Identifying the Dangers - The 2013 Fatality Summary

We are in the safest decade of the sport: During the last 10 years, an average of just over 22 people died skydiving in the U.S. each year. In the 1960s—when USPA membership was about a third of what it is today—an average of 43 people died per year.

Despite the increased safety, it is always tragic to see people in the sport injured or killed. When we take a close look at those who died and how they died, it is disturbing to see that changes in equipment, adherence to already established procedures, practice of emergency procedures and cautious decision making could have prevented many of the mishaps. This article will identify recurring danger areas in the sport so that jumpers can avoid them. To do this, we’ll separate the U.S. skydiving deaths that occurred in 2013 into six broad categories.

Before the common use of automatic activation devices, this category often represented a large proportion of the deaths in any given year and left us able to only speculate as to the causes. Although some incidents still remain unexplained, we now have a clearer picture of why a skydiver doesn’t start opening a parachute in time. Those skydivers who landed under automatically activated reserves for reasons such as obvious distraction (e.g., problems with a deployment device) or physical incapacitation (e.g., loss of consciousness) help us form this picture.

Let’s look at what we know about the five skydivers who didn’t deploy a parachute in time—main or reserve—in 2013 and address how to prevent those circumstances.

  • In separate incidents, two jumpers made no apparent attempt to open their parachutes and were not equipped with functioning AADs. One of the two was on a high-altitude jump. The other, according to news accounts, was performing a wing-walking stunt at an air show and reportedly fell off the aircraft at a low altitude.
  • In another incident, a student and an instructor were doing an accelerated freefall training jump, and the student lost stability and entered a spin. The instructor attempted to help the student. Both appear to have lost altitude awareness. Although equipped with AADs that did activate their reserve parachutes, neither canopy fully inflated in time to slow their falls. An excessively high freefall speed based on jumper weight, as well as a lack of stability, may have been a factor. However, data from the AADs in these two fatalities has not been provided, so it is impossible to determine whether the AADs activated at the correct altitude or if there were other factors that led to the late reserve inflations. Since 1999, at least nine fatalities have occurred after the jumpers’ reserves opened too late following activation of their AADs. USPA and the Parachute Industry Association continue to look into the problem of delayed reserve deployments.
  • Finally, a wingsuit jumper on a solo jump exited an aircraft over rough terrain at about 6,600 feet. Investigators speculate that he was attempting proximity flying (flying close to objects such as hilltops or cliff faces). Searchers never found him, and authorities presume him to be dead.

What could have been done to prevent these deaths?

  • When instructors accompany students in freefall, there is always a danger of the instructors focusing on their students at the cost of their own safety. Many experienced accelerated freefall instructors have found themselves opening their parachutes lower than intended because of their focus on their students—especially ones who have problems near pull altitude. An instructor accompanying a student must commit to a bottom-end working altitude. This is the altitude where he needs to ensure his own safety by obtaining safe separation from his student and opening his own parachute. This is fair to the instructor, but is also necessary for the basic safety of the skydive. Instructors should brief students on this hard deck, as well. In a way, the ultimate signal to a student that working time is over is the instructor opening his own canopy.
  • If you don’t already have one, consider the use of an AAD on your gear. If you have an AAD, be sure it is set properly for the jump. Checking that the AAD is armed and properly functioning should be part of the procedure of putting the equipment on and (if possible) part of pre-boarding and pre-jump equipment checks.
  • By the same token, don’t depend on the AAD. It is simply a backup system for the skydiver. AADs have saved many lives since their wide adoption, but depending on any single mechanical device is always risky. Furthermore, an AAD will not protect against landing errors or excessively low cutaways.
  • Skydivers Information Manual Section 6-7 recommends an AAD as part of the equipment for a high-altitude jump. This is just common sense. As the SIM points out, “Hypoxia can result in impaired judgment and even unconsciousness.”
  • Wingsuit proximity flying is incredible to watch. (One YouTube video has more than 450,000 hits.) However, it bears the same relationship to skydiving that BASE jumping does: a high-risk sport marginally related to what most of us know in the world of skydiving.
  • Skydiving is about risk management. The Federal Aviation Regulations and USPA Basic Safety Requirements set minimum standards for performance in the air. Ignoring these guidelines is by definition unsafe. Two of those who died in this category were clearly in violation of the FARs or BSRs.

