Non-Fatal Incident Summary
By USPA Director of Safety and Training Ron Bell
In late 2018, USPA began the charge to revive its incident reporting system. Since the 1960s, USPA has done a good job tracking fatal incidents in the U.S. and has seen an encouraging drop in fatality rates over the years. However, the number of non-fatal incident reports received from the field has been dismal. The recent push is helping to change that. In 2019, USPA saw a five-fold increase in reporting from the previous year, receiving more reports for the year than in any year in the past two decades.
In all, USPA received 161 incident reports in 2019; 15 of those covered fatal incidents and 15 covered incidents that occurred in 2018. Consequently, this article analyzes the information gained from 131 non-fatal incidents reported for 2019. Although this article doesn’t cover each individual incident, it does provide valuable insights—including the identification of some obvious and not-so-obvious trends—gathered from the information taken as a whole. This article breaks the non-fatal incidents into categories that indicate the primary cause, just as in the 2019 annual fatality summary (“Striving for Zero” by Jim Crouch, April Parachutist). In the absence of adequate historical data on non-fatal incidents, this report compares the percentage of overall 2019 non-fatal incidents that each category represents with the percentage of overall 2019 fatal incidents in the same category.
Landing Problems: 59% (Fatalities—47%)
Three subcategories of landing problems—each requiring different areas of training to avoid or respond to—comprise the overarching category. These subcategories of landing problems are:
- Unintentional low turns: Unplanned low turns, usually to avoid other parachutes in the air or obstacles on the ground.
- Intentional low turns: Intentional high-performance maneuvers for landing. These usually involve a jumper who initiated a high-performance turn at an altitude that was too low for the parachute to return to straight-and-level flight before reaching the ground.
- Non-turn-related incidents: Improper landing techniques, landing on obstacles or encountering other hazards (such as deep water) while under a properly functioning parachute.
Unintentional Low Turns: 2% (Fatalities—27%)
Four of the seven reported cases of unintentional low turns in 2019 ended with loss of life. The three jumpers who survived reported breaking at least one bone. The low incident rate and high fatality rate in this category may indicate that unintentional low turns do not happen very often, but when they do, they lead to catastrophic consequences. However, since we know that jumpers report only a tiny percentage of incidents, it is also feasible that jumpers are reporting only the worst cases. Regardless, the ability to fly and turn in half brakes are life-saving skills. Repeated mental and physical practice (at higher altitudes) is the only way to get comfortable with this mode of flight. Encountering an obstacle at a low altitude is dangerous and stressful. Being well versed with the flight characteristics of a canopy in half-brakes is the best way to overcome the urge to make an inappropriate turn.
Intentional Low Turns: 11% (Fatalities—13%)
Flying a small, highly loaded parachute is a challenge under any circumstance. The witnesses of several of these 14 non-fatal incidents reported that the jumpers started their turns lower than normal. When making high-performance maneuvers close to the ground, the tolerances are very unforgiving. In 11 of the 14 reported instances of intentional low turns, the jumper broke bones. Good swoopers know the entry-gate altitude for their turns; those who live to be great swoopers know when it’s wise to bail out of their turns and have the good sense to do so.
Non-Turn-Related: 46% (Fatalities—7%)
The high incident rate and low fatality rate in this category reinforces the fact that it’s safest to land using a standard, straight-in approach. There were 61 reports of non-turn-related incidents in 2019, and only one of those was fatal, which indicates that even if you encounter a problem during a straight-in approach, 98.4 percent of the time you will survive it.
Before boarding the aircraft, every jumper should take the time to plan their canopy flight from opening to landing. This includes planning for emergencies, including those that might occur during the final leg of the pattern. The reality is that eventually a jump will not go according to plan–just as it didn’t for the 61 jumpers in these reports—and you’ll want to have mentally and physically rehearsed your response.
Excluding tandems, USPA received 46 reports of non-turn-related landing problems in 2019. The vast majority of the jumpers had low experience levels, with just a handful having very high experience: The jumpers had an average of 258 jumps each but a median of only 78. To find out the most common causes of landing injuries to lower experienced jumpers, we broke down the non-turn-related incidents (excluding tandems) into further subcategories. These are:
- Flare/PLF: Flared and/or performed a parachute landing fall poorly
- Obstacle: Hit an obstacle
- Pattern: Performed a poor landing pattern
- Landing: Flared properly but sustained an injury between touching down and coming to a complete stop
- Turbulence: Encountered turbulence, and it was the primary cause of the injury
It is clear that the novice jumpers involved in most of these incidents did not have enough experience to correctly handle the situations they encountered. Learning how to apply landing techniques consistently takes education, understanding and time.
Low or No Deployment: 13% (Fatalities—0%)
Although no jumpers in the U.S. have died from a low or no pull since 2015, the 2019 non-fatal-incident reports show that failure to deploy a canopy in time is still a problem. Interestingly, in the 18 reported incidents in 2019, nine of the jumpers were students and nine held D licenses. This suggests that the cause of no- and low-pull incidents are at two extremes: inexperience and overconfidence.
All of the nine student incidents were rooted in stability issues. Six occurred when the student became unstable and then lost altitude awareness, the other three occurred when the student became unstable and had difficulty finding the handle when reaching to pull. The incidents involving D-license holders were more varied. In one case, the jumper—who may have been hypoxic after exiting from 17,000 feet—had trouble finding his main deployment handle and failed to pull. The AAD saved him. In another case, a wingsuit flyer could not locate the main-deployment handle and his AAD fired as he tumbled when reaching for his reserve.
Each of the 18 low- or no-pull incidents resulted in an AAD activation, six that were saves (the jumper never pulled but the AAD deployed the reserve) and 12 that resulted in other scenarios such as having two canopies out or the AAD activating but not deploying the reserve. Only one incident resulted in a severe injury, which the jumper’s ineffective flare while landing reportedly caused.
All jumpers must deploy their parachutes above their predetermined altitudes, regardless of stability. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-1 recommends that jumpers make no more than two attempts (altitude permitting) at locating the main deployment handle before initiating emergency procedures to deploy the reserve parachute.
Collision in Freefall: 5% (Fatalities—0%)
In 2019, there were four reported instances of non-fatal freefall collisions, which involved a total of seven people. In two of the collisions—one of which occurred during a wingsuit flock and the other during an angle jump—one of the jumpers involved in the collision was knocked unconscious and saved by their AAD. Wingsuit and angle flying are disciplines in which jumpers achieve high horizontal speeds, which leads to a greater risk of being knocked unconscious when a collision occurs. These disciplines require extensive planning, training and execution by all participants to eliminate as much of the risk as possible.
The three categories addressed in this article account for 77 percent of 2019’s reported non-fatal incidents. Although the information gathered from the other 23 percent of reports (which involved incorrectly performed emergency procedures, canopy collisions, collisions with aircraft, malfunctions, etc.) was also valuable, this article covers what were arguably the biggest takeaways.
Any USPA member can file an incident report. You can find more information in Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-8. An easy-to-fill-out, mobile-friendly, online reporting form is available at uspa.org/ir.