2016 Fatality Summary—The Same Problems
During 2016, the United States Parachute Association recorded 21 skydiving deaths in the U.S. This is the same number of deaths as in 2015 and slightly below the average for the last 10 years. While there were four student deaths, experienced skydivers still accounted for most of the fatalities, with the jumpers who died in 2016 averaging 1,600 skydives.
While the ability to deal with malfunctions properly was a large problem area this year (a factor in 38 percent of fatalities), failure to land an open parachute safely remained the largest problem, with 43 percent of the fatal accidents occurring below 500 feet and under a good canopy. Lack of equipment maintenance is emerging as a problem area and was a factor in at least 24 percent of mishaps. Tragically, as is the case every year, jumpers could have avoided death in 2016 by following well-known, common-sense procedures.
This article looks at the U.S. skydiving deaths in 2016 to find what lessons they can teach. The categories organize the deaths by their root causes to provide an apples-to-apples comparison with previous years. Each section also provides information on how the incidents could have been prevented.
No Pull/Low Pull (0—0%)
In 2016, three jumpers who died pulled low or not at all (two didn’t begin opening either parachute and one didn’t deploy the reserve in time), but although this was a factor in their deaths, it was not the leading cause, so no incidents appear in this category.
In an average year, the failure to quickly and appropriately respond to a parachute malfunction contributes to about a quarter of skydiving fatalities. In 2016, a malfunction of the main parachute system began the chain of events that contributed to 38 percent (eight deaths) of the year’s fatalities.
In three of these incidents, equipment problems occurred immediately prior to landing following high-performance turns to final approach. The jumpers were unable to resolve the problems in the little altitude remaining.
In one case, one riser released from the jumper’s harness at a little over 300 feet. The jumper immediately pulled his cutaway handle but was unable to deploy a reserve in the remaining altitude. An improperly user-assembled 3-ring release system was the probable cause of the released riser. It appears that the jumper did not route the type 2A loop on the riser through the cutaway-cable-housing grommet. This allowed the cutaway cable to move freely, which resulted in the riser releasing during the high-performance turn to final approach.
Another jumper performed a riser turn at an altitude of about 100 feet and a portion of the leading edge of the canopy folded under, resulting in a diving turn to the ground.
A jumping wearing a helmet-mounted camera initiated a hard turn at about 500 feet. The steering line caught on the camera, resulting in the hard turn continuing until he struck the ground.
Two skydivers attempted to cut away but failed to successfully deploy their reserves in the altitude remaining:
In one incident, an ex-military jumper with 11 sport jumps experienced a spinning malfunction following an unstable opening. He pulled the cutaway handle but not far enough to release both risers. He activated his reserve, but it did not clear the spinning main parachute.
Another jumper successfully cut away his main canopy at about 1,000 feet but was unable to deploy his reserve before impact. His equipment was not equipped with a reserve static line (RSL).
A tandem pair died when they experienced a partially inflated drogue. The instructor cut away and activated the reserve, but he did not perform the first step of the emergency procedures for the tandem system, which was to pull the drogue-release handle. The reserve entangled with the drogue.
After a low opening, an A-licensed skydiver had a spinning main parachute likely caused by a steering toggle that released from the brake setting during deployment. He released his main parachute at about 250 feet and did not activate his reserve in the remaining altitude. Although his equipment had an RSL, it was not connected. While he was equipped with an automatic activation device (AAD), it did not activate because he had not picked up enough speed after the cutaway to meet the AAD’s parameters for firing.
How could these deaths have been avoided?
// Execution of well-thought-out and rehearsed emergency procedures would have prevented half the 2016 deaths in this category.
// Some instructors teach students to pull their cutaway cables by sweeping their free hands across the cables to clear them from the cable housings. This technique could have helped in one of the fatalities.
// Pre-jump equipment checks (by the skydiver, another experienced jumper or both) may have prevented two of these incidents.
