back door of his car and pulled out an oblong Styrofoam shell about twice the size of a football. It was spray painted bright orange and had 50 feet of nylon rope attached to one end; presumably to make it easier to grab once it was in the water. He even had a second dummy styrobomb made up so we could do a practice bombing run before dropping the real thing. Cory had apparently put some thought and effort into his plan. It all seemed simple enough.
Right. Just fly 300 miles out to the middle of the Caribbean Sea, find a tiny fishing boat in the middle of the ocean, drop down to an unsafe altitude, and bomb it with a fuel pump. Simple. Of course, when you’re out in the middle of the ocean, the very last place you want to be is down low. Because if anything goes wrong you’re in the water before you know it. Not enough time to prepare, and not enough time to call for help. Yep, the whole plan was pretty dangerous and stupid. So of course I said yes. I mean, how often do you get to risk your life for complete strangers for little reward and no benefit to yourself? OK, all the time if you’re me but that’s beside the point.
To his credit the owner’s plan for dropping the pump wasn’t half bad. With the long nylon rope trailing behind the styrobomb there was a good chance that some part of the package would land within swimming distance of the Stormin’ Normin’s crew. And if I got lucky the rope might actually end up draped over the deck of the ship and no one would have to get wet or eaten by a Kraken or something. One thing we had going for us was that we wouldn’t be relying solely on luck because I’d done this before. Well, not this exactly, but close enough. You see I’m a Pumpkin Toss pilot.
Every Halloween the skydivers in western Wisconsin get together to jump out of planes, drink vast quantities of beer and bomb cars with pumpkins. Really. Leave it to skydivers to think that jumping out of airplanes isn’t exciting enough. What happens at P-toss is we put a derelict car in the parachute landing area and the skydivers toss pumpkins out of planes and try to hit the car. Good fun. Of course jumpers being jumpers, there’s usually a bunch of drunks standing on the car as it’s being bombed. Wouldn’t want things to get boring would you? It’s not as dangerous as it sounds because from 500 feet hitting a car with a pumpkin is hard. OK, standing on the car while it’s being bombed with pumpkins is dangerous, but that’s what makes it fun. Anyway, I’d done this sort of thing before.