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A Record Low—The 2018 Fatality Summary

A Record Low—The 2018 Fatality Summary

By Jim Crouch

Features | April 2019

In 2018, 13 people died during skydives in the U.S. This is the lowest annual fatality number since 1961, when USPA (then the Parachute Club of America) began keeping statistics. That year, 14 jumpers died, and the number of fatalities steadily increased for the next two decades before they began to drop in the early 1980s. Considering the increase in skydiving activity over the last 57 years, this is a phenomenal achievement. The comparison is staggering: In 1961, the estimated fatality rate was one fatality for every 9,000 parachute jumps; the fatality rate for 2018 was one fatality for every 253,669 parachute jumps. These numbers, including the fatality count, include only non-military skydives, since USPA tracks only sport jumps.

Although this number is likely an anomaly and fatalities in future years may approach the decade’s average of around 21, we can be hopeful, especially since the average number of fatalities has slowly dropped over time. This is a true testament to daily, industry-wide efforts to reduce the risks of skydiving. Improvements in equipment, training programs, drop zone management and the overall awareness and vigilance of licensed skydivers have combined to reduce the fatality rate to a minor percentage of the annual rates of previous decades.

Although fatality rates have drastically improved, sadly, skydivers continue to repeat the mistakes of those who died in the past. The basics of surviving each skydive never really change, but skydivers are human beings and, as such, are capable of human error. A successful skydive requires a freefall with no high-speed collisions; a main parachute deployment at a safe altitude in clear airspace; a timely response in the event of a main-parachute malfunction; a reasonably slow and soft parachute opening; and a landing with the wing level, at a low descent rate and into an area free of obstacles.

Each year, USPA publishes this report, which examines the previous year’s fatal accidents and compares them with other years to help identify trends and problem areas. This helps to determine where to focus efforts toward educating skydivers and how to develop changes to equipment or regulations. The lessons learned have resulted in changes to skydiving equipment, training methods, drop zone culture and other areas, which have all helped to reduce fatalities over the years.

 

This report separates the 2018 fatalities into categories and lists the number of fatalities in that category and the percentage of overall 2018 fatalities that the number represents. Following that is the average percentage in that category over the last 20 years.

Landing Problem
2 (15.4%) (1999-2018: 30%)

A fatality is categorized as a landing problem when a skydiver opens a main or reserve parachute but encounters a problem while landing it. This category is sub-divided into three sections: landing problems that do not involve low turns and those that involve intentional and unintentional low turns.

LANDING PROBLEM: NOT INVOLVING TURN
1 (7.7 %) (1999-2018: 10.7%)

  • A student making her fourth skydive opened her main parachute at approximately 5,000 feet. Her initial heading placed her off the wind line and unable to reach the main landing area. The winds on the ground were 14 miles per hour. The ground radio operator instructed her to fly to a large, open field. Although there was clear, open space available, she struck the side of a barn just before reaching the ground and her head hit farm equipment. The impact caused two broken legs and head injuries that proved to be fatal.

What This Can Teach Us

Landing in a clear, open area with a correctly flying main or reserve parachute is essential for a successful end to a skydive.

  • Landing a parachute off the regular drop zone landing area is something jumpers must always be prepared to handle. For students, judging the landing spot can be challenging, especially if the winds are at the maximum speed on the ground. Additionally, the winds at higher altitudes will likely be even stronger, limiting the maneuverability of the parachute.
  • Target fixation can result in the skydiver subconsciously steering directly into an obstacle. Rather than focusing on an obstacle, a jumper should look toward clear areas free of any obstacles and steer the parachute to land there.

LANDING PROBLEM: UNINTENTIONAL LOW TURN
1 (7.7 %) (1999-2018: 9%)

When a skydiver dies making an unintentional low turn, its usual cause is an attempt to avoid another parachute or obstacle or to face into the wind for landing without enough altitude for the parachute to return to straight and level flight before the skydiver strikes the ground. This type of fatality almost always involves a relatively inexperienced skydiver who is jumping a parachute that is too small for their experience level.

  • A skydiver with 275 jumps and nine months of experience was flying his parachute on final approach toward a congested area with a building in front of him. He initiated an aggressive 180-degree turn at approximately 100 feet above the ground. This jumper had a fairly low body weight and was jumping a semi-elliptical parachute at a wing loading of 1.4:1. The hard landing resulted in multiple broken bones and a fatal head injury.

