Parachute Operations at Oceanside Airport

Are the parachute operations at Oceanside Airport, safe? Or unsafe?

When a pilot gets a letter from his local Flight Standards District Office, it rarely portends fun. “Whoopee. I just got a letter from the FSDO. Laissez les bons temps rouler.” (If you’re Cajun French-challenged, or you’ve never been to New Orleans, it can be translated as: “Let the good times roll.”)

Letters from the FSDO generally mean that you’ve fckd up, and your life is about to change, not for the better.
Normally, yes, but not this time. Lemme explain.

There has been a parachute operation at Oceanside Airport for a few years now. I believe that it is unsafe to drop parachutists near busy airways (V 23, V 208-458), near a busy VORTAC (OCN), at an airport (OKB) that is used by numerous pilots for training purposes – specifically, for IFR students, and pilots trying to maintain IFR currency, who fly a very demanding approach (VOR-A OKB).

Active controllers, and friends who have retired from the SOCAL TRACON (the airspace’s controlling authority), have questioned FAA’s wisdom on allowing such an operation. They mention the instrument approach, but further point out that air carrier traffic crosses that VORTAC descending into LA area airports at an altitude 12,000 – 14,000 feet. The parachute operation, GoJump, regularly drops its tandem jumpers at 13,000 feet. In the past, I have expressed my concerns to San Diego Flight Standards District Office employees, and ATC employees when I’ve met them at CFI safety meetings.

What follows is the text (without the contact information) of a message I sent to a SAN FSDO employee. Following the message is the reply I received from another (unnamed) FSDO employee.

I’m emailing about an unsafe activity I witnessed at Oceanside Airport, yesterday, 16July2018.

I was helping a former student remain instrument current and we were flying up to Oceanside to fly the VOR-A approach. A few miles from the VORTAC, ATC (North, low, frequency:127.3) spoke with one of the “Go Jump” airplanes which had departed Oceanside with some jumpers on board. I believe the Go Jump airplane was authorized to climb to 13,000 feet, whereupon the pilot advised ATC that he only needed, 11,000 feet and he was cleared to that altitude with the usual “Advise 2 minutes before jump” radio call.

The ASOS at OKB was reporting a broken ceiling of 1500 feet at 16:06 local time. Palomar had reported a broken ceiling of 1400 feet on ATIS information “Juliet” recorded before the hour.

We were in Cessna 172, 737DD and, nearing the VORTAC, ATC had cleared us from 4,000 feet to 3,000 feet and advised us to “hold west as published” to wait for parachute jumpers. He advised that we might have an 8 minute wait. I acknowledged the holding clearance and then said something like, “They’re going to drop parachutists through a 1500 foot broken ceiling?” He replied, “Apparently so.”

I checked the ASOS again and Oceanside was still reporting 1500 foot broken, and I was concerned that these guys were going to jump through a broken ceiling. The jump plane announced a 2 minute warning and ATC advised Oceanside traffic of the impending jump.

I made no further comments to ATC. We flew the parallel holding pattern entry and entered the hold. The jump plane called “Jumpers away,” and ATC made the announcement. Crossing OCN on the inbound leg, we were advised by ATC to continue the outbound leg and to expect a turn inbound on his command. At about 2 miles west of the VORTAC, we were told to descend to 2,500 feet and were cleared for the approach. I made one more check of the ASOS at 16:09 local and the ceiling had dropped to 1400 feet broken.

We were told to switch to the advisory frequency on the inbound leg, made the call, crossed the VORTAC, were established on the approach on 096 degrees, commenced the descent. We entered the top of the cloud at 1800 feet, emerged from the ragged bases at 1300 feet and noticed lower tendrils of cloud ahead and behind, but we were completely clear of cloud by 1200 feet. At 3.4 DME we commenced the published MAP, turning to 030 to intercept the 083 radial from the VORTAC, and climbed back into the broken becoming overcast ceiling between 1300 and 1400 feet. I would estimate that the marine layer cloud deck had extended at least a mile beyond the airport boundary.

You should know that I am not a fan of parachute operations at an airport with a busy VOR approach. I found it hard to believe that FAA would authorize such an operation that close to the OCN VORTAC, on a busy airway (V-23), with another crossing airway (V-208).

But I assure you that pilot and that Go Jump operation violated the VFR clear of cloud requirements at Oceanside Airport, yesterday.

It bothers me that the jump zone exists, but it really bothers me that, at least on that day, they had broken VFR cloud clearance requirements. This, to me, was a blatant violation of the FAR’s, but, more importantly, was an unsafe operation.

I’m happy to provide any other information that you would like.

Less than a week later, I received a reply from my FSDO contact, copying a FSDO manager. I was advised that, if the manager found merit in my safety concerns, he would assign an inspector to investigate the incident.

Just under a month later, I received a short letter from a safety inspector at the San Diego FSDO. Here below is the text of the letter.

This letter is in response to your inquiry regarding parachute operations in Oceanside, CA on July 16, 2018. We have investigated the event and taken appropriate action. We consider this matter closed.
Thank you for your concern and cooperation in this matter.

I’m not sure what constitutes “appropriate action”. GoJump still drops parachutists at the Oceanside Airport. In my mind, “appropriate action” would have been shutting the operation down. However, I was pleased to see that the matter was promptly referred to an operations manager, that the manager considered the incident a valid complaint, and that an inspector conducted an investigation.

I still have concerns about the operation. The facts haven’t changed. Perhaps the jump plane’s pilot violated company policy, as well as a Federal Aviation Administration regulation: dropping parachutists through an overcast. I’m not sure how jump pilots are paid. When I used to fly open cockpit biplane flights for an air tour business, I was paid only when flying paying customers. If the jump pilots are paid only when they actually allow parachutists to jump, then there’s an incentive for the pilot to allow his customers to jump through an overcast. But I’m just speculating.

Parachute operations are under the same cloud and clearance requirements as VFR airplanes – parachutists may not jump through an overcast, for obvious reasons. If you jump through an overcast, how will you know that you’ll have time to avoid a hazard, like power lines, a building, trees? When you drop through the overcast, how can you be certain that you’ll hit the drop zone, safely?

Cursed with curiosity, I’m tempted to file a Freedom of Information request with FAA to find out what, in fact, “appropriate action” was taken. We all know how much FAA, or any government agency loves FOI requests – it might be fun just to make them work a little more.

So … I complained to an FAA entity, the entity forwarded the complaint to the appropriate office, the office assigned an inspector to investigate. Work was done, and promptly, may I add. Curiosity killed the cat, but I ain’t feline – maybe I should pursue the matter further. Time will tell. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Posted in Rants