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Striving for Zero—The 2019 Fatality Summary

By Jim Crouch

Features | April 2020
Wednesday, April 1, 2020

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In 2019, 15 civilian jumpers died in the U.S. while making a skydive, and another 10 died during the takeoff crash of a Beechcraft King Air, which also killed the pilot. Of those 25 souls who perished while intending to make a skydive, the 15 who died while in the act of skydiving itself are the subject of this report. (Director of Government Relations Randy Ottinger covers skydiving-related aircraft accidents—both fatal and non-fatal—in the article following this one.) This report also does not include the number of serious injuries, of which there were many.

Although this report offers only one measure of skydiving safety, the information within its parameters is still very valuable. This information can help jumpers understand where danger areas are and modify their behavior accordingly. It also helps USPA to identify trends, understand where to focus its efforts on educating the membership about potential pitfalls, and develop changes to procedures, rules and recommendations. For example, in the first few months of 2019, four fatal accidents involved jumpers who stayed with spinning malfunctions too long. Consequently, USPA began to aggressively promote an awareness campaign called “Don’t Delay, Cut Away!” In previous years, USPA developed similar (and very effective) educational efforts aimed at improving canopy control and highlighting the dangers of low turns under canopy, and it instituted a rule requiring drop zones to separate high-performance landings from traditional landings.

With respect to the 15 skydiving fatalities, in only two years—2018 (13 fatalities) and 1961 (14 fatalities and the first year USPA kept records)—have there been fewer. For about two decades after 1961, the number of fatalities per year rose drastically, then declined a bit. In the ‘80s, the numbers stubbornly stayed in the 30s until a more prolonged, gradual decline began. That decline has continued through the 2010s (which saw the average annual number of fatalities for the decade fall to its lowest point ever: 20.4). And in the last two years of the 2010s, the number of annual fatalities was significantly below even that historically low average.

All of this occurred as the total annual jump numbers increased. 2019 saw just one fatality out of every 221,760 skydives. Compare that to 1961, which is estimated to have had one fatality for every 9,000 jumps. In no other area of general aviation has there been such a huge increase in activity with as significant a reduction in fatalities.

The reduction in the fatality rate could not have occurred without the efforts and vigilance of industry groups and associations, manufacturers, examiners, instructors, coaches, Safety and Training Advisors, drop zone owners and the tens of thousands of skydivers themselves. In addition, medical innovations, better first aid, improved care in emergency rooms and greater access to life-flight helicopters gave jumpers who may have otherwise died a chance at survival and maybe even recovery from their injuries. It truly has taken a village to create a safer skydiving environment.

This annual summary looks at each 2019 fatality and places it in an appropriate category. Following each category heading are the number of fatalities in that category and the percentage of overall fatalities that that number represents. Following, for comparison, is the average percentage in that category over the last 20 years.

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Landing Problems
7 (46.7%) (2000-2019, 34.3%)
This section comprises three categories of fatalities, each representing a subgroup of landing problems that require different responses and areas of training. These subcategories of landing fatalities are:

  • Non-turn-related fatalities: Jumpers who died after landing on obstacles or other hazards (such as deep water) while under properly functioning parachutes.
  • Unintentional low turns: Jumpers who died after making unanticipated low turns, usually to avoid other parachutes in the air or obstacles on the ground.
  • Intentional low turns: Jumpers who died after intentionally making high-performance maneuvers for landing. These usually involved 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
1 (6.7%) (2000-2019, 11.1%)

  • A jumper with two years of experience and 155 jumps flew the downwind leg of her canopy pattern too far beyond the main landing area. The ground winds were strong, between 15-20 mph. Once she turned to face the landing area, her parachute had little if any forward movement. She remained facing into the wind, and investigators believe that she hoped to gain enough forward movement to make it back to the main landing area. However, she descended onto a busy highway located just downwind of the landing area. A tractor trailer struck her just before landing, and she died instantly from the impact.

