Photo above: USPA National Director (and former USPA Executive Director) Ed Scott, Jim Crouch, Sherry Gunter and USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold. Photo by Anthony Armendariz.
Fostering and enhancing safety is the cornerstone of skydiving. It was and is the primary reason that USPA exists, to ensure the safety and longevity of both its members and those who are making their first jumps. Without continual safety improvements, skydiving would lose hard-won acceptance among the aviation community and the public. With that as the premise, it is no stretch to imagine that the most consequential job in skydiving is USPA Director of Safety and Training. USPA has chosen to honor a man—Jim Crouch—who took on that role in July 2000 and served for an incredible 18 years.
Crouch clearly had the credentials to be hired for the job. He held USPA Static-Line Instructor, AFF Instructor, Tandem Instructor and PRO ratings and held a Federal Aviation Administration Senior Rigger certificate. He also owned and managed West Point Skydiving Adventures, a longtime Virginia drop zone. While on the job, he became a USPA Coach Examiner and Tandem Instructor Examiner and earned his FAA Commercial Pilot certificate.
Longevity in a job is one thing. It’s quite another to lead with consequence, to enact change and produce quantifiable results. Jim meets that test, too. In the 10 years just prior to his arrival, the sport was losing more than 34 of our friends and extended family in skydiving accidents in the U.S. each year. The fatality rate per 100,000 jumps was 1.13. In Jim’s first 10 years on the job, the 10-year average dropped to 25.8, and the fatality rate dropped to 0.93. By the end of 2018, the average had dropped to 21.3 per year and the rate to 0.67. It was under Crouch's tenure that USPA saw the fewest fatalities in 47 years with just 16 in 2009. Then, in 2018, USPA recorded 13 fatalities, the lowest annual number since 1962, when it began keeping incident records. (The milestone has since been exceeded twice more, with 11 in 2020 and 10 in 2021.)
Crouch would be the first to acknowledge the role of many others—coaches, instructors, examiners, S&TAs, riggers, equipment manufacturers, board members, DZOs and, of course, each of the 41,000 USPA members who begin each skydiving day planning the dive then diving the plan—in lowering the fatality rate. But someone must drive safety culture from the top, and for 18 years that was Jim Crouch.
On assuming the job, Crouch knew that canopy-related fatalities had been averaging more than 13 per year. He soon developed a multi-point plan. At the July 2005 USPA Board meeting, he debuted the “Fly to Survive” DVD that USPA distributed to every Group Member DZ. He also advocated for a rule requiring drop zones to separate high-performance landing areas from general landing areas, which brought about a steep decline in canopy collisions when adopted. By 2007, annual canopy-related deaths were down to four. In 2011, he pushed for a canopy course as a prerequisite for the B license, which passed and resulted in a steep decline in canopy-landing fatalities by lower-licensed jumpers.
Sometimes the challenges came out of nowhere. One year, USPA faced a public-relations crisis when it was determined that a large number of individuals were acting as tandem instructors without proper training. The media had jumped on the story, and USPA and skydiving were receiving a black eye. To make matters worse, the FAA was also alarmed, and the pressure was on to “do something.” Jim Crouch stepped up, identifying the source of the problem and the scores of individuals involved. He quickly drafted a plan that recognized the complexities of the situation and provided a remedy by requiring some to undergo refresher training and others to go through a full rating course. His careful, meticulous work led to a plan that not only passed close FAA scrutiny but won accolades from the agency for the urgency and thoroughness of USPA’s effort.
To many, Crouch’s primary strength wasn’t his technical knowledge, nor his thoughtful analysis of safety trends, nor his ability to create new safety initiatives (though he was clearly strong in all these areas), it was his ability to write a safety message in a way that kept the reader interested, engaged and more safety-minded by the end of the piece. And write he did—countless articles for nearly 200 issues of Parachutist, including hundreds of “Safety Check,” “Rating Corner,” “Incident Reports,” “Ask a Rigger” and “Keep an Eye Out” pieces and scores of feature articles. Fortunately for skydivers, Crouch continues to use his long experience and deep knowledge to educate by penning feature articles for Parachutist, including the Annual Fatality Summary.
In 2009, the SAFE Association, dedicated to “ensuring personal safety and protection in land, sea, air and space environments,” awarded USPA with its prestigious General Spruance Award for “outstanding contribution to safety through education.” Any acknowledgement of skydiving’s safety advances during his tenure belongs to Jim Crouch, which is why he was the only choice to travel to the SAFE Symposium in California to receive the award on behalf of USPA’s members.
For all these reasons and many more, the USPA board of directors unanimously selected Crouch as the 2022 recipient of the USPA Lifetime Achievement Award. The award, created in 1970, is to be awarded annually to “an expert active or retired sport parachute jumper in recognition of outstanding sportsmanship, skill or personal contribution to the sport of parachuting and the USPA, its goals and purposes.” The award itself is a perpetual trophy, consisting of a sterling silver bowl, 15 inches in diameter, seated on an octagonal teakwood base which bears carved wooden replicas of the USPA emblem on four faces and sterling silver plates listing the names and qualifications of recipients of the award on the other four faces.
Each USPA Lifetime Achievement Award honoree determines where and when to receive the award. As a longtime DZO, first of West Point Skydiving Adventures and then the Virginia Skydiving Center, Crouch chose to accept his at the February USPA Drop Zone Operators’ Conference that kicked off the 2023 Parachute Industry Association Symposium in Reno, Nevada. More than 100 DZ operators, rating holders and skydivers filled the evening reception to watch Crouch join the 33 other VIPs (Very Important Parachutists) who have earned the Lifetime Achievement Award.
USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold opened the event with a welcome, then read the names of previous Lifetime Achievement Award honorees. Two of the past recipients, Lee Schlichtemeier and Marylou Laughlin, were present and invited to the front to receive recognition. Berchtold then turned the proceedings over to Ed Scott, former USPA Executive Director, who recapped Jim Crouch’s dedication to skydiving safety during his 18 years as USPA Director of Safety & Training.
Then, to a rousing standing ovation, Scott and Berchtold presented Crouch with a replica of the Lifetime Achievement Award sterling silver bowl permanently displayed at USPA Headquarters. In his acceptance remarks, Crouch described his affinity for drop zone owners and operators. “This is really your Lifetime Achievement Award,” he said, acknowledging, “the long hours and the unique challenges faced by all those who run a drop zone.” Crouch also acknowledged the editors and staff of Parachutist over the years, and said, “We were a great team.”
And so, back at USPA Headquarters, a 34th name is soon to be added to the teakwood base of the sterling silver bowl, forever preserving the lifetime contributions of Jim Crouch to the storied history of skydiving. The citation reads, “For his steadfast dedication to safety as a multi-rated instructor and examiner, jump pilot, rigger, drop zone owner and Parachutist author, and for his service to USPA members as Director of Safety and Training from 2000-2018, a time that saw a drastic reduction in skydiver fatalities and injuries due in large part to his many efforts.”
So, next time you conduct a gear check, give a silent thanks to Jim Crouch, who dedicated a career to making skydiving safer, and by doing so, made a huge difference.