Murphy’s Law (if it can go wrong, it will) is one of the constants in life, and it strongly and dramatically applies to skydiving: Every parachutist on every jump must prepare for a malfunction. Even using today’s well-designed equipment, sometimes things just don’t go right. Every year, many hundreds of skydivers react correctly when things don’t go as expected with equipment. Here are the circumstances that cost six skydivers their lives:

  • In similar circumstances, four of the six people who died in this category experienced a malfunction and reacted to it by releasing the main parachute—but far too low. SIM Section 5-1 recommends that B- through D-licensed skydivers release their malfunctioned main parachutes by 1,800 feet (students and A-licensed jumpers by 2,500), but all four of these jumpers appear to have released their malfunctioned main parachutes below 1,000 feet. Two of the four did not pull their reserves in the seconds that remained. Two had AADs that rearmed themselves and activated the reserve parachutes, but the reserves did not have enough altitude to open. None of those who died were equipped with reserve static lines.
  • On a tandem jump, the instructor apparently released the main parachute quite low. The circumstances that led to the low cutaway are unclear, but the reserve parachute did not fully deploy before the pair went into trees. The very experienced and current tandem instructor died, and the student was seriously injured.
  • A well-respected longtime skydiver had an opening on his main parachute that was hard enough to break his neck. He later died of the injury.

How could these deaths have been prevented?

  • Well-thought-out and practiced emergency procedures are critical to survival in skydiving. Students learn how to respond to malfunctions in preparation for their first jumps, but if emergency procedure review stops there, it’s not enough. Every second counts. For example, a high-performance canopy in a spin loses altitude rapidly. The spin itself is disorienting. Additionally, a spinning parachute can increase its spin rate and descent rate with each revolution. Jumpers must repeatedly practice to ingrain a near-automatic assessment and response to problems. Continual review and reinforcement while a student, along with individual review and practice as a more advanced jumper, help make response to malfunctions efficient. Since reserve-handle location can shift under an open canopy, it’s valuable for experienced jumpers, as well as students, to practice malfunction procedures in a suspended harness (as USPA recommends that jumpers do on Safety Day and throughout the year).
  • A reserve static line is an inexpensive and relatively dependable back up to emergency procedures. An RSL initiates an immediate opening of the reserve container when the jumper releases the main parachute, regardless of altitude or descent rate.
  • Potentially dangerous hard parachute openings have been with us ever since the sport moved to square parachutes. The problem has increased with the popularity of zero-porosity canopies and suspension lines that allow virtually no stretch. While technical solutions to this problem are under development, the immediate solution is careful placement of the slider during packing. If the slider is not at the top of the lines during opening, it can’t do its job. Without the mitigating features of the slider, an explosive opening can result.

Energy is influenced by mass and velocity. Contact in freefall or under an open canopy can have relatively minor results if there is not much difference in the direction, speed or weight of those colliding. When there is a significant difference, the results can be catastrophic. Here’s what happened in 2013:

  • A jumper with low experience died when he performed a poised exit from a turbine aircraft that was in a climbing attitude. His head struck the tail of the aircraft. Although he landed under an AAD-activated reserve, he did not survive the head injuries he suffered from striking the tail.
  • During a 3-way formation skydive, two of the skydivers collided. One jumper did not suffer serious injury. The other struck his head, and although the AAD opened his reserve, he died of the head injury.
  • After a large-formation skydive, two skydivers died after a canopy collision on final approach to landing.

How can jumpers avoid collisions?