What This Can Teach Us
Jumpers often misjudge their landing patterns in strong winds. Strong winds limit the maneuverability of parachutes, particularly when the jumpers are facing into the wind. This can be challenging, especially for skydivers without a lot of experience. This jumper should have shortened her downwind leg and turned onto her base and final-approach legs while over the middle of the landing area. This would have allowed her to land in an area free of obstacles. Once this option was gone and she realized she was descending onto the highway, it may have been possible (depending on altitude) to turn slightly and crab sideways to land beside the highway. A crosswind landing in strong winds would not have been optimal, but it may have been survivable.

Jumpers must plan and execute a safe landing pattern on every jump, which includes planning for alternatives in case things go wrong. When winds are strong and gusty and landing accurately is challenging, it is usually a better option to stay on the ground rather than push personal limits.

Unintentional Low Turn
4 (26.7%) (2000-2019, 8.8%)

  • A jumper with three years of experience and approximately 180 sport jumps plus 95 military jumps (70 on round canopies and 25 on 360-square-foot ram-air canopies) was making his first jump during a canopy course. In order to attend this course, this jumper inflated his experience level and the type of experience he had, telling the course director that he had 350 jumps. The jumper was flying a 150-square-foot semi-elliptical canopy loaded at 1.35:1, which—since he had only 180 sport jumps—indicates that he had downsized rapidly. Investigators reported that on several occasions other jumpers had counseled him about his aggressive canopy flying and rapid downsizing.

The course director instructed this jumper to perform his usual landing so he could use it as a benchmark to determine how to focus the course. As the jumper began making his planned 90-degree front-riser turn to final approach, he applied deep brakes then let the brakes up and pulled down hard on the front risers to increase the forward speed and descent rate of the parachute. It is likely that he was emulating an advanced technique generally used at higher altitudes by experienced canopy pilots who are turning at least 270 degrees toward a final approach.

The jumper then continued his turn an additional 90-degrees (essentially performing an unbroken 180 degree turn), away from his intended landing spot and a nearby taxiway, likely in an attempt to avoid an airplane that was taxiing nearby. He was much too low to complete the turn and struck the ground while still in a dive and without flaring. With his low level of canopy experience and a wing loading of 1.3:1, he likely did not realize how much altitude the parachute would lose when making a hard turn. The impact with the ground killed him instantly.

  • A jumper with five years of experience and 600 skydives made a solo wingsuit jump during a boogie that featured two aircraft. After an uneventful freefall and initial canopy descent, the jumper initiated a 180-degree front-riser turn that placed him flying head-on toward another jumper who, along with several other jumpers, was flying a straight-in approach. After completing the 180-degree turn, the jumper’s canopy passed directly under the feet of the other canopy pilot, and he then initiated a toggle turn in an apparent attempt to land in the same direction as the other jumpers. He struck the ground in a steep diving turn and the impact killed him instantly.

Investigators believe that the jumper thought there was no other canopy traffic in the area, since, as a wingsuit skydiver, he was landing later than the other jumpers on his load. However, the second aircraft dropped a load of jumpers three minutes after the aircraft this jumper was on did, and these were the jumpers he encountered on landing. Regardless, investigators could not determine why this jumper chose to make a 180-degree turn opposite to the planned landing direction.

  • A tandem instructor and student had a normal freefall and deployed the main parachute one-and-a-half miles upwind of the drop zone at approximately 4,500 feet. Another tandem pair deployed slightly farther upwind. The forecast called for the winds at deployment altitude and below to be strong, so the exit point was farther upwind than usual. Because this drop zone has unusual wind conditions, it requires tandem instructors to have 1,000 tandem jumps before working there. According to the drop zone operator, this instructor claimed to have qualified, but investigation after the incident uncovered  that he had only about 300 tandem jumps.

Both tandem pairs faced into the wind to assess the strength of the upper winds, then turned to fly toward the landing area. At approximately 3,500 feet, this tandem instructor turned away from the landing area to face back into the wind. Investigators reported that the winds were lighter than expected, and the tandem instructor did not need to hold into the wind and should have continued to fly directly toward the landing area as the other tandem pair did.

When the tandem pair reached the landing area, they were flying downwind and only about 100 feet above the ground. The instructor then made a 180-degree turn to face into the wind again. The pair struck the ground while still in a steep turn. The student, who was not wearing a helmet, was unconscious after landing and died from his injuries. It is unknown whether a helmet would have changed the outcome. The instructor suffered multiple broken bones, including his left femur and several ribs, but is expected to make a full recovery.

