After four years of significantly reduced annual civilian skydiving fatalities in the United States, including a record low of only 10 fatalities in 2021, the annual count for 2022 ended with a disappointing total of 20 fatal accidents. This is the highest annual count since 2017, when there were 24 fatalities. Last year, 15 men and five women lost their lives in 20 separate accidents. Even though four of the accidents involved tandem skydives, none of them were double fatalities.
This annual summary looks at each of the accidents to determine the causes, which were often the result of a chain of events that led to a fatal outcome. By learning to recognize when a situation is beginning to develop, it is possible to make a change and avert a fatality. Very often, the initial problem begins long before the actual skydive occurs. Safer skydiving starts with a strong safety culture that begins with the drop zone owner and cascades throughout the entire drop zone staff, as well as the licensed jumpers and students. By promoting safe skydiving practices as the only acceptable way to approach a skydive, it sets the tone for each skydiver to make safety a priority.
The fatalities in the following pages are grouped into categories, listed with the number of deaths in that category and the percentage it represents for the year. Following that is the percentage for that category from the last 20 years, added for comparison. By learning how and why fatalities occur, it can help you learn to avoid making the same mistakes as those who died in the past.
Landing Problems: 12—60% (2003-2022—43%)
When a skydiver dies under a fully inflated and normally functioning parachute, USPA records the fatality under this category, which is comprised of three subcategories: non-turn-related, unintentional low turn and intentional low turn. The fatalities in each of the subcategories have distinct causes that jumpers must address with different areas of training and education. A jumper who dies in the non-turn-related category might strike an object such as a building or trees or drown after landing in water. Unintentional-low-turn fatalities occur when a jumper strikes the ground hard after turning the parachute too low, with the reason for the low turn usually being an attempt to avoid another parachute or land facing into the wind. Intentional-low-turn fatalities occur when a jumper purposely initiates a turn under canopy to build speed for a high-performance landing but strikes the ground at a high rate of descent before the parachute could be leveled off for the landing flare. Historically, these three areas make up a significant percentage of the annual total, but 2022 was higher than usual at 60%.
Non-Turn-Related 2—10% (2003-2022—11.3%)
- A 52-year-old woman made a Category D student training jump, which was her fifth skydive. After an uneventful exit, altitude check and practice touches, her AFF Instructor let go of her harness so she could begin her freefall turns. Investigators reported that she immediately began to tumble after the release and continued tumbling in freefall until the automatic activation device (AAD) cut the reserve closing loop and activated her reserve parachute. The reserve deployed at a low but unreported altitude (no higher than 600 feet) and fully inflated. She descended into a dense forest without any possibility of reaching a clear landing area. Her instructor landed at the edge of the forest, and he was the first to arrive on scene. The jumper was conscious and alert and stated that she released her brakes and flared the reserve at the tops of the trees, then struck the top of a tree and attempted to hold on but dropped to the ground. The distance she dropped was not reported. She was airlifted to a local hospital where she died a short time later from internal injuries.
- A 62-year-old woman with 822 jumps and 31 years of experience (an average of 26 jumps per year) was flying a semi-elliptical 135-square-foot main parachute while on final approach to land in a clear, open area. It was her 12th jump after downsizing from a 150-square-foot parachute of the same type. She had completed two canopy courses and had recently inquired about attending a third course that was focused on introduction to high-performance parachute landings. At approximately 15 feet, she pulled down sharply on both front risers, which caused the parachute to abruptly dive toward the ground and increase speed. She struck the ground hard in a steep, diving descent. She received immediate medical attention but died from her injuries before reaching the hospital.
What This Can Teach Us
A single problem such as freefall instability can cascade into several other problems and can lead to a fatal outcome. Students are taught to deploy the main parachute if a loss of control in freefall goes beyond five seconds or at the assigned deployment altitude, regardless of stability. Deploying after five seconds of control loss allows the student the best chance of having adequate time and altitude to reach the planned landing area. However, it is easy for students to lose altitude awareness, become disoriented or be frozen in fear while trying to react to a situation such as tumbling.
