My first year here at USPA as director of safety and training has gone by so quickly.
The summer season has faded away, and so have high temperatures, at least in the northern states. Fall is fading to winter, frost is appearing in the morning grass, and if you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, you have probably noticed it is getting colder in freefall.
With the dog days of summer behind us and the home stretch of the skydiving season approaching, it’s important for jumpers to keep their guards up. July is typically the most fatal month in sheer numbers, but the fatality rate stays consistently high through October, even as the season begins winding down.
In the early 1990s, a skydiver reported that an automatic activation device saved his life. This jumper experienced a main parachute malfunction and pulled his cutaway handle but never pulled his reserve ripcord.
Local, state and federal agencies exercise minimal control and supervision over skydiving, recognizing that those most capable of regulating skydiving are those who do it. At the very core of this system is the USPA Safety and Training Advisor, an unpaid volunteer appointed by the USPA Regional Director serving that drop zone.
Cognitive tunneling, which often manifests itself as target fixation in skydiving, is one of the principal causes of accidents that involve human error. Cognitive tunneling is the mental state in which your brain focuses on one thing and, as a result, does not see other relevant data. This perceptual blindness causes our attention to overlook even the most obvious clues to problems that are right in front of us. Metaphorically, a mind’s focus can be either like a floodlight that dimly illuminates a large area or like a spotlight that provides intense clarity on a single subject.
The Rolling Stones sang a popular song titled “Time is on My Side.” Obviously, Mick Jagger never had a high-speed malfunction. After receiving a letter from a concerned skydiver who witnessed an incident resulting from a low cutaway, the Safety and Training Committee discussed the hazards of one high-speed malfunction—spinning line twists—during the February 1-3 USPA Board meeting in Dallas, Texas.
In the interest of safety, USPA formed a Compliance Group to investigate allegations against members of USPA. Although the Compliance Group focuses its efforts on retraining and education rather than penalties, it will suspend or revoke memberships or ratings if its investigations show that such actions are warranted. In 2018, the USPA Compliance Group conducted 21 investigations into allegations against members of USPA, 14 of which resulted in disciplinary actions.
Skydivers all belong to a big mixed family. What was once a niche group has developed into a large, interconnected community. Despite this large network, there are small pockets within our sport that have become isolated. It’s within these small, isolated pockets that bad habits traditionally flourish.
Four hundred and forty-nine. That’s a small number by some standards and a large one by others. To me, it is a much larger number than it should be. This is the number of civilian skydiving fatalities recorded in the United States during the 18 years and three months that I was the director of safety and training for USPA. Each one was a tragedy, with friends and family left in shock as they picked up the pieces in the aftermath of suddenly losing a loved one.
2018 really flew by! I can’t believe it is already time for another wish list, but hopefully you can see to it that all my wishes come true. It’s a long list (and it’ll be my last one as director of safety and training for USPA), but it’s all pretty important stuff. This past year brought a lot of lousy weather, so first of all, I would like to see a bunch of sunny weekends so jumpers can get to their drop zones frequently and the drop zones can stay busy flying lots of loads.
Harry S. Truman once said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” This quote (and many others like it) warns us all that we must know our history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. It comes as no surprise that this also applies directly to skydiving.
Wikipedia defines target fixation as “an attentional phenomenon observed in humans in which an individual becomes so focused on an observed object (be it a target or hazard) that they inadvertently increase their risk of colliding with the object.” Motorcyclists, automobile drivers and even fighter pilots flying strafing runs during World War II have focused so intently on an impending hazard that they actually maneuvered directly into it. And skydivers fall prey to the phenomenon, too.
When you want to check out a new main parachute, chances are you’ll make a solo jump, open higher than usual and spend some time flying the new wing to get used to how it handles. Almost everyone who jumps a new main canopy does. After all, it makes sense. It’s a mystery how the new parachute will steer and flare compared to what you are used to, and who wouldn’t want to make a few jumps on it under controlled conditions with plenty of altitude to learn how to fly it?
A properly sized and adjusted harness-and-container is essential to your safety both in freefall and under canopy. It’s likely that many jumpers who are reading this right now are in real danger of coming out of their harnesses during their next skydives and don’t even realize it.
“When can I downsize to a smaller main canopy?” This is probably the most commonly asked question at every drop zone around the world. It seems like everyone—from newly licensed jumpers to those with thousands of skydives—wants to jump a smaller parachute. The answer to the question is tricky and can mean the difference between an uneventful experience and a serious injury or even fatality.