  • A jumper with three years of experience and 500 jumps initiated a 270-degree turn to final approach. He completed the turn at the correct altitude and was controlling his swoop over the ground by pulling down on his rear risers to keep the parachute flying level. However, one riser slipped from his hand, causing an abrupt, diving turn into the ground. The impact with the ground at a high rate of descent and forward speed killed him.

USPA received few details about this fatality, and the report did not include the size of the jumper’s parachute and his experience with it. The report also did not specify whether the jumper had his toggles in his hands while he was applying riser input, which is critical for safety.

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What This Can Teach Us
Careful planning and execution is necessary for every parachute descent and landing. The planning must include alternatives to the planned landing area, as well as how to handle unexpected canopy traffic. Immediately after deployment, each jumper must check the spot, assess the winds and determine whether they can reach the planned landing area. If they can’t, the jumper must then select a suitable alternative while there is still sufficient altitude.

Regardless of the wind direction, it is safer to land in a clear area with the parachute flying straight and level than to initiate a turn too low for the parachute to recover before reaching the ground. The two most common causes of unintentional-low-turn fatalities are a last-second attempt to face into the wind and a last-second hard toggle turn to avoid another parachute or an obstacle on the ground.

USPA, instructors, mentors, gear manufacturers and drop zones have developed their standards through research and observation over many years. Jumpers should be honest about their experience and training and adhere to accepted standards to avoid storming headlong toward injury or death.

Wingsuit skydivers generally spend a greater time in the air than other jumpers. Drop zones, jump pilots and the jumpers themselves must account for wingsuit jumpers’ added freefall time to ensure separation from other groups, even if they’re on other loads.

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Intentional Low Turn
2 (13.3%) (2000-2019, 14.4%)

  • A jumper with two years of experience and 1,000 jumps was jumping a semi-elliptical parachute at a wing loading of 1.4:1. He was visiting a drop zone located at more than 5,000 feet above mean sea level, and the temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting density altitude was 7,900 feet. High density altitudes cause the forward speed and descent rates of parachutes to increase. The jumper’s previous experience with high-performance landings and his canopy progression were not reported, but he did not regularly jump at higher density altitudes and may not have been familiar with the effects. A parachute will require more altitude to recover from a diving turn as the density altitude increases.

This jumper was jumping with three others. Before the jump, they made a plan for each jumper’s approach and landing. The first three jumpers landed uneventfully, following the plan. For unknown reasons, this jumper flew a different landing pattern. He then initiated a 270-degree turn for landing at an altitude of approximately 400 feet above the ground. He struck the ground in a steep diving turn. Medical personnel declared him deceased upon arrival at the hospital.

  • A jumper with four years of experience and 850 jumps was jumping a cross-braced canopy at a wing loading of 1.65:1. For someone with 850 jumps, most industry experts agree that the choice of this canopy design and wing loading was overly aggressive. This jumper had been working with canopy coaches in an effort to learn high-performance landings. She had been making 90-degree turns to the left, but on this jump she needed to make a right turn to final approach. Investigators were unsure whether the change in direction was a factor in the incident. The jumper initiated a right-hand 90-degree turn to final approach at an altitude reported only as “too low.” Investigators reported that the turn was so steep and low that her canopy struck the ground just before her body. The impact killed her instantly.

What This Can Teach Us
Flying a small, highly loaded parachute is a challenging task that elevates the risk of each descent and landing. Regardless, many jumpers are drawn to high-performance canopy flight and are willing to risk severe injury or death for the thrill. For aircraft pilots, the goal is to land with a slow forward speed and descent rate so the aircraft has a stable final approach and landing. Swoop-style parachute landings require canopy pilots to do the exact opposite, inducing high bank and roll angles to increase forward speed and descent rate very close to the ground. There is no margin for error, and the result of a mistake is very often a serious, life-altering injury or death. Training with expert canopy coaches can help reduce the risks inherent in high-speed landings, but the risks of a severe injury or fatality remain substantial. Even the slightest mistake at high speed can have severe consequences.

Equipment Problems
3 (20%) (2000-2019, 11.8%)
A fatality falls in this category when a jumper dies after experiencing a problem related to the parachute equipment. Failure of a component or a packing error are the usual causes.