  • With modern aircraft that can carry a large number of jumpers, drop zones commonly drop jumpers on multiple passes while climbing to full altitude. If the aircraft remains at full power and in a climb attitude during these passes, a jumper exiting from a side door may strike the tail. The danger increases if the jumper makes a student-type exit (a poised exit into the relative wind with the head up, feet down and body spread out). While fatal accidents of this type occur infrequently, they are also easily preventable. The last U.S. fatal incident that involved a jumper making a hop-and-pop exit out of a climbing airplane was in 2008, although in 2009 a jumper wearing a wingsuit died after striking the tail of a Twin Otter while exiting at 13,000 feet. Additionally, several jumpers have recently suffered injuries from striking the tails of airplanes during climbing, power-on exits. Clearly, the practice of exiting climbing aircraft needs to stop.
    • o The pilot must know the altitude at which jumpers intend to exit and adjust the aircraft attitude appropriately (commonly that means level flight, flaps down and reduced power) before giving clearance to jump.
    • Jumpers must be aware of the danger of tail strikes and wait for the pilot’s clearance to exit. A diving exit gives best separation from the tail.
  • Most drop zones have plenty of landing room. There is little reason for all the jumpers to land in the same congested area, especially when many canopies are in the air.
    • A drop zone should have standardized landing patterns and indications for direction of final approach (such as an arrow or tetrahedron).
    • o It is a canopy pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid other canopies in the air, especially near the landing area, where traffic is high and recovery time low.
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Prior to 1993, a landing fatality occurred about once every other year. Generally, skydivers who didn’t see and avoid obstacles appeared in this category. Then, manufacturers introduced main canopies with truly high performance, and jumpers loaded them heavily. For the last 20 years, almost half of skydiving deaths—canopy collisions and landing accidents—occurred after the jumpers had open, normally functioning canopies, and approximately one-third of those total deaths have been jumpers attempting to land. The circumstances in 2013 are depressingly similar:

  • Three skydivers under high-performance canopies turned onto final approach too near the ground to complete their turns. Due to their high speeds and descent rates during their turns, they could not survive their landings.
  • Two jumpers encountered obstacles. One made a low, 180-degree turn toward the normal landing area, which caused the canopy to dive to the ground. The other jumper snagged a portion of his canopy on a tree and the result was significant enough to swing him away from his intended landing area. He struck a spectator, and only the spectator survived.
  • A tandem instructor drowned after the wind from an advancing thunderstorm pushed him and his student away from the intended landing area. They landed in a lake. The student safely made it to the shore.
  • A jumper used his front-riser dive loops to increase speed on final approach. He was apparently unable to transition from the dive loop to his toggle on one side, which caused a high-speed, diving turn into the ground.

What can a jumper do to steer a canopy safely to the ground?

It’s a recurring theme from year to year, but the song remains the same: Select the correct canopy for your body weight and experience level. Selecting equipment based on high landing performance is a choice, but with it comes risk. Do you really want to trade the flexibility to make a mistake near the ground for swoop performance? You should make this decision conscientiously and understand its consequences and limitations. A motorcycle rider decked out in leather and padding on a hot day said, “I dress for the crash, not for the cruise.” The same concept strongly applies to skydiving equipment selection by substituting “most landings” for “cruise” and “something going wrong” for “crash.” What could be a minor mistake under a lightly loaded canopy could be a fatal mistake under a highly loaded, performance-oriented canopy.

  • Be aware of landing conditions. Weather, field elevation, equipment familiarity and canopy traffic are some of the factors that influence safety on landing. Being aware of these risks and making more conservative decisions increase the likelihood of a safe landing.
  • Understand the performance characteristics of your canopy. Try turns and landing procedures while still far above the ground to get a feel for the canopy’s performance. This is especially important when jumping an unfamiliar or smaller canopy.
  • If it appears that it will be difficult to make it back to the intended landing area, identify alternatives early. Don’t find yourself having one shot at a safe landing. Furthermore, when in doubt, take the alternative. One skydiving sage said, “It is much better to walk back to the airport than to find yourself riding in an ambulance.”
  • Near the ground, steer your canopy for obstacle avoidance. However, a major turn near the ground can be as deadly as the worst obstacle landing. Usually, a very minor correction is sufficient to avoid an obstacle.
  • Spectators should not be a landing hazard. The drop zone operator generally restricts where non-skydivers can travel on the drop zone. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the skydiver steering the canopy to avoid spectators and other jumpers on the drop zone.

