Gearing Up - February 2010

In 1962, USPA’s forerunner, the Parachute Club of America (PCA), was garnering the results of its two principle efforts—promoting skydiving and working for skydiving’s acceptance by government agencies. Only five years earlier, the organization had changed its name from the National Parachute Jumpers and Riggers, Inc. and changed its constitution to move away from commercial promotion of exhibition skydiving to become an individual membership organization of recreational skydivers. The PCA ended 1958 with 807 members; it ended 1962 with 6,800 members. But another number increased as well: Parachutist reported five fatalities “in the 24 months of 1959 and 1960,” but 1962 alone had 19 reported fatalities.

From there, the yearly number spiraled up to a devastating 56 in 1981 before descending again. It wasn’t until 2007, in which USPA recorded 18 fatalities, that there were fewer than in 1962. Now, with the end of 2009, another modern-day-record low was set with 16 civilian fatalities. And there were no fatal jump plane crashes for the first time since 2000.

There is more good news: The fatality trend is definitely downward. Since the end of the 1970s, when fatalities averaged 42.5 a year, every subsequent decade has seen the 10-year average decline. The average was 34.1 for 1980-1989, 32.3 for 1990 to 1999, and now, 25.8 for the decade just ended. All this has happened while total USPA membership soared and the number of jumps made has skyrocketed (at least until the current recession). So, not only have the number of fatalities declined, but the fatality rate per skydiver and per number of jumps has dropped dramatically.

But fatalities aren’t the only, or even the best, measure of skydiving safety. While injuries will always occur, the goal is to reduce their frequency and severity. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the means to know the true scope of injuries, in part because there is inadequate reporting from the field. USPA’s membership renewal form solicits information about skydiving-related injuries resulting in a visit to a medical facility, and 1,260 members indicated such a visit in 2009, conceivably for everything from a dislocated finger to major surgery. This is up substantially from previous years when between 800 and 900 members reported injuries. Of course, this method doesn’t include first-jump customers, since most of them aren’t members. A recent report published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine found that skydiving-related injuries comprised 28.9 percent of the average 1,000 aviation-related hospitalizations each year. We’ll take an in-depth look in the future at that study’s methodology to determine how valid it is.

Each death is a tragedy in the full sense of the word—certainly to the families and friends of those who are suddenly gone—and grouping each into a useful number is not meant to diminish those lives. Instead, it helps us quantify the efforts of everyone involved in skydiving safety—the board’s safety & training committee, the safety & training department, the board’s regional directors and their appointed safety & training advisors, and all those who hold instructional ratings from coach to instructor examiner. It doesn’t stop there, since every pilot, rigger, packer, loader, fueler, manifester, mechanic—and individual jumper—influences safety as well. Everyone has a role to fulfill, and now a new goal for 2010.

Blue skies,

Ed Scott | D-13532 | USPA Executive Director

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