  • A jumper with 49 years of experience and an unreported number of jumps was jumping with a small group and showed no signs of problems during the freefall or breakoff. A Safety and Training Advisor watching from the ground observed this jumper experience a hard opening of the main parachute. While descending, the jumper was hanging limp in the harness. A slow turn began, which continued until he landed. First responders found him lying face down and unresponsive with both toggles still stowed. He was declared dead at the scene.
  • A jumper with 24 years of experience and 2,460 jumps experienced a hard opening of his main parachute. Witnesses on the ground reported observing an extremely hard opening, and the jumper descended in a slight turn while hanging limp in the harness. Both toggles of the main parachute were still stowed. Investigators reported that the parachute had line twists and the reserve pilot chute had deployed due to a broken closing loop, which likely occurred upon impact with the ground. The cutaway and reserve ripcord handles were still in place on the harness. The jumper was declared dead at the scene.
  • A jumper with 47 years of experience and 3,828 jumps had an uneventful freefall. Nobody witnessed the deployment of his main parachute, but jumpers in the air at the time observed this jumper hanging limp in the harness under a full parachute as it descended. Responders found him face down and unresponsive. Both brakes were in the stowed position. The slider bumpers were jammed down onto the risers, which indicates the jumper experienced a hard opening. The jumper was declared dead at the scene.

What This Can Teach Us
An autopsy report was not available for any of these three jumpers, who experienced very similar circumstances. However, we do know that hard-opening main parachutes have been a factor in at least 22 fatalities since 1999. In almost every case, the jumper was over the age of 50 and experienced either a torn aorta or a broken neck as a result of the hard opening. Jumpers of all ages experience hard openings, but the data suggests that they are more likely to be fatal for older jumpers.

A sudden inflation of the parachute abruptly slows the jumper from 120 mph to nearly a full stop in a very short distance, and if the canopy uses non-stretch suspension lines (such as Spectra or HMA lines), the body of the jumper absorbs most of that stopping force. Zero-porosity parachute fabric and non-stretch suspension line are also very unforgiving of packing errors such as incorrect placement of the slider within the canopy and loose line stows that allow the bag to come off the parachute early. Many actions—including careful packing according to the manufacturer’s instructions—can help ensure a soft parachute deployment. John LeBlanc of Performance Designs provides valuable information about the causes of hard openings in a video available at youtube.com/watch?v=cVAoiLl2B6M. In addition, the Parachute Industry Association is researching hard openings to develop possible solutions for the problem.

Incorrect Emergency Procedures
2 (13.3%) (2000-2019, 6.4 %)
A fatality falls in this category if the jumper performed incorrect procedures during an emergency situation.

  • A static-line first-jump student performed a stable exit from a Cessna 182 flying at an unreported altitude. (Static-line operations generally take place at 3,500 feet above the ground.) The student’s parachute opened normally and flew straight and level. An instructor on the ground using a radio instructed him to do a canopy controllability check and observed the student perform both a left and right 90-degree turn.

A few minutes later, the student started a turn to the right. When the instructor told the student to stop turning, he received no response. The instructor then told the student to flare and again received no response. Somewhere between the canopy’s second and third revolution, the instructor began repeatedly telling the student to locate his cutaway handle and cut away. The student did not respond and continued turning until he struck the ground.

Following the incident, a rigger inspected the student’s gear and found it to be in working order but with only one of the toggles unstowed. However, the toggle released properly during the examination on the ground. The rigger saw no apparent problems with the cutaway system.

  • A jumper with eight years of experience and 245 jumps deployed his main parachute at 4,500 feet. It opened with the right brake stowed and the left brake unstowed and began to spin to the right. The jumper initially tried to stop the spin by pulling on the left riser. He then decided to perform emergency procedures and spent more than 10 seconds locating and pulling the cutaway handle. The time delay and the fact he eventually used both hands to pull the cutaway handle indicate that the pull forces were harder than he expected. He pulled the cutaway handle far enough to release the right riser, but the main parachute remained attached by the left riser. The jumper then pulled the reserve handle, and the reserve bridle entangled with the main canopy. Nevertheless, the reserve left the freebag and deployed about 15 seconds later, but it started spinning with the partially inflated main in tow, and the jumper’s descent rate increased. About four seconds prior to landing, the reserve itself entangled with the main, and the jumper landed hard under the two entangled parachutes. The impact killed him instantly.