OTHER (2—8%)
Most years there are deaths that don’t fit into the established categories. This year, there were two:

  • A skydiver had a fully inflated main canopy. Despite the fact that video shows he had a properly fastened chest strap in the aircraft, some time after opening, he fell out of his harness. His fully open parachute and harness, with the chest strap unfastened, landed miles away.
  • During a 15-way canopy formation skydive, a major wrap occurred. Two pairs entangled. One pair released their entangled main canopies and landed safely under their reserves. The other pair experienced difficulties when one jumper cut away and the other jumper’s leg remained entangled with the first jumper’s main. He was unable to clear the canopy from his leg or to maintain stable flight under his own canopy. He released his main, but the canopy around his leg didn’t separate from his body or allow full inflation of his reserve.

How could these accidents have been prevented?

  • With hundreds of jumps experience, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when a canopy opens cleanly and is in normal flight. We know well the hazards of canopy collisions and landing problems, but it is also critical to stay safe throughout the entire canopy flight. For example, extreme maneuvers can cause a canopy to collapse or induce a malfunction. Our harnesses are now fairly foolproof, but an unfastened chest strap defeats the purpose of a harness, which is to get you to the ground securely. Skydivers undo their chest straps for many reasons, such as achieving better performance or preparing for a water landing. However, doing so can potentially compromise safety.
  • Canopy formation skydiving has a number of identified risks. Section 6-6 of the Skydiver’s Information Manual describes CF procedures.
    • Problems that occur well above normal breakoff altitude allow some time for response, but, as the SIM says, jumpers still must “react quickly and creatively.”
    • CF jumpers should carry a hook knife to literally cut away equipment (although the jumper who died in 2013 had equipped himself properly with hook knives).
    • The SIM also says, “In many cases, the emergency is one that can’t be prepared for in advance; it may even be a problem no one imagined could happen.”

Lessen the risks of canopy relative work with a good plan, effective communication, plenty of altitude and experience appropriate to the challenge level of the dive.

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Modern parachute equipment is one of the reasons the number of fatalities has gone down over the last few decades. But in addition to selecting the right canopies, there are other opportunities that some skydivers haven’t taken advantage of:

  • Automatic Activation Devices. The AAD is a proven lifesaving piece of equipment. Valuable as it is, it is only part of a strategy for skydiving safely, including:
    • A well-trained skydiver committed to safety who is current on emergency procedures.
    • General adherence to safe skydiving practices.
    • Well-maintained equipment.
    • Safety consciousness by skydivers and drop zone staff.
  • Reserve Static Lines. Simple and effective, reserve static lines (including main-assisted-reserve-deployment devices) are basic pieces of equipment that complement AADs. An AAD doesn’t protect against a low cutaway unless it has sufficient altitude to sense the increased fall rate, re-arm itself and activate the reserve in time for an opening. In 2013, three incidents involved cutaways that were too low for the AADs to re-arm and initiate the reserve openings in time. An RSL will start the reserve deployment as soon as the jumper separates from the main canopy.
  • Hard Helmets. There has long been a debate about helmets. Helmet? No helmet? Hard? Soft? What we can say is that a hard helmet provides an extra layer of protection for the brain in the event of a collision or bad landing.

There is no jump so important that it cannot be delayed or cancelled if the conditions are not right. High winds create turbulence that may make landing a parachute unsafe. Even if the weather at the drop zone is within limits, rapidly changing weather or approaching storm fronts can make it unsafe to jump or fly. When in doubt, wait it out.

Twenty-two of the 24 skydivers who died were male, representing about 92 percent of the year’s fatalities.

The background of those who died in 2013 tells a critical story. Decades ago, the typical skydiver who suffered a mishap was young, inexperienced and likely using something other than the best equipment. When you consider the averages for those who died in 2013, the age was 44, the number of jumps was more than 1,800, the time in the sport was more than 15 years and the main-canopy wing loading was about 1.3:1. Only three of the group did not meet the requirements of a USPA A license. One was at the C-license level. The remainder exceeded the requirements of a USPA D license. The inescapable lesson is that experience is not a guarantee of safety. High-performance canopies and technically demanding jumps clearly show that complacency is not something we can afford in skydiving.

Skydiving risks are now highly manageable, as shown by the decreased number of fatal mishaps, especially in relation to the growing number of participants. Yet clearly there are still risks on every jump that jumpers need to manage. Fortunately, most of these risks are well known. The challenge is for each of us to consider these risks when selecting equipment and when preparing for and executing every skydive.