// Every skydiver should be concerned about equipment maintenance. Is the main parachute fabric sun damaged or torn? Are the suspension and steering lines in good shape? Are the main and reserve containers correctly closed? Are the backup systems (AADs and RSLs) set properly? Are the main parachute’s brake keepers in good shape and set properly? Although jumpers may not be knowledgeable about all of the maintenance factors for their gear, as the equipment operators, they are responsible. When in doubt, jumpers should ask those who have the necessary knowledge and skills to help. Riggers, experienced instructors and knowledgeable packers can be great resources for information.
// A tandem skydive is not just another jump. Emergency procedures are more complicated than those of a solo skydiver. This is why the Basic Safety Requirements stipulate that a tandem instructor must perform practice touches on all handles on every jump.
In separate incidents, two parachutists died in freefall collisions.
One incident occurred after a hoop dive, a jump in which two jumpers in freefall hold a hula hoop while others pass through it. One of the skydivers holding the hoop and another jumper collided while tracking during breakoff. Both jumpers’ main parachutes deployed. One jumper was not seriously injured. The other jumper was able to deploy his main but landed in a field with both brakes stowed and twists in the main canopy’s suspension lines, which indicates that he was incapacitated in some manner. He died of his injuries several days later.
A wingsuit jumper collided with another wingsuiter when trying to dive down to him soon after exit. The impact from the collision broke the lower jumper’s leg. The collision incapacitated or killed the other wingsuit jumper, who was not using an AAD, and he struck the ground without either parachute deployed.
In the third incident, a canopy pilot came out of a front-riser turn to final approach that placed him directly behind and quickly gaining on another jumper. The rear jumper struck the back of the front jumper’s canopy at approximately 50 feet. The rear jumper died in the hard landing after a portion of his canopy collapsed.
How could these deaths have been avoided?
// Colliding with another skydiver in freefall or under canopy has potentially disastrous results. A carefully planned skydive is essential for safety. Adequate separation during breakoff, parachute deployment and descent should always be part of the plan for any group skydive.
// Before and during opening, jumpers must check to be sure their airspace is clear. Once in a clear airspace they should signal that they’re pulling by waving off and then check around and below for other jumpers while they’re opening.
// Closing distance with another jumper requires picking up speed with finesse and caution. Doing so in a wingsuit adds an additional dimension to the challenge.
// Canopy traffic typically becomes more congested below 1,000 feet, when all jumpers on the load are flying a landing pattern above the main landing area. The intersection of the base leg and the final-approach leg is historically where most canopy collisions occur. Jumpers must continue scanning for traffic while flying the landing pattern and adjust the pattern if necessary to avoid other canopies.
Landing Problems (5—24%)
Landing a parachute remains one of the biggest problem areas in the sport. In 2016, besides the failure to complete high-performance landings, the failure to avoid obstacles was a significant cause of landing deaths.
One jumper failed to complete a high-performance landing. He initiated a 270-degree turn at about 500 feet. Coming out low, he failed to use either his rear risers or brakes to salvage the turn.
A skydiver landing off the DZ started a quick, low turn. Investigators found the canopy with a severed steering line, but they believe that emergency responders cut the line while performing first aid. They were unable to definitely determine why the jumper performed the low turn.
Three jumpers struck obstacles after making their final turns.
One struck a billboard after making a 360-degree turn.
Another tried to stretch his glide to make it into the main landing area. He barely made the DZ but struck a tree, which caused his canopy to dive into the ground.
The third jumper apparently had a hard opening followed by a low cutaway. His reserve opened with assistance from the RSL, but the jumper was too low to avoid landing in tall trees. His canopy collapsed and he fell to the ground.
How could these deaths have been avoided?
// Today, many canopies—not just heavily loaded ones—are high-performance wings. A turn near the ground can be deadly. Select a canopy that allows you to make a mistake and survive.
// If you are starting to learn high-performance landings, make sure you’ve gotten coaching from someone qualified to advise you on how to do so as safely as possible. Try the landing procedure repeatedly at a safe altitude to get an idea of timing and altitude loss. Don’t do anything near the ground that you haven’t practiced at altitude.
// Pick a safe landing area while you still have plenty of altitude. Know where your alternatives are. If you are in question about safely making it back to the DZ, choose an alternative landing area in time to set up a normal approach to landing.
