Lessons to be Learned - The 2012 Fatality Summary

Canopy landings and malfunctioning main parachutes were the two most common causes of the 19 skydiving deaths in the United States in 2012. However, there are lessons to be learned from every skydiving mishap. Sharing the circumstances in which these tragedies occurred helps the rest of us avoid these situations. This article will take a look at the year as a whole and try to identify the mistakes that skydivers in the U.S. made that resulted in death.

Often, an accident results from a chain of events (for example, when a jumper selects a parachute too advanced for his experience level, jumps in marginal weather conditions, spots poorly at an unfamiliar drop zone and then makes a low turn that results in a landing incident). When something like this happens, it can be difficult to pinpoint the key link in the chain of events that caused the death, but that’s what this article tries to do. The article then groups together the similar deaths to call attention to ongoing danger areas in the sport, as well as emerging trends. In parenthesis after each category title, we’ve listed the number of U.S. deaths in each category followed by the percentage of U.S. skydiving deaths in 2012 that the number represents.

Mini-Glossary
A complete glossary is available on uspa.org

Context
Current USPA membership 34,000-plus
Estimated U.S. skydives in 2011 3,000,000
Estimated skydives in 2012 (U.S.) 3.2 million
Estimated tandem jumps during 2012 (U.S.) 500,000
Average annual skydiving deaths for the last 10 years (U.S.) 23
Skydiving deaths in 2012 (U.S.) 19

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NO PULL/LOW PULL
(2 DEATHS/10.5 PERCENT)
This section includes those who had what normally would have been adequate time to open a main or reserve parachute but did not do so. Deaths in this category have sharply decreased over the years as a result of the use of automatic activation devices by most jumpers. In the early days of U.S. skydiving, AADs weren’t readily available. When they did become available, generally only students and military freefall parachutists used them. Today, while not everyone uses one, according to one retailer, more than 75 percent of skydivers do. Use of an AAD would most likely have prevented one of the deaths that occurred in this category last year.

  • One jumper was wearing a wingsuit and was using parachute equipment designed for BASE jumping. Additionally, he jumped from an ultralight aircraft at a low air speed and at a low altitude. He began his opening too late.
  • The media reported that another jumper opened neither parachute. No other information was available other than a media comment that he was "known to have hypertension and other medical issues that could cause him to pass out.”

Safety Tips

  • Jumping from ultralight aircraft and jumping without TSO’d skydiving equipment both violate Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
  • A properly calibrated and functioning AAD is an essential piece of backup equipment in skydiving today. In the 1980s, when experienced jumpers did not commonly wear AADs, the No Pull/Low Pull category easily accounted for more than 33 percent of skydiving deaths each year. Through the ’90s to today, this category averages about 17 percent. We can now discuss with the embarrassed jumpers who landed under their AAD-activated reserve parachutes many of the incidents that would once have caused their unexplained deaths.

MALFUNCTION
(6 DEATHS/31.6 PERCENT)
Most skydivers who have been in the sport for years have experienced problems with their main parachutes that required use of their reserves. Of course, a malfunction could happen on a skydiver’s first jump or his 1,000th. From a practical standpoint, a skydiver should be prepared for a malfunction on every jump, and an instructor must be sure his student can handle a malfunction from the first jump on. In 2012, six skydivers faced malfunctions and were unable to respond effectively in time.

  • In separate incidents, five people died after experiencing turning main parachutes on opening and taking no effective action. Two of the jumpers were students, another had less than 100 jumps, and two had about 700 jumps.
    • In three of the incidents, the jumpers cut away without enough altitude for their reserves to fully open. In one case, the cause of the turn may have been a broken steering line. Another jumper released a spinning main parachute (investigators could not determine the cause of the spin) only 200 feet above the ground. In another, the pilot chute caught in an end cell of the main canopy.
    • A tandem pair died under what initially appeared to be a good main parachute that began a turn that continued until landing. One steering toggle may have been released.
  • Another tandem pair apparently experienced a malfunction with separation of the drogue from the tandem main parachute. The tandem instructor deployed the reserve parachute, but the main also opened, and the two inflated canopies, with the main canopy and suspension lines passing through the reserve lines, rotated toward the ground. The tandem student did not survive the downplane landing.

Safety Tips

Packing a parachute includes inspecting the parachute for wear and correct assembly of components. Today, many skydivers use professional parachute packers. Who are probably not certified parachute riggers. In fact, it may be someone far less experienced who is packing under the supervision of a rigger. How the main parachute is inspected and packed obviously has a lot to do with how much a jumper is going to enjoy the canopy ride. If you don’t pack the main yourself, know your packer. It’s worth a few dollars more—or a missed load—to have an experienced, conscientious packer whose track record you know well do the packing and inspection of your equipment.