What This Can Teach Us
A premature brake release is a common problem that every jumper must be prepared to handle. Prior to the year 2000, most manufacturers used Velcro to secure steering toggles, which worked well. However, Velcro was also abrasive (which damaged steering lines) and wore quickly (requiring frequent replacement). So manufacturers began using different toggle and keeper designs, with varied success. Some designs just don’t work as well as others; some designs fail to hold the toggle securely as they wear with use; and some jumpers fail to stow their brakes properly. Regardless of the cause, when a brake releases during deployment, the parachute begins to spin as soon as it inflates. Jumpers must make sure that their toggles and keepers are packed securely, in good condition and work properly. If there are any questions, a parachute rigger or the manufacturer will be able to answer them.

When a main parachute begins to spin upon inflation, as long as there is sufficient altitude and no line twists, the jumper should pull down both toggles to make sure both brakes have released. If the jumper cannot control the main parachute, they should initiate emergency procedures in a timely manner at or above the USPA recommended decision altitude (2,500 feet for students and A-license holders and 1,800 feet for B- through D-license holders).

Realistic and frequent emergency-procedure practice on the ground will help jumpers perform their procedures correctly during an actual malfunction. Jumpers must pull their cutaway handles forcefully and to full arm extension to help ensure that both risers release from the harness at nearly the same time. The cutaway cable will be slightly longer on the side that is equipped with a reserve static line. (This lessens the chance of a main-reserve entanglement by ensuring that the main parachute completely detaches before the reserve activates.)

Low Cutaway and Low or No Reserve Deployment
2 (13.3%) (2000-2019, 4.5%)
A fatality falls in this category when a jumper releases their main parachute below the USPA recommended emergency procedure altitude and deploys the reserve parachute too low to inflate before the jumper strikes the ground.

  • A jumper with more than 25 years of experience and more than 1,000 jumps deployed his main parachute at approximately 3,200 feet. It immediately began to spin due to the left brake releasing while the right brake remained stowed. The jumper pulled his cutaway handle at approximately 1,000 feet and continued in freefall while working to get stable until he deployed the reserve at approximately 300 feet. His rig was not equipped with a traditional reserve static line or main-assisted-reserve-deployment (MARD) device, which would have activated the reserve immediately after the cutaway. He struck the ground while the reserve was inflating and his descent rate was still high. The impact killed him.
  • A jumper with more than 1,200 jumps exited at 13,000 feet for a planned canopy formation jump with three others. His container was equipped with an RSL, but it was disconnected, probably in anticipation of making a canopy formation jump. The jumper deployed his main parachute three seconds after the exit while in an unstable body position. For an unreported reason, the main parachute began to spin immediately after deployment. He continued spinning under the main parachute to an altitude reported as “below 1,000 feet.” He released the main parachute and then deployed the reserve just before he struck the ground. The impact killed him instantly.

What This Can Teach Us
Spinning main parachutes rapidly lose altitude and can cause disorientation and a loss of altitude awareness. During a rapid spin, blood moves toward the feet and away from the brain, slowing reaction times. A malfunction rarely improves over time, and spinning parachutes are no exception. They generally begin to spin faster—not slower—over time. Quick action by the jumper is necessary.

Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 4 includes the steps necessary to check a parachute for proper deployment and inflation. On every skydive, a jumper should make a basic check of the three S’s: Is it square, stable and steerable?

In the case of a spin, if the parachute does not fly straight and level after two attempts at pulling down the steering toggles (altitude permitting), the jumper should immediately pull the cutaway handle followed by the reserve ripcord handle. Using an RSL or MARD can help ensure the reserve activates immediately following a cutaway.

Because most canopy formation skydivers do not use RSLs or MARds (since they are often in close proximity to others when cutting away), CF jumpers must spend extra effort drilling and preparing on the ground for malfunctions of all kinds.

Collision with Aircraft
1 (6.7%) (2000-2019, 1.9%)
A fatality falls in this category if the jumper strikes the aircraft during or after the exit.