// Keep your head on a swivel. Look around under canopy. Know where the other jumpers are.
Reserve Problems (2—10%)
A reserve parachute is the ultimate plan B for a skydiver, but it’s important to realize it is not a guarantee. Five of those who died in 2016 used their reserves but not at an adequate altitude and with a clear path for deployment. However, for two of the five jumpers, the reserve presented a hazard that resulted in death.
Spectators saw a jumper under both an open main and an open reserve parachute. The parachutes were flying side-by-side. The jumper’s canopies went into a downplane near the ground (possibly as a result of the jumper trying to steer) and she landed off the drop zone, suffering injuries that proved fatal.
A military re-enactor acting as an instructor and dispatching static-line students was wearing a chest-mounted reserve parachute. He experienced an accidental opening of the reserve parachute while in the door of a jump aircraft. The deploying reserve pulled him into the aircraft doorframe. (Because this incident involved substantial damage to the aircraft, it is also included in the article “Skydiving-Related Aircraft Accidents” that follows this article.)
How could these deaths have been avoided?
// If a main parachute and a reserve are both deployed and flying straight in a side-by-side configuration, it is the jumper’s choice whether to land both parachutes or cut away the main parachute. However, there is always the danger of experiencing a downplane at a low altitude, such as in this case. Biplanes (where the canopies are flying with one in front of the other) tend to be more stable than side-by-sides. In either case, if the main-reserve configuration is not stable and there is no entanglement, the jumper should disconnect the reserve static line and release the main.
// The jumper who died after a reserve deployment in the door of a jump plane was a military re-enactor who was not affiliated with USPA and was not conducting a jump for the military. The use of chest-mounted reserves is almost non-existent in today’s sport parachuting world, but an unintentional deployment of any reserve is hazardous. Being aware of and protecting the reserve ripcord is something any skydiver should do at all times.
When a death occurs outside of the five areas above, it appears here. In 2016, three deaths occurred in this category.
Two jumpers had what appear to have been medical problems leading to them landing under their open parachutes, seemingly incapacitated. One skydiver landed under his main parachute without any control inputs. The other landed under a reserve activated by his automatic activation device. Both were dead when DZ personnel reached them. The jumpers were 47 and 61 years old.
After an AFF jump, the instructor watched his student open. At some point after the AFF instructor gained separation and opened his own main canopy, the student came out of her harness and fell to her death. Although the system’s belly band was unfastened, the leg and chest straps were fastened. She was found a mile away from the opening point, which indicates the parachute flew for a while before she came out of the harness. The harness and main canopy descended into a tree approximately five miles from the opening point.
How could these deaths have been avoided?
// As skydivers, we are responsible for our physical and mental conditions. Obvious examples include adequate rest and avoidance of substances that can affect judgment. However, the sport’s population is becoming older, with nearly half of the almost 39,000 USPA members over 40 years old. The median age of the 21 jumpers who died in 2016 was 47. With aging, unsuspected problems such as heart conditions can surface during a skydive. An annual checkup is one way to help identify a medical problem and avoid having one during a skydive.
// The student who fell from her harness is a mystery. Based on the observed opening, an equipment issue doesn’t appear to have been the problem. Few facts are available.
Altitude. A realtor worries about location, location, location when selling a property. Skydivers should worry about altitude, altitude, altitude when making a jump. Opening at 2,500 feet or above is one of the Basic Safety Requirements for B- through D-license holders (students, A-license holders and tandems must open higher), and this provides a good safety margin. Releasing a malfunctioned main parachute by 1,800 feet (recommended for B- through D-license holders) gives a jumper time to handle minor problems and select a safe place to land. Releasing a main parachute at 180 feet probably doesn’t even give the reserve system time to function.