What This Can Teach Us

  • Lighter jumpers face greater challenges than heavier jumpers when downsizing. An article published by Performance Designs at performancedesigns.com/resources/ explains why. Essentially, a skydiver who has an exit weight of 150 pounds will experience a much faster and more responsive canopy flight than a skydiver with a 230-pound exit weight at the same wing loading.
  • If you find yourself facing downwind at a low altitude, it is much safer to continue landing in a downwind direction than to initiate a low turn. You can manage your horizontal speed by flaring the parachute, sliding in the landing or performing a parachute landing fall.
  • Recovering to level flight from the high vertical speeds generated during a turn requires altitude to allow the parachute to fly through its recovery arc. If a jumper generates a turn at too low of an altitude, the skydiver will strike the ground before the parachute can recover to level flight.
  • If you are flying toward an obstacle at a low altitude, change your heading toward a clear area by performing a gentle correction using a flat turn (sometimes called a half-braked turn) to avoid creating a dangerous, rapid descent rate. If no clear area is available, slow down by going into deep brakes and PLF into the obstacle (and prepare to PLF when you get to the ground), which may allow you to survive the landing. A hard turn at a low altitude is almost always fatal.

LANDING PROBLEM: INTENTIONAL LOW TURN
0 (0%) (1999-2018: 10%)

The definition of an intentional-low-turn fatality is when a skydiver dies after intentionally making a turn to generate speed for a high-performance landing but strikes the ground at high speed while still in a steep vertical descent. Although this category has represented a significant percentage of total fatalities in past years, none occurred in 2018.

 

 

Freefall Collision
1 (7.7%) (1999-2018: 3.5%)

Freefall collisions can be minor (such as when two skydivers flying in the same direction and at similar speeds bump into each other) or can lead to fatal injuries (such as when two skydivers collide at a high closure rate and impact at high speed). One skydiver died in 2018 as a result of a freefall collision.

  • A skydiver wearing a wingsuit exited the tailgate of a Shorts Skyvan at nearly the same time as three other wingsuit flyers and collided with one of the other wingsuit flyers approximately five seconds after the exit. Investigators determined that the collision led to fatal head and neck injuries. The jumper continued in freefall spinning back to earth until disappearing from the view of jumpers in the plane, who observed the collision. The reserve parachute deployed after the automatic activation device activated it. Witnesses on the ground reported that the jumper was unresponsive under canopy and hanging limp in the harness. He landed on the roof of a house.

What This Can Teach Us

Over the past 20 years, there have been 17 freefall-collision fatalities, four of which involved a skydiver wearing a wingsuit. Three of those wingsuit collisions occurred in the previous three years. Wingsuits make it impossible for a skydiver to use their arms to defend against a collision. With the arms trapped at the side, the head and neck of a wingsuit flyer are vulnerable. Planning and executing safe wingsuit exits and approaches can help reduce the chances of a fatal collision.

Canopy Collision
0 (0%) (1999-2018: 11.3%)

Canopy collisions accounted for 55 fatalities in the past 20 years. There were none this year, which is a testament to jumper awareness and education, as well as drop zones separating high-performance landings from standard landings.

Equipment Problem
2 (15.4%) (1999-2018: 12%)

When a skydiver dies from an equipment-related cause, it is usually due to one or more factors involving equipment design, maintenance, packing or method of use.

  • A skydiver with 19,300 jumps and 49 years of experience died when her main parachute opened extremely hard. After an uneventful 5-way formation skydive, the 68-year-old deployed her main parachute at approximately 2,500 feet. Witnesses in the air and on the ground then observed her hanging limp in the harness as the main parachute spiraled to the ground. The catastrophic opening caused the jumper to die instantly and resulted in a broken left brake line, several broken suspension lines, slider damage and canopy damage. The parachute was a demo canopy packed by a Federal Aviation Administration-certified rigger.
  • A skydiver with 85 jumps and six months of experience deployed his main parachute at an altitude estimated as 3,000 feet and reportedly “far upwind” of the drop zone landing area. Witnesses on the ground observed the jumper flying the main canopy in a straight line until he was directly over the landing area at approximately 800-1,000 feet, which is likely when he tried to release his brakes. The main parachute then began a spiraling turn, and the jumper struck the ground just a few seconds later. When inspecting the gear, investigators discovered only one brake had released, which was the cause of the spin. The other brake released easily on the ground. The jumper had removed one glove, but investigators could not determine why or at what point in the descent, since it was never found. He may have had trouble grasping the stowed toggle and tried to remove a glove to grab it with his bare hand.