Student instability can occur at any point during freefall. Once a student begins to tumble, an instructor will have a challenging time trying to catch them. Accelerated freefall instructors are taught to remain an arm’s length from their students and stay prepared to redock to assist a student when it is needed. Even when students have demonstrated perfect stability and altitude awareness on previous skydives, AFF instructors must work to remain close to their students in case they need to redock.
High-performance parachute landings are certainly impressive, and they draw many jumpers into learning the discipline. Learning to swoop requires a careful approach and a methodical training plan using the guidance of a knowledgeable canopy coach. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 6-10 recommends that jumpers become familiar with each new parachute before introducing any advanced maneuvers for landing. Jumpers should practice any advanced landing maneuvers above 2,500 feet until the maneuver is smooth and consistent to help reduce the risks of performing the maneuver during an actual landing.
High-performance landings greatly increase the risks associated with each jump. Jumping frequently can help improve proficiency and skill. Jumpers who have a low annual number of jumps and attempt high-performance maneuvers such as double-front-riser final approaches greatly increase their risk of having a catastrophic landing.
Unintentional Low Turns: 2—10% (2003-2022—8.1%)
- A 37-year-old man with 35 civilian sport jumps, 135 military-static-line round jumps and one year of civilian-sport-parachute jumping made a solo jump under a 230-square-foot canopy loaded at 1.1:1. When he was on final approach, he was higher than planned for his intended landing spot. At approximately 100 feet, he pulled both toggles down and initiated a three-quarter-braked turn to the left even though he had clear landing area straight ahead. He had completed an almost 360-degree turn when he struck the ground hard. He received immediate medical attention but died at the scene.
- A 58-year-old man with 1,176 jumps and 35 years of experience made a solo jump with a 150-square-foot parachute at a wing loading of 1.1:1. It was his first jump at this location and his first after a four-month layoff. He received a drop zone briefing and spent time discussing the planned landing pattern and the winds. The incident report did not include the speeds of the ground winds, but a weather station 25 miles from the drop zone reported that they were 20 mph gusting to 35 mph at the time of the accident.
The jumper turned to final approach higher than planned for his intended landing spot. He pulled the toggles down to a deeply braked position and made several turns to the left and right to try to shorten his approach. The parachute then partially collapsed and surged to the left toward some obstacles. He reacted by making a right turn, apparently to avoid the obstacles and face into the wind. However, there was insufficient altitude to complete the turn before he struck the ground hard in a diving turn. He received immediate medical attention but was declared dead at the scene.
What This Can Teach Us
- Every first-jump student learns the basic landing priorities:
- Land with the wing level and flying in a straight line
- Land in a clear area, avoiding obstacles
- Flare the parachute to at least the halfway point
- Always be prepared to perform a parachute landing fall (PLF)
These basics still apply to every skydiver on every single skydive. If your landing pattern places you far away from your intended target, focus on landing in a clear space with the wing level. You can always make corrections to the landing pattern on the next jump to try to improve your accuracy. Abrupt turns and erratic maneuvers are dangerous for the jumper, as well as others nearby.
Strong and gusty winds are always challenging regardless of the jumper’s skill level and can significantly increase the chances of encountering a problem at a low altitude or on landing. No skydive is so important that it cannot be rescheduled or cancelled due to strong winds. History has proven that jumping in strong winds can lead to dangerous landings with injuries or fatalities.
Intentional Low Turns: 8—40% (2003-2022—15.5%)
- A 33-year-old man with 934 jumps and seven years of experience was jumping a 90-square-foot cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 2.11:1. He initiated a 270-degree turn to final approach and struck the ground in a steep, diving descent. The hard impact killed him instantly.
- A 47-year-old man with 492 jumps and three years of skydiving experience was jumping a 150-square-foot elliptical parachute at a wing loading of 1.3:1. He had complained about his leg straps slipping on earlier jumps, but he continued to jump with the same harness and container. After an uneventful freefall and deployment, he tightened his leg straps while flying under his main parachute. The left leg strap was tighter than the right, causing the parachute to turn toward the left. He continued his descent while constantly having to make corrections due to the misadjusted and possibly slipping leg straps. Despite having control issues throughout the descent, he decided to initiate a 90-degree turn to the right for his final approach. As the parachute came out of the turn onto final approach, it pitched to the left in a dive that continued to impact. He received immediate medical attention, but he was declared dead soon after arriving at the hospital.
