The Safest Year—The 2009 Fatality Summary
To find a year in which there were fewer U.S. skydiving deaths than 2009, we have to go back to 1961, when there were 14. Considering that USPA membership is more than nine times what it was in 1961 (and that 2009’s members almost certainly made more than nine times the number of jumps), the 16 skydiving deaths that occurred in 2009 indicate that our sport has made real advances in safety. However, anyone who has been touched by the death of a jumper knows that a single fatality is one too many. When we consider the loss that these deaths represent—and the fact that most could have been easily prevented in ways identified years ago—it is clear that we still have a lot of room for improvement.
In contrast to the individual incident reports that appear in Parachutist and on USPA’s website, this article will take a look at the year as a whole to try to identify the mistakes that resulted in death. Similar deaths are grouped together to remind us of ongoing danger areas as well as to call attention to emerging trends. In parenthesis after each category title are the number of 2009 deaths in that category and the percentage of the year’s overall skydiving fatalities that the number represents.
A fatality is placed in this category when deployment begins at an appropriate altitude, but the main parachute system does not function as intended, and the reserve system is not activated (or is not activated in time). USPA’s membership data indicates that a malfunction of the main parachute system happens about once every 750 jumps. However, some skydivers make thousands of jumps without experiencing a malfunction while others have one on their first jump. From a practical standpoint, each skydiver should be prepared for a malfunction on every jump, and instructors must be sure that each of their students can handle a malfunction from the first jump on. In 2009, five skydivers faced malfunctions that they were unable to respond to effectively, in time.
In 2009, all five of the deaths in this category apparently resulted from malfunctions that began with improperly assembled equipment.
- One relatively inexperienced skydiver died when he experienced a pilot chute in tow that reportedly was the result of a misrigged pilot chute bridle. He did not use his reserve parachute.
- A skydiver with slightly more than 100 jumps fell from his harness, which he had not put on properly, at the completion of the freefall portion of a wingsuit jump.
- A tandem instructor and his student died after they landed under a spinning main canopy. The instructor released the malfunctioned main canopy by pulling his cutaway handle, but the main stayed attached to the container due to a misrouted reserve static line. The reserve handle was found out of its pocket, but for an unknown reason, the reserve had not been pulled.
- One novice jumper experienced a canopy that was spinning mildly after opening. She took no effective action for the remainder of the canopy ride and was found with a steering toggle still in one of her hands.
- Comprehensive equipment checks, including pre-boarding and pre-exit inspections, should be routine. The user should check over equipment before putting it on, before entering the aircraft and immediately before exiting. This applies to any skydiver but is especially true for those who are instructing students or coaching jumpers with low experience levels. This becomes increasingly important when a skydiver is undertaking an unusual jump such as a wingsuit, demonstration, night or high-altitude jump.
- A properly installed and calibrated automatic activation device (AAD) might have prevented one of these deaths.
- A pilot chute in tow is a total (container closed) malfunction that requires immediate action. When passing through 3,000 feet in freefall, a jumper has less than 15 seconds to start a reserve deployment. The Skydiver’s Information Manual (SIM) Section 5-1 E—Total Malfunctions says that jumpers should take action (e.g. initiate reserve deployment) within two seconds.
In the instance of the jumper whose canopy began a turn that continued through landing, her short stature and loose harness might have made reaching the toggles a challenge. Jumpers must ensure that they can reach all handles and the toggles before jumping. If a jumper releases only one toggle, a turn will result. A spin is disorientating and can be a big enough distraction that the jumper may lose focus on altitude while trying to fix the problem. SIM Section 5-1 addresses skydiving emergencies. With a spinning canopy:
- Just after opening, check to ensure that you can steer and flare the canopy. If not, begin emergency procedures for a canopy malfunction.
- Remember that you can steer and flare the canopy using the rear risers as well as the toggles. If a jumper can’t use one or both toggles, he can use the rear risers, which take more effort but will work for steering and flaring. At a safe altitude on routine skydives, jumpers should practice using the rear risers for canopy control. Preparing to use the risers for steering or countering a turn on opening should be part of normal procedures immediately after opening.
Colliding with another skydiver in freefall or under canopy or striking an aircraft on exit is a recipe for disaster.
Canopy-landing-pattern collisions have received well-deserved attention over the last few years. One of the four jumpers who died in collisions in 2009 died in that circumstance.
- Two jumpers collided on their final landing approach. One was coming back from a long spot; the lower jumper was flying a standard approach. The upper jumper apparently saw the other jumper just before they collided at about 200 feet above the ground. The lower jumper’s canopy engulfed the upper jumper and they landed entangled. The lower jumper did not survive the landing.
Two died in separate incidents when they struck the jump plane during exit.