What This Can Teach Us

  • A review of the fatality data recorded since 1999 shows at least 19 skydivers have died as a result of main or reserve parachutes opening hard. In almost every case, the hard opening resulted in either a torn aorta or a broken neck.
  • Many factors can lead to a hard opening. Instantly inflating zero-porosity main parachutes and non-stretchable suspension lines can combine to transmit brutal forces to the human body. Careful packing is critical.
  • The article “Preventing Hard Openings” by Performance Designs (available at performancedesigns.com/resources/) takes the mystery out of what causes a parachute to open hard. Correct line stowing, slider placement and canopy folding and bagging are important factors, as is the jumper’s deployment speed.
  • Adding an accessory, even something as simple as a glove, can slow your reaction time on even the simplest of tasks. Allow yourself extra time and altitude to perform emergency procedures until you become proficient with the added components.
  • Immediately after deployment, release the brakes and perform a controllability check to make sure the parachute flies straight and level and steers and flares correctly. This allows time and altitude to fix routine problems or perform emergency procedures, if necessary. Waiting to release the brakes until 1,000 feet does not allow for enough time and altitude to handle a control problem.
  • In a situation where one brake is released with no time or altitude to perform a cutaway and reserve deployment, the best option is to pull the released brake line down to the stowed brake’s setting to stop the parachute from spinning. Though this prevents the ability to flare, the jumper has a better chance of surviving a straight-and-level landing in the braked position than a hard strike of the ground under a spinning parachute.

Medical
4 (30.8%) (1999-2018: 8.5%)

A fatality falls into the medical category when a skydiver dies from an obvious medical reason, whether physical (such as heart disease) or mental (such as suicide).

In the last 20 years there have been at least 27 physical-illness-related fatalities, which involved jumpers ranging in age from 43 to 73. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease causes one in four deaths in the United States. That’s a significant portion of the population. Unsurprisingly, coroners’ reports often show significant heart disease as the cause of medical skydiving fatalities, and that was the case in three incidents in 2018.

Additionally, since 1999, 12 skydivers have committed suicide during a skydive, and in at least three additional instances, suicide was the suspected cause of death. Up until this year, every suicide was initiated on a solo skydive.

  • A 57-year-old skydiver exited the airplane for a formation skydive and fell below the formation. Following the breakoff of the other jumpers for deployment, he remained in a belly-to-earth position. He continued in freefall until his automatic activation device activated his reserve parachute. He landed under a fully inflated reserve parachute, already dead from a heart attack. Heart disease was known to run in his family.
  • A 68-year-old skydiver deployed his main parachute and released his brakes following an uneventful formation skydive. Jumpers in the air and on the ground then observed him hanging limp and unresponsive in the harness. He died of a heart attack while descending under his main parachute.
  • The reserve parachute of a 58-year-old skydiver who had approximately 85 jumps deployed just as his main parachute was inflating at a low altitude. Investigators speculated that a pilot chute in tow that cleared caused the low-altitude main deployment. The main inflated at the same time as the automatic activation device activated the reserve parachute. The two parachutes went into a downplane, and the jumper landed in a river. First responders arrived soon after, and a trained medical professional administered first aid, but the jumper did not respond and was declared dead at the scene. The coroner determined he had suffered a heart attack and was already deceased before he entered the water.
  • A very experienced tandem instructor conducted a skydive with a student. The freefall and main deployment were normal. The tandem instructor gave his student instructions on how to steer the parachute to a clear landing area. He then loosened both leg straps and slipped out of his harness by sliding down and out, leaving the student suspended under the main parachute and still attached to the now-empty instructor harness. The student managed to steer to a clear area and land without injury. The tandem instructor was found deceased in a wooded area the next day. The hard impact had killed him instantly.