- A 36-year-old man with 730 jumps and four years of experience was jumping a 103-square-foot cross-braced parachute loaded at 1.85:1 while practicing for an upcoming parachute swoop competition. He initiated a turn for his final approach that was too low and struck the swoop pond at a 45-degree angle while still in a steep, diving descent. He initially stood up after the landing, but then fell back into the pond and was unresponsive. He was declared dead at the scene.
- A 37-year-old man with 9,000 jumps and 13 years of experience was jumping a 79-square-foot cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 2.4:1. This jumper was very experienced with high-performance landings and usually made a 450-degree turn for his final approach. On this jump he was too low for his usual approach, so he elected to make a 180-degree turn over a less familiar part of the landing area. As he came out of the 180-degree turn, he immediately pulled his toggles down to apply the brakes of the parachute to flatten the approach. However, there was not enough altitude remaining to slow the descent rate and he struck the ground in a steep dive at nearly the same time as the parachute. The hard impact killed him instantly.
- A 55-year-old man with 1,480 jumps and 22 years of experience was flying a 79-square-foot cross-braced parachute loaded at 2.15:1 at dusk for a demonstration jump into a Level 2 landing area—a high school football stadium—which requires that a demonstration jumper hold a PRO rating. This jumper did not hold a PRO rating, although he had made several previous uneventful demonstration jumps into this same field using the same parachute.
On this jump, he initiated a 360-degree turn at an unknown altitude above one end of the field for an attempt at a high-performance approach. Investigators reported that he made no attempt to flatten his approach by pulling the rear risers or flaring. He struck the ground at a high rate of descent at approximately a 30-degree angle. The hard impact killed him instantly.
- A 52-year-old man with one jump and one day of experience was making a tandem skydive with a 54-year-old tandem instructor with 4,000 jumps and six years of experience. Winds on the ground were light and variable. After an uneventful freefall, deployment and initial parachute descent, the tandem instructor initiated a 270-degree turn at approximately 100 feet above the ground. The tandem pair struck the ground in a diving turn. First responders reached the pair approximately a minute after the landing. The student died on impact. A helicopter airlifted the instructor to a local hospital, where he was found to have multiple broken bones and a head injury.
- A 22-year-old man with one jump and one day of experience was making a tandem jump with a 28-year-old male tandem instructor with 1,600 jumps and five years of experience. Weather reports for around the time of the landing indicated winds at 22 mph gusting to 30 mph. Investigators reported that a review of the video of the landing showed the tandem instructor initiating a 180-degree turn at approximately 100 feet. The tandem pair struck the ground in a steep, diving descent, and the student died instantly from the hard impact. The instructor suffered multiple broken bones but was expected to make a full recovery. The instructor told investigators that he regularly made a 180-degree turn to final approach when the winds were high.
- A 34-year-old man with one jump and one day of experience was making a tandem jump with a 56-year-old male tandem instructor with 1,374 jumps and 21 years of experience. After an uneventful freefall and initial parachute descent, the tandem instructor attempted to complete a 180-degree turn from approximately 100 feet. The pair struck the ground hard in a diving turn. The student died on the way to the hospital. The instructor suffered multiple broken bones and swelling of the brain. Investigators reported that the weather reporting station 20 miles from the accident site showed the winds to be 22 mph gusting to 32 mph during the timeframe of the jump.
What This Can Teach Us
A smaller parachute means a higher wing loading and therefore an increased forward speed and descent rate. At almost every drop zone, jumpers fly small parachutes and dive them toward the ground at speeds approaching freefall speeds for high-performance landings. These approaches require a keen eye and flawless execution every single time. There is no room for error, and every landing requires constant input with risers, harness loading and steering toggles. Nobody is capable of perfection on every approach and landing. The risks of making a mistake can often be fatal or lead to serious, life-altering injuries. You need to ask yourself if the risk is worth the reward.