  • We can attribute the incidents involving a spinning main parachute with no obvious action on the part of the jumpers to at least two causes:
    1. Improper emergency procedures. A spin is disorienting. It’s easy to lose track of time and altitude under this condition. A highly loaded parachute will rapidly descend in a spin. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-1.C is titled “Take Action,” which is the crucial response to any kind of an opening problem.
      • Is the canopy controllable? Just after opening, check to see whether you can steer and flare the canopy. If not, begin emergency procedures for a canopy malfunction.
      • Remember that you can steer and flare most canopies using the rear risers, as well as the toggles. If you can’t use one or both toggles, you can steer and flare with the rear risers, although it may take more effort. At a safe altitude, practice using the rear risers to control the canopy. A skydiver should be prepared to use risers for steering or countering a turn on opening on any jump. The technique may be able to keep a turning canopy flying straight long enough to assess the problem while staying clear of other canopies.
      • SIM Section 5-1.E calls for experienced jumpers to “take the appropriate actions“ by 1,800 feet in the case of a malfunction. Remember, a cutaway that is perfectly appropriate at 1,800 feet can be fatal at lower altitudes. In 2012, some jumpers did not survive cutaways at 400 feet and below.
    2. A physical problem with the jumper. Was it a hard opening that may have stunned the jumper? Was there some medical problem or something else that incapacitated the person? Or did some physical problem complicate choosing and executing correct and timely emergency procedures?
  • SIM Section 5-1.E discusses responses to having both the main and reserve canopies open. While two canopies open can be benign, the extreme circumstance is that they spin around each other or form a downplane. The suggested response to this, if there is no entanglement, is to “disconnect the reserve static line if altitude permits” and to “cut away the main canopy and steer the reserve to a normal landing.” However, this may not have been feasible in the tandem downplane accident reported in 2012, because the main canopy passed through the suspension lines of the reserve canopy. Investigators could not determine the cause of the drogue-attachment failure.

COLLISIONS
(2 DEATHS/10.5 PERCENT)
Colliding with another skydiver in freefall or under canopy is a recipe for disaster. Two jumpers died in 2012 after collisions near pull altitude.

  • One jumper experienced what appeared to be a minor collision in freefall while a jumper was docking near the end of a formation skydive. The struck jumper was apparently incapacitated, as witnesses on the ground and in the air reported that he made no attempt to deploy either parachute. His equipment did not include an AAD.
  • Two skydivers’ main parachutes entangled just after opening. One jumper released his main parachute and landed safely under his reserve parachute. The other jumper stayed with her main parachute until she cut away at about 400 feet. Her emergency procedures may have been complicated by having the other jumper’s cutaway canopy still in her lines or by the fact that she was wearing a wingsuit. Although her reserve canopy inflated just before she hit the ground, she landed hard enough to suffer a fatal injury.

Safety Tips

  • Planning an end to a formation skydive with enough altitude for safe horizontal separation is critical. A 180-degree turn away from the formation and good forward movement to ensure clear airspace around and below the skydiver during opening are necessary, as well.
  • A good wave-off as an indication that you are about to pull lets any jumpers above you and out of your field of vision know that a parachute is about to open
  • .

  • Obtaining clear airspace is particularly important if equipment (e.g., jumpsuit wings or cameras) may complicate your steering or emergency procedures.
  • Remaining level with the formation while docking can help to reduce the chances of being injured due to vertical collisions caused by dropping onto the formation from above.
  • A properly functioning AAD is a proven backup device for an incapacitated jumper.
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LANDING PROBLEMS
(7 DEATHS—36.8 PERCENT)
Obviously, there’s little else that’s more basic to a skydive than landing a parachute. However, since the mid-1990s, when manufacturers introduced truly high-performance parachutes, jumpers have needed more skill to land safely. Prior to that time, a landing fatality occurred an average of once every two years. Since then, landing deaths have represented about one-third of annual fatalities. 2012 was no exception. It appears that most of the incidents happened under small (the average reported size was 107 square feet), highly loaded canopies. The jumpers who died had an average of 13 years in the sport, so lack of canopy piloting experience probably wasn’t much of a factor. Here’s how the incidents occurred:

  • It appears that five canopy pilots died after executing 270-degree turns to landing. While this is a common high-performance landing maneuver, if misjudged, it can result in injury or death.
  • One jumper at a high-field-elevation landing area died in an unintentional water landing in a cold lake after experiencing changing wind conditions.
  • Another canopy pilot encountered a dust devil—a localized, spinning, thermally caused, vertical column of air—while under a 76-square-foot canopy at about 100 feet. At that altitude, he could not stabilize the canopy in time for a safe landing.