What This Can Teach Us

  • Most medical professionals recommend that people over the age of 40 receive a physical at least once a year. For those who have a family history of heart disease, more frequent exams and specialized testing is wise.
  • While skydiving is not considered to be an excessively physical activity, it does require that participants are physically capable of meeting the demands of the sport.
  • In general, suicide rates are on the rise in the United States. If you see signs that a fellow skydiver might be struggling, resources are available through many organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
  • Although many suicide prevention programs focus on helping teenagers, the highest number of suicides in the U.S. in 2016 occurred among people aged 45 to 54. Men are especially at risk, with a suicide rate more than three times higher than that of women. If you are having suicidal thoughts, help is available 24 hours every day at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

 

 

Incorrect Emergency Procedures
4 (30.8%) (1999-2018: 6%)

  • A fatality falls in this category when a skydiver incorrectly responds to a malfunction either in freefall or under canopy. Incorrect responses include operating equipment incorrectly and not following recommended procedures. At least 30 skydivers have died in this manner since 1999.
  • A very experienced skydiver deployed her main parachute at 3,000 feet and experienced a spinning malfunction. Witnesses on the ground reported that she released the main parachute at approximately 1,000 feet. She then continued in freefall until she deployed the reserve parachute at approximately 200 feet. She struck the ground before the reserve fully inflated, and the hard impact killed her instantly. Her gear was not equipped with an automatic activation device. She usually wore a reserve static line, but it was not connected for this jump. She would likely still be alive if it had been.
  • A skydiver with approximately 300 skydives created spinning line twists at approximately 1,000 feet when he pulled hard on one toggle while descending under canopy. The parachute entered a rapid spin after twisting the suspension lines. With the steering line pulled down on one side and trapped in the line twist, the spin was unrecoverable. The skydiver died instantly after striking the ground in a steep, spiraling descent.
  • A skydiver with just over 200 jumps made a solo skydive wearing a new one-piece tracking suit (which inflates like a wingsuit but does not have arm wings). When he did not show up at home later that evening, the drop zone staff was alerted and officials began to search for the skydiver. Searchers located him in a field near the drop zone landing area the next morning. Authorities have not released any automatic activation device data or an official report on the inspection of the parachute equipment. However, what little information is available suggests that the jumper tried to deploy his main parachute but experienced a pilot chute in tow. The AAD activated the reserve. One investigator mentioned that the main pilot chute bridle and the reserve system had some sort of entanglement, which may have slowed the reserve opening or prevented it from opening fully. The jumper struck the ground at a high speed and the hard impact killed him instantly. Without a report on the equipment, it is impossible to know whether the reserve would have inflated more fully if the AAD had activated at a higher altitude, but there is a good chance that it would have.
  • A wingsuit jumper with 4,000 jumps and 18 years in the sport deployed his main parachute at an unknown altitude. His freefall computer showed he had a fully open parachute at approximately 2,100 feet. The parachute inflated with multiple line twists and began to spin and descend rapidly. The video from the jumper’s helmet-mounted camera showed his hands out of view for 33 seconds, which is likely when he was attempting to unzip his arm wings. He then reached for his main risers with his arm wings unzipped 10 seconds before striking the ground. The hard impact killed him instantly.

What This Can Teach Us

Regardless of what happens after exiting an aircraft in flight, deploying a parachute at the correct altitude must be a priority for every skydiver. When a jumper then experiences a malfunction, he must quickly identify the malfunction and respond appropriately to ensure reserve inflation with enough time to land safely. It is fundamental for surviving every single skydive, and there is very little room for error. 