Several of the fatalities in this category this year occurred on jumps where the jumper was landing outside of a familiar landing area. An unfamiliar landing area is no place to attempt a high-performance landing. A slower approach into an unfamiliar landing area, where the visuals will be different from normal, is a safer approach.
Very small parachutes can easily outdistance the space available on most high-school football fields. When you try to swoop the entire distance of a field, the approach must be steep and fast, and there’s no room to bail out of the turn if necessary. Crowds are impressed by a parachute landing softly on the 50-yard line, not an erratic high-speed attempt at swooping the entire length of the field. When a jumper is killed or injured attempting a high-performance landing into a sporting event, it can be devastating not only to the friends and family of the jumper, but also to those who witness the carnage.
One of the five hazardous attitudes in aviation is “anti-authority,” or not wanting to follow rules. Jumping into landing areas that require a PRO rating without holding the rating is a sign of this. The PRO rating requires exceptional accuracy skills, not just the ability to land somewhere within the length of a football field. Jumping into public areas also requires solid judgement and decision-making skills to help ensure public safety is a top priority.
Tandem students rely on skydiving centers and their instructors to conduct their jumps professionally. While the vast majority of tandem skydives are completed safely and uneventfully each year, three tandem students died after their instructors made final-approach turns much too low. Two of the turns were in high and gusting winds. All three instructors violated the Basic Safety Requirement that prohibit tandem instructors from making turns greater than 90 degrees below 500 feet. USPA created this rule to prevent these types of fatalities. Tandem instructors who are violating Basic Safety Requirements must not be allowed to continue jumping without retraining or disciplinary action, if necessary. In addition, drop zone owners and tandem instructors must be willing to cease skydiving operations when the winds become strong and gusty.
Medical Problem-1 5% (2003-2022 8.8%)
When a skydiver dies while experiencing a medical emergency after exiting the airplane or commits suicide while skydiving due to mental health struggles, it falls into this category.
- A 39-year-old woman with 1,000 jumps and nine years of experience exited a Twin Otter at 5,000 feet and immediately deployed her main parachute. A witness on the ground observed her flying downwind at 1,000 feet. Once she had descended to approximately 500 feet, the witness could see that her arms were at her side, her head was tilted to one side and she was not moving her arms or legs at all. Just before landing she raised her left arm slightly but struck the ground in full flight in a downwind direction without a landing flare. Although she received immediate first aid, the landing caused severe injuries to her head and neck. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Investigators reported that the brakes were released and the slider was collapsed, indicating that she had a normal main deployment but experienced some sort of medical problem during the parachute descent. This was her first jump in four months since having surgery on a broken ankle. Autopsy reports help to determine what happened physiologically and are almost always obtained for each skydiving fatality, but unfortunately, the autopsy report for this incident was not made available.
What This Can Teach Us
Skydiving adds physiological stresses to the body, even for very experienced skydivers. Older jumpers or those who have a family history of medical problems need to keep a close eye on their health. Many medical problems can be detected with regular physical exams.
After surgery, the risk of developing a blood clot that travels through the veins rises. This can cause serious, debilitating medical problems. This is why it is important to be cleared to skydive by a doctor after surgery.
Incorrect Emergency Procedures: 2—10% (2003-2022—7.1%)
- A 39-year-old tandem instructor with an unreported number of jumps and 13 years of experience exited a Cessna 182 at 7,600 feet on a tandem skydive with his first-jump student. He released the drogue to deploy the main parachute at 3,800 feet, 1,200 feet lower than the 5,000-foot minimum container opening that the Basic Safety Requirements specify for tandem skydives. The reason for the low deployment is unknown but may have been a case of trying to add freefall time to a skydive started at a relatively low altitude.