Safety Tips

  • Select the correct equipment. High-performance, cutting-edge canopies are impressive, but they are clearly not for everyone in every circumstance. The greater the performance level of a canopy, the greater demand for care in operation. For most jumpers, the ideal main canopy is one that they could land safely regardless of whether they have an injury, experience turbulent weather conditions, have a minor control problem or land off the DZ. Jump conditions are not always perfect and mistakes do happen. Select a canopy you can live with.
  • Regardless of your canopy’s size, carefully consider the current weather conditions. No sport jump is so important that it can’t be delayed for better conditions.
  • While USPA does not mandate that experienced skydivers wear flotation gear when jumping near water, doing so is just common sense. During unintentional water landings, things get busy quickly. Having an inflated flotation device before entering the water may make the difference in whether you survive or not.
  • Although apparently not a factor this year, something to consider when landing in moderate to high winds is to avoid the significant turbulence that will be downwind of obstacles such as tree lines and buildings.
  • Jumpers can and should steer their canopies near the ground for obstacle avoidance, but understand that making a hard turn near the ground under a high-performance canopy can be as deadly as hitting an obstacle. A minor turn should be enough to avoid hitting something or someone.
  • When planning a high-performance landing, ensure safe separation from obstacles when coming out of your turn to final.

OTHER
(2 DEATHS—10.5 PERCENT)
The two deaths in 2012 in this category appear to be directly related to the health of the skydivers. In both instances, after normal jumps and what appeared to be normal openings, the skydivers made little or no attempt to steer their canopies. Age may have been a factor, as one jumper was in his late 50s and the other in his 70s.

Safety Tips

  • Tandem instructors are required to have Federal Aviation Administration Third-Class Medical Certificates. Having regular medical checkups is a good practice for any jumper who may have risk factors such as being older.
  • Medical impairment may have caused some of the 2012 deaths listed in other categories.
2012 Demographics
(Statistics on those who dies)
  Average Median
Number of Jumps 2,049 850
Years in the Sport 14 11
Age 46 47
Average - The sum of a set of values divided by the total number of values.
Median - The middle value of a set of values arranged in ascending order.

FEATURE20134-15GENERAL COMMENTS
Experience level. The jump experience of skydivers who die in the sport has shifted to the high end. When the sport was in its infancy, students represented about 33 percent of the fatalities in any given year. In 2012, students (including two tandem students) represented 16 percent of the deaths, whereas people with more than 1,000 jumps represented 42 percent. Fifteen of the jumpers (80 percent) were at or above the D-license experience level. The average age of U.S. skydivers who died was 46. By way of comparison, in 1963, 35 percent of the people who died were students and about 6 percent had reached the D-license level. None had more than 1,000 jumps. The average age was 27.

Canopy collisions. Skydivers’ colliding under open canopies, especially in the landing pattern, has been a real problem in the last 10 years as more canopy pilots are practicing high-performance landings. USPA and DZ operators have been making a real effort to separate those making high-performance landings from others by arranging for separate landing areas or passes. The good news in 2012 was that no fatalities resulted from canopy collisions in the landing pattern.

Hard openings. Zero-porosity canopies and suspension lines that do not stretch can injure or incapacitate a jumper who has a hard opening. Some of the difficult-to-explain fatalities in which the jumpers took no timely action under canopy may have started with exceptionally hard openings. Following manufacturers’ recommendations on packing can eliminate hard openings.

Wingsuits. Skydiving is all about pushing new frontiers. Wingsuit skydivers certainly do that. The maneuverability and glide of the suits keep YouTube busy. But a wingsuit skydive is not just another jump. The suit itself and the exit, freefall, opening and emergency procedures depart from what a skydiver is used to and add complexity to the jump. SIM Section 2-1 requires that jumpers have a minimum of 200 skydives in order to jump a wingsuit. Additionally, SIM Section 6-9 recommends that all jumpers, regardless of experience level in other disciplines, seek out thorough training that covers all of the elements contained in Section 6-9 of the SIM. The deaths of two wingsuit flyers this year and others in previous years show that both caution and experience are necessary to make a wingsuit jump safely.

Gender. Female skydivers represent about 15 percent of membership. This year, females were 12 percent of the fatalities.