  • Student skydivers learn that line twists are a nuisance that they can fix by pulling the risers apart and kicking legs in the opposite direction of the twists, which is usually true for larger student canopies. Smaller parachutes at higher wing loadings are more sensitive, and the uneven risers that usually occur during a line-twisted deployment can cause the parachute to begin to spin and lose 200 to 300 feet per revolution. If you are spinning, there is little chance that you are going to get out of the twists, and you lose valuable altitude trying. Immediately release the main parachute and deploy the reserve.
  • Using a reserve static line or main-assisted-reserve-deployment device helps to ensure that the reserve deploys immediately after release of the main parachute. In the early years, many jumpers thought wrongly that RSLs were useful only for students. However, every year, statistics show that many experienced skydivers could have avoided death by using an RSL or MARD. Although some skydivers still use contrived scenarios with no supporting evidence to explain why jumpers shouldn’t use one, the statistics and real data prove just the opposite. With the possible exception of canopy formation skydivers, there is really no valid reason why anyone should skydive without an RSL or MARD system.
  • Self-induced spinning line twists can occur anytime a skydiver rapidly pulls down a steering toggle, which forces the parachute to turn more quickly than the skydiver’s body. The parachute rotates several times, creating line twists and trapping the pulled-down steering line. The result is an unrecoverable malfunction. If this occurs at a low altitude, a cutaway is not a viable option, and the skydiver will strike the ground in just a matter of seconds. The USPA Integrated Student Program trains students about this danger in Category G, in the hopes that each skydiver will use this training and knowledge when learning to fly a new parachute. Pulling the reserve handle as a last effort to slow the descent rate is the only option remaining in this type of situation.
  • Automatic activation devices serve as a valuable back-up device, and the use of AADs has drastically reduced the number of fatal accidents in this category over the years. However, AADs also add complications to certain situations, and there are limits to the effectiveness of any back-up device. 
  • In most cases, a reserve will deploy fully even when the main pilot chute is in tow. However, there is always a chance of an entanglement.
  • After identifying at least nine cases of skydivers fatally striking the ground under a partially inflated reserve parachute following AAD activation, USPA raised the minimum deployment altitude from 2,000 feet to 2,500 feet. At the same time, AAD manufacturers changed the programming of their devices to allow skydivers to bump up their own activation altitudes on an individual basis. (Manufacturers set the default mode of AADs to activate at the lowest possible altitude that allows the reserve parachute to deploy and fully inflate, provided the deployment goes perfectly with no delay. Deployments do not always go perfectly.) Skydivers can now decide whether a higher AAD activation altitude is useful.
  • Wingsuits are designed to allow the jumper to perform emergency procedures without the need to waste time unzipping the arm wings. Wingsuiters who choose to unzip their arm wings need to factor that time into their emergency procedures, which might require wingsuiters to have higher decision altitudes.
  • Jumpers flying specialized equipment such as wingsuits should allow themselves extra time and altitude to perform emergency procedures.
  • Spinning-line-twist malfunctions are relatively common, and jumpers must treat them as actual malfunctions rather than as problems that can be fixed. If you experience line twists and the parachute is flying straight and level, you’ll likely be able to kick out of the twists and have a controllable main parachute. But if the line twists cause your parachute to spin, you have little chance of getting out of them and are losing altitude at 200 to 300 feet per revolution. There is no time to waste. Pull the cutaway handle and reserve ripcord handle immediately.

Conclusion

Every fatality is a result of a series of events that combine to create a fatal outcome. Many of the causes are obvious, while others are subtler but still play a significant part. In 2018, several fatalities involved skydivers with relatively low experience levels using equipment suitable for more advanced skydivers. Whether downsizing to smaller, high-performance parachutes or upsizing to more complex tracking suits and wingsuits, skydivers need to spend more time training with slower, less-advanced equipment before moving to more advanced gear. Impatience and an unwillingness to spend the time to properly prepare for the next level can be fatal.

Parachute and jumpsuit manufacturers provide recommendations for the experience level necessary to use their equipment. USPA developed Basic Safety Requirements to set experience minimums for wingsuit first flights. USPA also provides experience recommendations for various canopy designs and wing loadings, as well as wearing a camera. These rules and recommendations are based on research that comes from accident data. Skydivers would be wise to seek out proper training and mentoring and to follow these guidelines before using any new piece of skydiving equipment. 

Overall, skydiving is safer than ever. The collective efforts of USPA, skydiving equipment manufacturers, coaches, instructors, examiners, Safety and Training Advisors, parachute riggers, drop zone owners and skydivers themselves have combined to produce an all-time low in the number of fatal accidents. By studying the fatal accidents from previous years and learning from them, skydivers can improve their situational awareness. Each skydiving fatality is a tragedy, and the least we can do is use the information we learn from each fatality to improve the level of safety and continue to reduce the number of fatal accidents.


About the Author

Jim Crouch, D-16979, is a USPA Coach Examiner and Tandem Instructor Examiner; AFF, IAD and Static-Line Instructor; and PRO-rating holder. He is also an FAA Senior Rigger and Commercial Pilot. Crouch served as USPA Director of Safety and Training for 18 years.

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