Investigators reported that the main parachute remained in its bag and did not inflate, creating a high-speed, bag-lock malfunction. When they reviewed the hand-mounted camera footage of the skydive it showed that the instructor pulled the reserve handle before pulling the main parachute cutaway handle. The reserve parachute entangled briefly with the main parachute, but as soon as the instructor pulled the cutaway handle, the main parachute released without further entanglement. However, the initial entanglement—which likely occurred due to the reserve colliding with the still-attached main parachute in its deployment bag—caused the reserve parachute to have a line-over malfunction. Had the instructor pulled the cutaway handle first, the reserve parachute would likely have had clean air for its deployment and inflation. Unfortunately, it inflated only partially with the slider approximately halfway down the lines. The tandem pair then spun to the ground under a partially inflated and spinning reserve parachute. The hard impact killed the instructor, and his student suffered severe injuries but is expected to make a full recovery.
- A 26-year-old woman with seven jumps and approximately one year of experience exited the airplane at 14,000 feet for her first accelerated freefall skydive. She had completed six tandem skydives in the previous year. Her training consisted of tandem progression training jumps followed by a solo first-jump course to prepare for her first AFF skydive, which one accelerated freefall instructor conducted.
During the jump, her instructor gave her a hand signal to check her altitude at 6,100 feet, but she did not respond. At 4,700 feet, the instructor attempted to deploy the student’s main parachute but lost grips on her. The instructor was able to grab the student by the arm at 3,000 feet and pull the reserve-side handle of the bottom-of-container-mounted-pilot-chute pouch, which opened the pouch and allowed the main pilot chute to come out. However, it remained trapped in the burble on her back until 2,000 feet. It then extended to full bridle length, but the pilot chute did not inflate. The pilot chute had only enough drag to extract the main closing pin, so the main parachute remained in the container, still in its deployment bag with the suspension lines stowed.
At approximately 1,400 feet, the student attempted to deploy the main parachute by reaching toward the bottom of the container, first with one hand, then with both hands. The instructor deployed their own main parachute at 800 feet, and the AAD activated the reserve parachute at the same time. At nearly the same time, the student’s AAD activated and the reserve parachute began to deploy. Investigators believe that the main opened in front of the reserve, which impeded the reserve opening. The two parachutes inflated only partially before she struck the ground. The hard impact killed her instantly.
What This Can Teach Us
Regardless of what altitude a tandem skydive begins, the Basic Safety Requirements mandate that the instructor pull the drogue-release handle no lower than 5,000 feet to begin the main deployment. Experiencing a high-speed malfunction after deploying at 3,800 feet means that the tandem pair reaches the decision altitude of 3,000 feet very quickly. This can cause the instructor to rush to initiate emergency procedures and increases the chance that the instructor will perform them incorrectly.
A first-time solo skydive is an overwhelming experience, even to those who have previously made tandem skydives. One of the common responses to fear is to freeze and take no action at all, usually for a short period of time. It is impossible to predict what sort of performance any student will provide on a skydive, which highlights the incredible responsibility every instructor has to assist.
Events unfold quickly during AFF skydives, especially below 6,000 feet when the deployment sequence begins. However, continuing in freefall to AAD activation altitudes endangers both the instructor and the student. The AFF Instructor Rating Syllabus contained in the USPA Instructional Rating Manual states that if the main parachute cannot be deployed, the instructor should deploy the reserve parachute at 3,500 feet and warns that under no circumstance should an instructor remain in freefall with a student below the instructor’s 2,500-foot deployment altitude.
Equipment Problems: 2—10% (2003-2022—13.8%)
- A 35-year-old man with 1,600 jumps and three years of experience deployed his 230-square-foot semi-elliptical parachute at an unreported altitude. The parachute opened with line twists, which he cleared. A review of the jumper’s video-camera footage showed that once he cleared the line twists, he discovered that the main risers had a step-through malfunction. A step-through is caused by flipping the container through the risers while on the ground before the main parachute is packed, and it creates a twist in the riser and steering line on each side of the container. The jumper elected to continue descending under the main parachute, steering by pulling on each rear riser while leaving the brakes stowed.