Tandem instructors. Tandem parachuting is one of the major advances in the sport’s history and is a great way to introduce people to the world of skydiving. Despite the death of a tandem instructor and two students in 2012, the safety record of tandem parachuting is excellent, especially in relation to other methods of instruction. However, a tandem student, especially on a first jump, has limited training, so the tandem instructor has a special responsibility for the safety of the entire jump. Of course, the drop zone operator shares that responsibility and should ensure that the tandem instructor is current and has the experience, judgment, health and proficiency to work with students.

Senior skydivers and health. Deaths as a result of medical problems during jumps are becoming more frequent. One reason is that, because of dependable AADs, mysterious deaths that might have been reported as no-pull incidents are being identified as health related. Forty years ago, a skydiver who was in his late 50s or 60s was a rarity because of the characteristics of canopy landings. With modern equipment, you don’t have to be a 20-year-old paratrooper to jump. In fact, about 40 percent of USPA’s members are more than 40 years old, and about 15 percent are over 50. Unfortunately, this is when health problems crop up in our population. Regular physicals, especially for those with the added responsibility of instructing other skydivers, are just common sense.

CONCLUSION
The safety of the sport continues to improve. Equipment and procedures have been fine tuned over the decades resulting in decreased deaths from causes that have plagued the sport since its beginning. The biggest opportunity for improvement in safety remains the selection and operation of main parachutes.

The 2012 Fatality Index Rate
One way to examine the safety of skydiving is to normalize the data and create a fatality index rate for each year. An index system takes into account the total number of skydives and the total number of fatalities, to create a fatality rate for each 100,000 jumps. By looking at the data this way, it is easy to see that even though the number of fatalities has increased and decreased over the years, the general index rate shows that there has been marked improvement in the safety of the sport over the past six decades.

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Skydiving-Related Aircraft Incidents

by USPA Director of Government Relations Randy Ottinger

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated two 2012 skydiving flights that were fatal for their pilots.

  • In the first, a balloon pilot launched into deteriorating weather conditions that included thunderstorms. As the balloon ascended to the cloud base, all seven skydivers safely made their exits at the pilot’s urging. Eventually, wind and heavy hail destroyed the balloon, and the pilot died. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident to be “the pilot's intentional flight into adverse weather. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's failure to obtain a weather briefing and his failure to follow the balloon manufacturer's published emergency procedure for weather deterioration during flight.”
  • In the second fatal aircraft incident, a Beechcraft G18S (Twin Beech) carrying 12 skydivers was on jump run with five of the skydivers standing outside the door preparing to exit and some of the others near the door. All the skydivers exited after hearing the stall warning, and several reported the airplane rolling to a position that they described as “partially inverted” as they went out the door. Several witnesses later reported seeing the airplane in a near-vertical dive prior to impact. As of early March, the NTSB had yet to determine a probable cause for this accident.

There were a number of non-fatal skydiving-related aircraft accidents in 2012 in which improper fuel management was the leading cause. In two incidents, the pilots, who were the sole occupants, suffered minor injuries, and their Cessna 182s received substantial damage from forced landings after fuel exhaustion. In two separate incidents, one involving a Cessna 205 and the other a Cessna 206, both of which were carrying six skydivers, the pilots and skydivers suffered no injuries but their planes received substantial damage from forced landings after fuel exhaustion. Additionally, a Cessna 182 and two Cessna Caravans, all of which had operating engines, sustained substantial damage following hard landings. These three accidents, as well as the fuel-management accidents, demonstrate the need for thorough initial and recurrent pilot training.

Further non-fatal skydiving-related aircraft accidents include:

  • A Cessna 206 with six skydivers on board experienced a loss of engine power while climbing through 2,500 feet. Four of the skydivers jumped from the plane, while the remaining two elected to stay with the pilot for the forced landing. None of the occupants suffered injuries in the landing, but the plane incurred extensive damage.
  • A Cessna 182 received damage to its right horizontal stabilizer and elevator when a skydiver had a premature main-canopy deployment during exit. The other skydivers jumped, and the pilot made an uneventful landing.
  • The pilot of a Cessna 182 carrying four skydivers lost control of the airplane while maneuvering around clouds. After he recovered from the dive, the pilot determined conditions were not conducive for skydiving operations and landed with the skydivers still on board. A post-flight inspection revealed damage to the top skin of both wings.
  • A pilot started a Cessna 182 engine by manually rotating the propeller. When the engine started, the airplane made an unpiloted high-speed taxi until it impacted a hangar door, which damaged the engine, both wings and the right main landing gear.
  • After dropping skydivers, a King Air pilot made a gear-up landing.

The USPA Skydiving Aircraft Operations Manual, Jump Pilot Training Syllabus and Flight Operations Handbook are all available under the Group Members tab at uspa.org. 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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