AADs and RSLs/MARDs. Automatic activation devices and reserve static lines/main-assisted reserve deployment devices are complementary devices that provide a significant safety backup for any skydiver. For decades, the sport did without these devices. For decades, people died without beginning their openings, or they cut away their main parachutes without deploying their reserves. Those events still happen, but because of the common use of these devices, they occur much less frequently. By way of example, in 1986 there were five deaths as a result of not starting a main parachute deployment on time. In 2016, there were none that did not have some other root cause. While skydivers must assemble and maintain AADs and RSLs/MARDs properly, there is no doubt that they save lives.
Equipment. This year there were at least four fatalities related to improper maintenance or installation of equipment. Improperly assembled main risers, a defective shackle on an RSL and a hazardous camera mount were factors in mishaps this year. Gear checks save lives, and skydivers must make them a part of their routines for every skydive.
Cameras. Recording a jump with still or motion photography is easier than ever thanks to small, light and reasonably priced equipment. One thing that has not changed is the risk associated with jumping a camera. Those who wish to jump a camera should ask for expert help and can also access one of the many articles written by experienced camera flyers, but the short story is to mount the equipment in such a way as to minimize the possibility of snags and to maintain situational awareness. Since the year 2000, at least 11 people died while having problems involving a camera while jumping. Three had entanglements between the camera and the parachute.
Emergency procedures. Every skydiver on every jump must be ready to handle an emergency. Murphy’s Law states that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. That law may have been written for aerial sports. If you stay in the sport long enough, you will face an emergency, and that is not when you should begin considering variables and options or review your emergency procedures. He who hesitates inherits the earth.
By frequently mentally and physically reviewing emergency procedures, you can be ready to respond appropriately and in a timely manner to an emergency. Proficient tandem instructors complete handle touches on every jump. AFF students perform practice touches in freefall. Coaches and instructors review and demonstrate emergency procedures frequently for their students. Licensed jumpers should practice emergency procedures frequently, including pulling their actual handles before each reserve repack and during the annual USPA Safety Day (typically the second weekend in March). Regardless of your discipline within the sport, it is up to you to stay current on emergency procedures. In 2016, seven of the people who died had difficulty executing appropriate and timely emergency procedures.
Collisions. These suggestions provide common-sense ways to avoid a collision:
- Break off with enough altitude to allow for plenty of separation before you deploy your main canopy.
- Once your main canopy is inflated, try to identify all of the jumpers on the load to account for all of the canopies.
- Adjust your descent to eliminate as much conflict with other canopy traffic as possible.
- Always look in the direction of your turn before initiating it.
- Fly a predictable landing pattern with a downwind leg, base leg and final-approach leg that promotes a smooth flow of canopy traffic.
- Keep high-performance landings in a separate area or separated by a low pass if there is not enough space for different landing areas.
- Choose a main canopy with bright colors that is easy for other jumpers to see.
Landings. The parachute landing has always been a critical phase of every jump. Prior to the 1990s, a landing death occurred an average of once every other year, typically a result of landing on an obstacle. There weren’t many choices in the size of parachutes until the 1990s, when manufacturers responded to market demand by developing canopies with dramatic turn rates and forward speeds. Unfortunately, because of the higher canopy performance— and the maneuvers necessary to get the highest performance from the canopies—landing accidents became one of the most common ways skydivers die. In addition to low turns causing deaths, high-performance turns that generate high initial speeds and descent rates can lead to conflicts with other jumpers under canopy. High-performance turns also provide little time to react to problems.
When choosing main and reserve canopies, your body weight (which affects wing loading) and experience are huge factors to consider. Some canopy pilots want to get the most out of their landings, but this is associated with significant risk. Obviously a jumper should have a great deal of experience and training before selecting a high-performance canopy, but even the highly experienced make mistakes. The average number of jumps of those who died this year in landing mishaps was around 1,840. In good conditions, you may be able to handle a given canopy. The question to ask yourself is how much risk you are willing to assume on your worst day.
In relation to the number of participants and jumps made, deaths in skydiving are rare. Furthermore, the average of around 22 deaths per year over the last 10 years compares positively with the average of 35 per year prior to 2000—especially considering the sport’s increasing numbers. Even so, it is heartbreaking that so many deaths could have been avoided if jumpers had only followed well-known, common-sense practices.