- A wingsuit jumper on a planned long-distance jump immediately opened his wings when exiting. This resulted in enough initial lift for him to strike the relatively high horizontal stabilizer on the aircraft.
- An instructor on a 2-way jump was in the aircraft door facing inward when the student accidently pulled the instructor’s reserve. The deploying reserve pulled him over the tail of the aircraft. The aircraft landed without a problem. The instructor’s parachute remained open, but he was apparently killed on impact with the tail.
- One jumper died after a formation skydive when his canopy spiraled on opening and he entangled with the canopy of another jumper on the load, who was below. The pair spun all the way to the ground. The lower jumper may have been unconscious under canopy. He did not survive the landing.
Over the last five years, several jumpers have died after striking the aircraft on exit. Leaving the aircraft while it is still in a climbing configuration, exiting vigorously and using large-wing jumpsuits are all risk factors, especially on aircraft with relatively low horizontal stabilizers (e.g. Beechcraft King Air, Cessna Caravan). To minimize risk:
- Insist that the pilot put the plane in jump-run configuration prior to any exit, including hop-and-pops. The cost of putting flaps down, leveling the plane and pulling back on power is a lot lower than replacing or repairing a horizontal stabilizer or shutting down the DZ to deal with a fatality.
- Be sure, through jump lights or verbal commands from the pilot, that you are cleared to jump. This ensures that the pilot has had time to get the aircraft in jump configuration and attitude. Leaving a jump aircraft when it is in climb attitude and at full power increases the possibility of a tail strike.
- A diving exit gives best clearance from the aircraft.
- SIM Section 6-9 states, “To prevent a collision with the horizontal stabilizer of the aircraft, a wing-suit jumper should exit with the flight surfaces collapsed for one second: (1) legs together (2) arms against the side.”
- While in freefall, awareness of the airspace beneath us is a good way to avoid colliding with another jumper opening below. At any time during the jump, but particularly near opening time, a jumper below spells danger. Watch for others and give them plenty of clearance. Horizontal separation is the important element—vertical separation isn’t enough given the different amount of time it takes for canopies to open. A good wave-off before pulling lets other jumpers know a parachute is about to open.
- After opening, make a quick check of surrounding airspace. If another jumper has line twists, he will be unable to steer. Canopies that are heading toward each other can quickly cover a lot of ground. Check your airspace after deployment and be prepared to immediately steer away from any nearby canopies, especially if a nearby jumper is unable to immediately control his own canopy.
- Watch for other jumpers under canopy. Near the ground, jumpers tend to concentrate on the landing area and forget about other canopies. “The low man has the right-of-way” is the rule in freefall and under canopy, but the cautious jumper will look around and never assume that other jumpers will see him. Finally, most drop zones have plenty of landing room. There is no reason for all the jumpers on a large load to land in the same congested area. This is particularly true on light-wind days where there may be some confusion as to what the standard approach is.
- Early in the canopy ride, if you find yourself having difficulty making it to the designated landing area, find a safe alternative place to land.
Landing Problems (3—19%)
Three people died in 2009 performing one of the most basic activities on a parachute jump—landing. Manufacturers began optimizing main parachutes for high-performance in the early 1990s. Prior to that time, a landing death was rare—on average one every other year. Since then, landing has become one of the most dangerous phases of the jump. This year’s total of three landing deaths is the lowest annual number of landing deaths since 1992. However, the jumpers died in basically the same ways as other jumpers have in the recent past.
Two jumpers, both using canopies sized well below 100 square feet, died when they failed to get back to the intended landing area.
- One initially set up for landing in a sports field but then began a turn toward another landing area too low. He struck a tree while still turning.
- Another jumper, after stowing his slider, found that he couldn’t make it back to the drop zone. He chose to land near a highway, but his highly wing-loaded canopy was still descending rapidly when he landed.
- One jumper simply started his turn too low.
- Select the right equipment. High-performance, cutting-edge canopies are not for everyone. A canopy that lands great on an open DZ or at a swoop pond may not do well landing in a small clearing.
- It’s a good practice to reach for your rear risers as your canopy opens. Immediately after opening, check your canopy and the airspace around you. With your hands on rear risers, you can do a quick riser turn to avoid any nearby canopy traffic. Then see where you are—you can use your rear risers to orient your canopy toward the landing area before you perform post-deployment procedures such as unstowing toggles or stowing the slider. That way, you will have a better chance of reaching your intended landing area if you are at a marginal opening point for making it back.
- If it looks like you might not make it back to the landing area, identify alternatives while you still have plenty of altitude. No matter how high-performance your canopy is, it is still a glider—go- arounds are an option only for powered aircraft.
- When in doubt, choose an alternate landing area if it is safer than trying to make it back. It is much better to land in the middle of a wide-open field than to find yourself just a little too low to make it over the trees right next to the packing area.
