The Reasons for the Rules
While every skydiving fatality is a tragedy, tandem student and instructor fatalities are doubly so. But the truly tragic part is not just that two lives are often lost in a single accident, it is the fact that most, if not all, tandem fatalities to date could have been avoided by sticking to standard procedures. A trained, professional tandem instructor controls a tandem jump from the ground training to landing, but in spite of that, tandem fatalities have been on the rise over the last five years.
Many of the fatal tandem accidents occurred due to equipment maintenance or packing issues, all of which the instructor could have caught before he donned the rig for the jump. Unlike solo gear, which generally has three handles that are located in the same places on every rig, tandem systems typically have five handles, the location of which varies depending on the manufacturer. Many other variables exist for packing and emergency procedures, depending on what type of tandem system is used.
As a tandem instructor, you should thoroughly train for the type of tandem system you are jumping, and it is up to you to perform the final pre-flight check of the system to determine if it is airworthy, including the student harness condition and adjustment. A careful pre-flight inspection by the instructor could have changed the outcome of at least a dozen fatal tandem jumps. A pre-flight inspection of the handles, pins, drogue and drogue-bridle routing/drogue-release system takes less than 15 seconds to perform in most cases. There is simply no reason to skip this critical process, even if the props are turning and the plane is waiting for you.
USPA and the three major tandem manufacturers in the United States prohibit head-down tandems for good reason. Flying tandems head-down almost always exceeds the rated deployment speed of the tandem system and greatly increases the chance of equipment failure should the reserve deploy while in a head-down position. It also greatly increases the chance of a severe injury or fatality due to the unusual attitude combined with the faster deployment speed. There is also an increased risk of a drogue entanglement should the drogue deploy while the pair are head down. There is simply no viable reason to expose the student or yourself to the additional risk of flying a tandem in a head-down position(or a sit-fly position, for that matter). In spite of these risks, USPA and tandem manufacturers continue to receive reports of tandem instructors performing head-down tandems.
Even though exits with flips and barrel rolls are part of the training for a tandem candidate, tandem instructors should not use these maneuvers as standard operating procedure for tandem exits. In a controlled training environment, they teach the candidate how to handle an unstable exit, and a tandem examiner is in the student position to help ensure that the jump goes as planned. With a real student, it is much easier for a rolling or tumbling exit to settle into a side spin, which can get ugly in a hurry. The chance of a premature drogue or reserve deployment during a tumbling exit is another good reason to skip the acrobatics and work at providing a smooth, stable exit for every tandem jump.
Every instructor should treat tandem jumps as specialized skydives, because tandems are specialized skydives. Sticking with the standard procedures presented in the tandem certification course will minimize the risk for both the student and the instructor. Every jump should end with a smiling, happy student jumping for joy at what he has just accomplished. Use of established procedures and a thorough pre-flight check of your tandem gear will help that happen. Let’s all work together to keep our students as safe as possible.
—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training