  • A tandem instructor with approximately 6,000 skydives and his student were in the rear of a Cessna 182 and began to scoot toward the door once another tandem pair exited. While they were sliding, the reserve container opened and the reserve pilot chute launched out of the door, followed by the reserve parachute still packed in its freebag. The reserve cleared the freebag and inflated, pulling the tandem pair into the tail of the airplane.

The tandem pair descended under the reserve parachute, which was flying straight and level but without input from the instructor. After landing, the instructor was unresponsive, and the tandem student got out of the harness and walked more than a mile before finding help. The pilot landed the airplane without further incident. The student had relatively minor injuries and is expected to make a full recovery. The instructor died, most likely instantly when his head struck the tail of the aircraft.

What This Can Teach Us
This instructor relocated to the United States from another country, and this was his first jump at this drop zone. He had previously performed approximately 2,000 tandem jumps, but investigators did not report whether any were from a Cessna 182. It is difficult for two tandem pairs to position themselves in a Cessna 182, especially if any of the four people are tall or large. The interior space is very limited, and it is almost impossible to move without rubbing the back of the container or handles against something in the airplane, usually the pilot’s seat. Tandem instructors need to use caution while moving and climbing out and must receive a gear check before exit.

Cessna 182 (and 206) pilots should also watch exits carefully and be prepared to take action by containing any deployed parachute components or quickly pushing the right rudder hard to move the tail of the airplane away from the inflating parachute and jumper. Additionally, a pilot who has learned what to look for can check the back of the container when tandem pairs who will exit backward move into position.

No-Pulls
0 (0%) (2000-2019, 5.1%)
At one time, fatalities caused by a jumper’s failure to deploy a main or reserve parachute were a significant percentage of the total each year. They are no longer very common, and 2015 was the last year to include a no-pull fatality.

Canopy Collisions
0 (0%) (2000-2019, 11.2%)
For the second year in a row, no jumpers died in canopy collisions. Canopy collisions caused by close proximity during main deployment led to two fatalities in 2017, and a collision between two jumpers just before landing caused a fatality in 2016. Constant vigilance while under canopy is always necessary. The effort to separate (by distance or time) those who are making high-speed landings from those who are flying slower, standard landing patterns is paying off. The last year that a jumper died from a making a high-performance landing into slower canopy traffic was in 2015. However, one jumper in 2019 died after making a low turn to avoid a collision while making a high-speed landing into slower traffic.

Medical Problems
0 (0%) (2000-2019, 8.1%)
Fatalities fall in this category when the deceased shows clear indications that the initiating factor in the death was a heart attack or other debilitating medical issue (physical health issue) or suicide (mental health issue) during a skydive. Although three older jumpers died of possible underlying medical issues after experiencing hard openings, in each case the initiating factor was the hard-opening parachute and not the medical problem. Therefore, no deaths were included in this category in 2019.

Conclusion
Except for an occasional oddity, people are not really inventing any new ways to die while skydiving. Survival has always depended on sticking with a handful of basic safety protocols: making sure gear is packed correctly and ready for skydiving, exiting safely, avoiding striking any thing hard in freefall or under canopy, deploying in clear airspace, flying a safe parachute descent into a clear area, landing as softly as possible and equipping gear with AADs and RSLs as backup devices.

In 2019, the number of deaths due to parachute landing accidents rose after several years of decline in that category. Several jumpers stayed with spinning malfunctions for far too long, and three jumpers died after experiencing hard openings. Those three categories made up 80 percent of the 2019 fatalities.

There is always a lot more to the annual fatality summary than just raw numbers, because each number represents a person, a person who lost their life much sooner than expected and left behind friends and family to mourn. Each fatality involved a person who was trained and, in almost every case, highly experienced. The reduced fatality count of the past two years is a testament to all the vigilance and hard work that jumpers and the skydiving industry are performing on a daily basis. With a lot of caution and maybe a little luck, some year we just might get the fatality number to zero.

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About the Author

Jim Crouch, D-16979, was USPA Director of Safety and Training from 2000-2018. He is now a Federal Aviation Administration-certified airline transport pilot who is based in Tampa, Florida.

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