When the jumper reached approximately 800 feet, witnesses on the ground observed the jumper enter a spin The video footage shows that he accidently released the right brake while pulling down on the riser, which caused the parachute to spin to the left. He spent the remainder of the descent attempting to release the left toggle and struck the ground in a hard spin. Although he received immediate medical attention, the hard impact had killed him instantly.
- A 38-year-old jumper with 4,750 jumps and 18 years of experience deployed his 84-square-foot cross-braced parachute at approximately 3,500 feet following an uneventful two-way freefly jump. The parachute was equipped with a removeable slider, and a review of the video footage from the jumper’s camera showed that the right-rear slider ring came loose from the slider, leaving the slider connected asymmetrically by the remaining three rings, which caused the parachute to spin in a slow rotation. He spent approximately 30 seconds working on grabbing the slider while descending in the slow spin with his brakes still stowed. Once he removed the slider, he was at approximately 1,500 feet. He then grabbed his right toggle, releasing the right brake without releasing the left brake, which created a hard spin to the left. His hands then disappeared from view for a second before he reached back up and tried to counter the spin by pulling on the right-rear riser, which only slowed the rotation but did not stop it. He struck the ground in a quickly descending spin, and the hard impact killed him instantly.
What This Can Teach Us
It can be easy to talk yourself into attempting to fix a problem with a main parachute that is open and inflated, even though there are issues with critical components. Focusing on the problem can lead to a loss of altitude awareness, and before you know it you are well below your decision altitude and too low for a safe cutaway. Jumpers must conduct a basic control check and abide by their decision altitude on every skydive. Release the brakes, left turn, right turn, flare. If the parachute does not pass this fundamental test, perform emergency procedures by at least 2,500 feet for students and A-license holders, 1,800 feet for B- through D-license holders and 3,000 feet for tandems.
A spinning malfunction can lose as much as 300 feet of altitude per revolution. With that sort of descent rate, it is easy to see how a jumper can get into trouble in a hurry. Spinning parachutes also force blood toward your feet and away from your brain, slowing reaction times and creating disorientation. The longer you stay in a spin, the harder it will be to concentrate and perform emergency procedures. Spinning parachutes also typically rotate faster with time, which only speeds up the descent rate and shortens the time before reaching decision altitude.
Low Main Deployment: 1—5% (2003-2022 2.5%)
- A 70-year-old man with 371 jumps and 28 years of experience was part of a 6-way formation skydive that was uneventful through the breakoff. None of the jumpers on the skydive observed his tracking or deployment. Later, investigators found that the automatic activation device had cut the reserve closing loop following a low-altitude main parachute deployment. Reportedly, this jumper had a history of deploying his main parachute at a low altitude.
A witness on the ground observed the jumper at approximately 500 feet under a fully inflated main parachute. He was trailing his reserve pilot chute at full bridle extension behind the container, but his airspeed was too low to create enough drag on the reserve pilot chute for it to extract the reserve parachute from the container. Had he continued descending under his main parachute, he may have had an uneventful landing provided the reserve parachute remained in the container.
Just a short time later, the jumper cut away the main parachute—perhaps concerned the reserve was about to deploy—and struck the ground before the reserve freebag was extracted from the container. The container was not equipped with a reserve static line (RSL), but it would not have changed the outcome of this fatality, since the reserve container had already opened when the AAD activated. The hard impact killed him instantly.
An inspection of the equipment revealed that the AAD had activated, the jumper had pulled both the cutaway and reserve ripcord handles and that there was nothing preventing the reserve freebag from deploying.
What This Can Teach Us
The Basic Safety Requirements require B- through D-licensed skydivers to initiate main deployment by at least 2,500 feet. Older jumpers who do not skydive very frequently can increase their safety and avoid panicked decision-making by jumping conservatively and deploying much higher than the 2,500-foot minimum to provide time and altitude to handle emergencies.
Some skydiving emergencies require an immediate and specific response, such as deploying your reserve parachute if you are unable to deploy the main while passing through your decision altitude in freefall. Sometimes an unusual situation requires thought and analysis before acting, because making a wrong decision can be fatal. Having a thorough knowledge of how your equipment works, frequently practicing emergency procedures in a training harness and maintaining situational awareness throughout the entire skydive can help you make the correct decisions when faced with something out of the ordinary.