In a sport that requires correctly functioning equipment for your survival, how much do you really know about your skydiving gear? Each year, fatal and non-fatal accidents stem from issues with skydiving equipment. The vast majority of these could have been avoided had the jumpers simply known more about their gear or performed basic gear checks to discover the problem before boarding or exiting the airplane.
Over the years, many hoped that the wingsuiting community would develop safely without the need for heavy-handed regulation from USPA. Those who opposed a wingsuit instructor rating argued that USPA does not—and should not—require specific training for or regulate advanced skydiving such as freeflying or high-performance canopy piloting. The best example of a skydiving discipline that developed excellent training methods and safety guidelines without requiring USPA regulation is canopy formation skydiving. The pioneers of canopy formation skydiving learned what worked well and what didn’t work well and formulated the best processes and techniques for teaching jumpers who are new to the discipline. Those guidelines continued to evolve and improve, and now it is very rare that a fatality occurs during a canopy formation jump.
For skydivers, springtime weather can be both tricky and frustrating. After freezing all winter, many jumpers head to the drop zone at the first sign of a reasonably warm day, and they may be tempted to jump even if the winds are high or there are lots of clouds. But as the old saying goes, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
If your canopy flies straight both in brakes and with the brakes released but it turns to the right on opening, you have a common problem that frequently has a simple, no-cost solution.
A jumper puts on his rig, boards an airplane and exits the plane at 10,000 feet for a formation skydive with three other jumpers. Soon after the exit, one of his teammates points out that his chest strap is flapping in the wind. It is unthreaded and trailing uselessly behind his back. At deployment time, he manages to hold the two main lift webs together with his left hand and deploy with his right. He lands otherwise uneventfully. The jumper was sure that he checked his chest strap when he went through his multiple gear checks. So if he really checked his gear, what happened?
Has this happened to you?
You’re hot loading a full turbine aircraft, and you’re one of the last on. You scrunch onto that last seat on the straddle bench and scramble to find your seatbelt just as the door shuts, only to discover that someone at the front of the plane skipped a belt. What do you do?
Hard-impact freefall collisions resulting in serious injuries and fatalities were once a common issue with formation skydivers and freeflyers, and now they’re an issue with wingsuiters. Modern wingsuit flying—which now has had more than 20 years to develop training methods and equipment and build a foundation of knowledge—cannot truly be considered a new discipline any longer, but it continues to struggle with injuries and fatalities from collisions in freefall, as well as collisions with the aircraft on exit.
It took almost 25 years of skydiving, but I finally experienced an aircraft emergency as a skydiver. Actually, I would not even classify it as a true emergency, since the engine loss happened at 13,000 feet. As a pilot myself with many hours in this King Air, I knew what was going on and I had a good idea of how the pilot who was flying was going to handle the situation. But seeing how everyone reacted was interesting. Some looked nervous, and some seemed confused about what to do.
For the many skydivers who jump from Cessna 182s or Cessna 206s at their local drop zones, group separation is not much of an issue. If the airplane carries two 2-way or 3-way groups, by the time the second group climbs out and exits, the airplane usually covers enough distance that group separation is not a problem. However, larger airplanes usually mean more groups on board. On top of that, if the jumpers are performing many different disciplines, the group dynamics may be very complicated because they may be falling at very different speeds and not necessarily straight down. (Wingsuit, tracking and angle flyers cover a lot of real estate before breaking off for deployment.) Each jumper in all the various groups must plan and execute the jump properly to ensure that everyone has clear airspace for deployment.
As skydiving continues to progress—with jumpers now enjoying a wide variety of disciplines and piloting faster canopies—it has become more challenging to find clear airspace at deployment time. Since 1999, 11 jumpers have died in canopy collisions. Additionally, there were many instances of collisions that resulted in injuries or cutaways, although the exact number is unknown.
The choices you make when purchasing skydiving gear can literally mean the difference between life and death. The data on the causes of skydiving injuries and fatalities makes it pretty clear that nothing is more important when it comes to gear than the size and type of main canopy you choose to fly and the decisions you make while flying it.
Whether it is a visit to a nearby drop zone during a weekend of normal jump operations or a long trip to a boogie or other special event, it is fun and exciting to head out for new adventures. But it can also be intimidating, especially if you are new to the sport and leaving the nest for the first time. A little planning and preparation will go a long way toward making your experience fun and painless.
(More articles being added every day!)
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