- Know your canopy handling characteristics thoroughly. Experiment at a safe altitude, not near the ground. Land crosswind rather than making a low turn that you might not be able to complete.
- Jumpers can and should steer their canopies to avoid obstacles, but understand that a radical turn near the ground can be as deadly as landing in power lines or other obstacles. A turn of less than 90 degrees should be enough to avoid hitting something.
The main or initiating cause of a fatality determines which category a death is placed in. When a skydiving fatality falls outside of the broad categories we look at year to year, it appears in the “other” category. For 2009, 25 percent fall into this category. All are attributable to either health issues or problems that arose during canopy formation (CF) skydives.
- On one jump, three experienced CF competitors using high-performance, cross-braced canopies entangled while practicing for a competition. One was able to clear the entanglement, but the other two landed with their canopies still entangled and did not survive.
- Two skydivers in separate incidents died from natural causes (as determined by the coroner). One jumper on a solo sport rig died in freefall. The other was a tandem instructor who died while under an open canopy; his tandem student landed the canopy successfully.
- The two CF skydivers who died were highly experienced jumpers and CF competitors. They were jumping elliptical, cross-braced-tri-cell canopies that are generally used for swooping. CF jumps by their nature are more risky than the average solo jump. Given that risk, the dive should be carefully planned and executed. SIM Section 6-6 includes suggestions for CF jumpers.
Under the Influence
One of those who died in 2009 tested positive for cannabis in his system. Though he was not on an instructional skydive and was directly responsible for no one but himself, his actions could have endangered other skydivers, spectators and the drop zone itself. Most would agree that drugs or alcohol—which impede a person’s decision-making abilities and reaction times—just don’t make sense while skydiving.
Wingsuits are new and different, and footage of the maneuverability and glide achieved while wearing them keeps YouTube® busy. But jumping a wingsuit is not just another skydive. All phases of the skydive, including exit, freefall, opening, emergency procedures and the suit itself, are different on a wingsuit jump. Wingsuits add a great deal of complexity to the jump. At the most recent USPA Board meeting, the board voted to add a Basic Safety Requirement that stipulates that a skydiver must have a minimum of 200 jumps prior to jumping with a wingsuit. Additional wingsuit recommendations are in SIM Section 6-9. The death of a novice skydiver this year and other wingsuit-related deaths in previous years show that learning how to safely make a wingsuit jump requires both caution and experience.
Senior Skydivers and Health
Deaths attributed to medical problems during jumps are becoming more frequent. One possible reason is that due to dependable AADs, jumpers who experience health problems on skydives land under open reserve parachutes; their deaths no longer fall into the no-pull category. Also, 40 years ago, few skydivers were in their 50s or 60s, likely due to the landing characteristics of the era’s canopies. With modern equipment, jumpers no longer have to be in the peak condition of a 20-year-old paratrooper. Now, 25.8 percent of USPA members are over age 50, making health problems more likely. Regular physicals, particularly for those who have the added responsibility of instructing, are just common sense.
Automatic Activation Devices
During the 1980s, an average of about 11 people died annually in the no-pull/low-pull category because they didn’t initiate deployment in time. In the 1990s, dependable, easy-to-operate, unobtrusive AADs emerged, and experienced skydivers, not just students, began using them more frequently. Now, most skydivers use AADs. During the past 10 years, the use of this life-saving device has resulted in an average of fewer than four deaths per year due to no-pulls/low-pulls. In 2009, there were no deaths in the no-pull/low-pull category.
Skydiving’s safety record unquestionably improved in 2009. Though operating high-performance canopies safely still appears to challenge skydivers, the lower number of deaths in this category is a very good sign that the times may be changing. Overall, jumpers seem to have made significant improvements in every category of safety.
Skydiving-Related Aircraft Accidents
By Randy Ottinger
USPA Director of Government Relations
No jump-plane accident in 2009 resulted in fatalities. In recent years, the number of aircraft accidents that proved fatal to skydivers has declined, and the numbers are particularly striking compared to figures from the 1990s. These encouraging statistics may be attributed to the reliability of turbine engines, better pilot training or better aircraft maintenance. To continue this positive trend, USPA has addressed the recent National Transportation Safety Board recommendations on jump-plane maintenance and will soon issue guidance on both jump-pilot training and the use of aircraft restraints during skydiving operations.
The aircraft fatality figures don’t include the 10 fatalities that resulted from tail strikes or inadvertent deployments during exit, since USPA already counted those as skydiving fatalities. Not all fatalities here were skydivers or jump pilots—31 were passengers on aircraft that collided with jump planes or were bystanders or observers. Note that the number of accidents and fatalities from 2000 through 2009 is substantially lower than the number that occurred between 1990 and 1999.