Low Cutaway: 2—10% (2003-2022—5.4%)
- A 65-year-old woman with 6,700 jumps and 38 years of experience was part of a 7-way formation skydive with an uneventful freefall and breakoff. Investigators reported that she deployed her main parachute at 2,500 feet and it fully inflated at 1,800 feet but with line twists. It began to spin soon after inflation. Investigators later found that the main parachute’s right toggle was stowed with the brake set, and the left brake released with the steering toggle unstowed.
The spin continued for 32 seconds until the jumper pulled her cutaway handle to release her main parachute at approximately 200 feet above the ground. The container was not equipped with a reserve static line and investigators later found the reserve ripcord still stowed on the harness. She struck the ground without a deployed reserve parachute, and the hard impact instantly killed her.
- A 73-year-old man with 4,702 jumps and 20 years of experience exited a Twin Otter on a 26-way formation skydive. Another skydiver on this jump reported seeing this jumper on his side in freefall, spinning quickly. The jumper then deployed his main parachute, which inflated with severe line twists. At an altitude reported to be approximately 250 feet, the jumper pulled the cutaway handle to release his main parachute and pulled the reserve ripcord to deploy the reserve parachute. However, he initiated deployment too low for the reserve to fully inflate before he reached the ground.
Witnesses stated that they felt the jumper may have been experiencing a medical emergency that caused him to lose control in freefall. However, no autopsy results were made available, so it is impossible to determine whether this jumper experienced a serious but not completely debilitating medical emergency during the skydive.
His rig was equipped with a reserve static line, but it was not connected. However, even if the RSL had immediately deployed the reserve, it likely would not have had enough altitude to fully inflate. It was not reported whether the jumper used an AAD, but it is unlikely that activation parameters would have been met, either under the spinning main canopy or after the cutaway. With no parachute overhead after the cutaway, the jumper hit the ground hard. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
What This Can Teach Us
According to incident reports filed with USPA, the most common cause for a spinning-line-twist malfunction is a dislodged steering toggle that releases the brake setting on one side of the parachute. Jumpers should inspect their equipment frequently and pay particular attention to the risers, toggle keepers and steering lines, as those items wear out more quickly than other components, since they receive a lot of use on each skydive.
It is easy to lose track of time and altitude during a spinning malfunction. When faced with an emergency, it is critical to check altitude and initiate emergency procedures at or above the decision altitude of 1,800 feet for B- through D-licensed jumpers or 2,500 feet for students and A-licensed jumpers.
Age is another issue skydivers should consider. Reaction times, flexibility and strength begin to decrease rapidly for most people after age 50. Deploying at higher altitudes allows more time to respond correctly and initiate emergency procedures. It is also wise for older jumpers to have regular physical checkups to catch problems early.
As in many previous years, failure to safely land a perfectly functioning parachute was a significant percentage of the total fatalities in 2022. Twelve people died from bad landings, including 10 due to low turns. Low-turn fatalities have occurred since the first ram-air parachutes emerged in the 1970s, but really began to escalate in the early 1990s when advances in parachute design and materials provided huge gains in parachute performance. As designs continued to improve and average wing loadings increased, more skydivers began flying parachutes that they did not have the skill and ability to handle. Rapid downsizing has been a constant problem throughout the years, leading to jumpers flying parachutes that are too small and fast for their experience level. Skydiver’s Information Manual Sections 5-3 and 6-10 includes helpful information and recommendations for canopy-flight fundamentals and downsizing progression.
It is also important to realize that many serious accidents with life-altering injuries occurred in 2022 but are not included in this annual report because they were not fatal. Poorly executed attempts at high-performance landings caused most of them. Despite the risks associated with high-speed landings, many skydivers continue to attempt them. Training and education can help reduce the risks, but there are severe penalties for making a mistake in a steep, diving turn low to the ground.
Perhaps the most tragic statistic of all for 2022 was the death of five students (three tandem and two AFF) and one tandem instructor.
