Part Two in a series on the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop. Read Part One.
Video Blog: The lesser-seen face of business aviation (jumping from a perfectly good airplane)
BOULDER CITY -- Journalists are advised never to get emotionally entangled in a story, and certainly not physically. Though this assignment found your correspondent unavoidably invested.
I'm about to get thrown out of a perfectly good aircraft with five other people.
"Why gamble with your money when you can gamble with your life???" asks Skydive Las Vegas, with two extra question marks added for emphasis.
Based at Boulder City Airport southeast of The Strip, and just south of Lake Mead, Skydive Las Vegas has been asking that provocative question of its customers since 1993.
When you think of business aviation, red carpets, plush leather cabins and twin turbofans tend to come to mind. Now picture a Pacific Aerospace P-750 XSTOL, a single-engine Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-34A-powered turboprop with bench seating and bare metal floors.
Quantifying the impact of business aviation on the economy is often a difficult and abstract task. Despite being one of the lesser-seen faces of business aviation, the skydiving operations at SLV and its single aircraft and its single engine directly support more than two dozen jobs.
Admittedly, there's not a lot of sex appeal in a half-century old engine design, just a whirring certainty for SLV, which can fly as many four flights an hour; each climbing to 15,000ft, and dropping as many as 16 tandem skydivers at a time.
The aircraft's thick camber wing and its 750hp (560kW) engine, can carry more than 4,000lbs, a payload in excess of the P-750's own empty weight, just 3,100lbs.
Today, I'm strapped to Kelly Corcoran for our tandem jump, along with five of SLV's professional skydivers for some special formation falling.
Our walk to the aircraft is a euphemism uncomfortably referred to at SLV as the 'the green mile walk', a tongue-in-cheek way of disarming, or in some cases arming, a person's concerns about free falling.
After its human payload is headed for Earth, it's a race to the ground. A 3,000fpm descent puts the PT6-powered prop back on the ground before the last jumper's heels hit dirt on the edge of the airport.
The P-750 and its PT6 engine, says SLV owner and manager Brent Buckner, was a natural choice for the job, as the New Zealand-built aircraft is custom designed for skydiving, equipped with a factory-fitted aft door closing mechanism, eliminating the need for an extra crew member to fly along to close the door after jumpers have departed.
"This was the first airplane designed from the ground up for skydiving," says Buckner. "Every other jump airplane that exists today is a modification, it's been modified and changed to accommodate skydiving and the mission.
"This one was designed with skydiving in mind, everything from the performance aspects of it to the internal construction to the specially designed jump door. This is the only aircraft that comes out of the factory skydive ready anywhere in the world."
Separated by nearly 5,900nm, just getting the P-750 from the factory in Hamilton, New Zealand to Boulder City Airport was a saga in itself. The aircraft was fitted with FAA-approved cabin fuel tanks for its island-hopping delivery, raising the gross weight of the aircraft to 10,000lbs, providing a sense of the carrying capacity of aircraft's structure.
The P-750 replaced its PT6-114A-powered Cessna Caravan as its lead aircraft. While the company keeps a 1966 Cessna 182J as a backup, the P-750 is SLV's workhorse, providing around 50% less maintenance and a higher time between overhaul than the Caravan, 3,600h compared to 4,000h.
On our way to 15,000ft above sea level, about 12,800ft above Boulder City Airport, Corcoran, who I'm connected to in four different spots, nonchalantly lifts the oversized door, revealing a spectacular view of southern Nevada.
Usually seen through airplane window glass on approach to McCarran International Airport, Hoover Dam, one of the country's most ambitious public works project stands out against the orange-brown geography and blueish-green Lake Mead.
The anticipation of the jump is harder than the jump itself. The climb to 15,000ft feels like an eternity. With those a round me in charge of the timing of our departure, the actual jump itself is the easiest part. The cold cabin, the rushing wind and lack of conversation provide the soundtrack for a swirling mind. At some point, I just accepted that the next events of my life were in the control of others.
The door cracked open again, except this time is was for our exit. My legs swung out, my head tilted back and before I knew it, I watched the trailing edge of the wing fly by my peripheral vision and that was it.
What was going through my head? There's no music that plays as you fall, just a striking cognitive dissonance of the world around me in a form I had never experienced, the other jumpers falling with us seeming to float along side.
The fall itself lasted less than a minute, the parachute opening with comforting predictability; yanking us upward as the canopy filled with the rushing air. My thoughts caught up my body and relief was the emotion of the moment.
When can we go again?
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