Skydiving-Related Aircraft Incidents

by USPA Director of Government Relations Randy Ottinger

There were no fatal aircraft accidents during skydiving operations in 2013. Previous years without fatal accidents include 2011 and 2000. During the 10-year period ending in 2013, the sport averaged 1.4 fatal jump plane accidents annually with an average of 3.5 fatalities per year. The numbers are a substantial improvement over the previous 10-year period, in which the sport averaged 2.2 fatal jump plane accidents annually with an average of 8.6 fatalities per year.

In 2013, National Transportation Safety Board records show two jump plane accidents that caused minor injuries to their pilots and five other accidents that caused no injuries. As in 2012, improper fuel management was the leading cause of jump plane accidents in 2013. Forced landings following the loss of engine power typically result in substantial damage to the airplanes, and in some cases they result in injuries to the pilot. Aircraft operators and pilots must calculate the usable fuel necessary to complete each flight with the Federal Aviation Administration-required 30-minute fuel reserves.

Two well-publicized accidents could easily have proven fatal for the participants:

  • In May, over East Moriches, New York, an instructor’s drogue deployed as the tandem pair climbed out onto the step of a Cessna 182. The pair fell free of the airplane as the drogue caused substantial damage to the horizontal stabilizer. The pilot landed safely, as did the tandem pair. The NTSB determined the probable cause to be “the inadvertent deployment of the skydiving instructor's drogue chute when he exited the airplane, resulting in it contacting and damaging the horizontal stabilizer.”
  • In November, while flying in formation over Superior, Wisconsin, a Cessna 182 and a Cessna 185 collided. The nine skydivers escaped without serious injury, as did both pilots. The 185 pilot successfully landed his damaged plane, and the 182 pilot used his pilot emergency parachute after departing his plane during its in-flight breakup. The NTSB is still investigating this accident.

In the five other incidents:

  • A Cessna 182 experienced a loss of engine power and ditched in a lake near Boulder, Colorado, according to the NTSB factual report. The airplane sustained substantial damage, and the pilot sustained minor injuries. The NTSB determined the probable cause to be “the pilot's failure to adequately clear carburetor icing, resulting in a loss of engine power on final approach following a descent at idle power.”
  • A Cessna 182 near Freemont, Michigan, suffered fuel exhaustion while returning to the airport after dropping four skydivers. During the forced landing, the nose gear collapsed shortly after touchdown and the airplane nosed over. The NTSB determined the probable cause to be “the pilot's improper preflight planning, which resulted in a loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion while in the traffic pattern.”
  • A Cessna 206 near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, suffered a loss of engine power during its descent after dropping skydivers. The aircraft sustained substantial damage when it nosed over and impacted terrain during a forced landing short of the runway. The NTSB factual report indicates the pilot may not have been familiar with the fuel system.
  • A Cessna 182 over Casa Grande, Arizona, experienced a loss of engine power while attempting to land after dropping skydivers. The airplane sustained substantial damage when it encountered rough terrain and nosed over following a forced landing in a field. The NTSB preliminary report indicates that initial examination of the plane found fuel leaking from the wing tanks, though the report makes no determination whether it was usable or unusable fuel.
  • Near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, a Cessna 182 experienced a loss of engine power while attempting to land after dropping skydivers. The airplane sustained substantial damage when it made a forced landing short of the runway. The NTSB determined the probable cause to be “a loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined because no anomalies were found during the post-accident engine examination.”

Piloting a jump plane is among the most demanding of flying jobs, with multiple takeoffs and landings in a variety of conditions and with a variety of loads, along with the need to refuel often throughout the day. Pilots must plan and fly every flight professionally. The USPA Skydiving Aircraft Operations Manual, Jump Pilot Training Syllabus and Flight Operations Handbook are all available under the Group Members tab at Jump pilots and skydiving aircraft operators are encouraged to utilize these resources as part of a comprehensive and proactive safety-management system.


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Dave C
Mon, 05/05/2014 - 10:39

I think it is unfair to mention that 92% of fatalities were males without also mentioning the ratio of males to females in the sport.

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