Three tandem first-jump students died after their instructors made dangerously low turns, two of them in strong and gusty winds. A tandem skydive is no place for an attempt at a high-performance landing. Manufacturers have gradually reduced the size of tandem main parachutes as the design changes have improved performance. That makes for a higher wing loading, a steeper descent and a faster forward speed. All of that increases the chances of a serious injury or fatality if the instructor does not handle the landing properly. After examining years of accident data, the USPA Board of Directors found that the extent of the injuries inflicted on students and instructors from improperly handled low-turn landings increased as the radius of the turn increased. So, the board elected to add a Basic Safety Requirement that states that all tandem instructors are prohibited from making a turn under parachute greater than 90 degrees below 500 feet above the ground. It is absolutely imperative that tandem instructors follow the rules for the safety of their students.
Jumping in high winds also increases a skydive's complexity. Some tandem instructors falsely believe that a 180-degree turn is necessary while landing in high winds. In each of the four tandem-related fatalities, the instructor had violated one of the Basic Safety Requirements, which only demonstrates the importance of following them.
There is no guarantee that an AFF student will remain stable and altitude aware on every skydive. AFF Instructors must work aggressively at remaining very close to their students after release in freefall to provide the best chance to redock and assist if needed.
Despite statistics proving that a reserve static line or main-assisted-reserve-deployment device (MARD, a type of RSL) are valuable as back-up devices to ensure that the reserve parachute deploys as quickly as possible after a cutaway, there are still jumpers who choose to do without one. Three fatalities involved a low-altitude release of the main parachute. (In one of these cases, the reserve container was open, so an RSL would not have made a difference, but a MARD may have.) In all of the cases, there may have not been enough altitude remaining the reserves to fully deploy, but an immediate reserve activation via an RSL or MARD would still have provided the best chance of survival.
Delayed responses to main-parachute malfunctions continue to be problematic. USPA recommends that B- through D-licensed jumpers initiate emergency procedures by at least 1,800 feet and students and A-licensed jumpers by 2,500 feet. Deployment and decision altitudes are there for a reason: to help ensure a main or reserve parachute is open at a safe altitude.
Line twists may be fixable if the parachute is flying straight and level, but jumpers should treat spinning line twists as a malfunction that will require a cutaway if they cannot fix the twists and spin immediately or at least no lower than decision altitude. During a spinning-line-twist malfunction, the parachute is rapidly losing altitude and fast action is required.
Some Good News
Not all the news in 2022 was bad. It was the seventh year in a row without a fatality in the no-pull category, and it’s been five years since there was a fatal canopy collision. Those two categories had contributed significantly to the annual fatality totals in the past.
The widespread use of automatic activation devices and higher main deployment altitudes have combined to help ensure that jumpers have a main or reserve parachute deployed at a safe altitude.
In 2007, USPA began to require drop zones to separate high-performance landings from parachutes flying a standard landing pattern by either space (with a separate landing area) or time (by requiring a separate pass for those who are making high-performance approaches). That separation requirement went a long way toward helping to make the airspace above our landing areas as safe as possible. But it still takes constant vigilance on every parachute descent to maintain safe distances from other parachutes from deployment to landing.
The jumpers who died in 2022 were highly experienced, under the supervision of someone highly experienced or had received thorough training before their skydives, which just goes to show that even with training and experience, fatalities can occur when jumpers don’t follow the rules and guidelines for safe skydiving. The increase in fatal accidents in 2022 was a disappointing step backward. It is not unusual for there to be occasional spikes in the trend, and this spike of 20 fatalities is still below the annual average just five years ago and before.
If we learned anything from last year, it’s that not following the rules and recommendations in the Skydiver’s Information Manual can quickly lead to a fatal accident. We can do better; we will do better. Promise yourself that you will do everything possible to skydive safely so you can return home at the end of the day. Your family, friends and fellow skydivers are all counting on you.
About the Author
Jim Crouch, D-16979, was USPA Director of Safety and Training from 2000-2018. He has written the Annual Fatality Summary for Parachutist since 2019.