DC-9 Modified for Skydiving

PERRIS, Calif. -- In a past life, passengers boarded this plane, sat down and waited until they reached their destination.

Today, the passengers make their own landing.

After three years of a lengthy approval and certification process, Perris Valley Skydiving is reaching new heights faster with the use of its own DC-9 jetliner.

Purchased in 2003 as scrap for about $50,000, Perris Valley Airport owner Ben Conatser has modified the 88-passenger plane to use for skydiving.

The passenger seats remain but the rear staircase has been altered to allow skydivers to jump off the rear of the aircraft. The plane can still be used as a regular passenger plane.

"It's a hot rod. It's an airplane with a lot of power. It's got a small body," said Joe Matos, the plane's pilot. "It was designed for this kind of work, really."

The Skydive Perris DC-9 is 27 feet long with a wingspan of 93 feet. The private airport's runway had to be expanded from 3,000 feet to 5,100 feet to accommodate the aircraft.

Since receiving certification in late December, more than 1,000 jumps have been made from the DC-9.

"It's a perfect jump ship - four minutes to altitude. You can put out 70 to 80 jumpers," said Conatser.

It can take a Twin Otter plane 15 to 20 minutes to reach the proper altitude (12,500 to 13,000 feet) with 20 jumpers, Conatser added.

"It's completely different what we do with this airplane and what we do with American Airlines," said Matos, a former American Airlines pilot. "You take an airplane from point A to point B and get rid of the people and that was it. Now we're always empty on landings. Nobody on board."

Mary Tortomasi, jumpmaster and flight attendant, said that skydiving out of the plane is a rush.

"It's like kids in a candy store. This is the candy, it's eye candy, to be able to jump out of the jet," she said.

But getting necessary approval to jump from the DC-9 wasn't an easy task.

Conatser had to wade through mountains of paper work and several certification tests with the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies for about three years to get the chance to use the jetliner.

"Nobody has something like this," he said. "They're super cautious and they want to make sure everything works, and so do we."

While Conatser waited for certification to use the plane for skydiving, the DC-9 was used to help in relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Working with a church group, Matos and Conatser loaded the plane with supplies bound for Louisiana. They also helped transport evacuees to Houston.

Conatser said he doubts anyone else would try to do the same with a DC-9 or a similar aircraft. He said he spent about $500,000 for testing and modifications.

"It really takes a lot of tenacity. It takes a lot of money to do this," he said. "It probably will never break even with what we're doing. It was a challenge. It was something we started and we said we were going to do it and we did it. In the skydiving world, they believe what they see."

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