A Widespread Improvement—The 2023 Fatality Summary
Safety & Training | Apr 09, 2024
A Widespread Improvement—The 2023 Fatality Summary

Jim Crouch

In 2023, for only the second time since 1961, when the United States Parachute Association (then called the Parachute Club of America) began keeping records, the annual number of civilian skydiving fatalities in the United States hit a record low of 10. The first time skydiving reached that milestone was in 2021. Every sector of this sport should be proud. The collective effort of an entire industry and tens of thousands of participants has made skydiving safer than ever.

The fatality index rate for 2023 was just 0.27 fatalities per 100,000 skydives, the lowest in our history (even lower than 2021, since skydivers made more jumps in 2023). Compare that to 1961, when it was 11 fatalities per 100,000 skydives. At today’s volume of skydiving activity, which is close to 3.65 million jumps per year, that rate would mean an astonishing 401 fatalities annually. It’s a safe bet that if the sport still had such a high proportion of fatalities, it would be a shadow of what it is today. The good news is that over the past 62 years, the sport of skydiving has grown immensely while at the same time greatly reducing the inherent risks involved with jumping out of an aircraft in flight.

However, not all the news is good news. The following pages provide a detailed look into what went wrong for 10 unfortunate jumpers. This report groups each fatality into the appropriate category and includes the number of fatalities in each along with the percentage of the total for the year. Next to that is the average percentage in the same category for the last 20-year timeframe. USPA uses this data to help identify trends over both short-range and long-range time periods, which helps the USPA Board and staff identify problem areas and make fact-based decisions on where to focus safety and training initiatives.

 

Landing Problems: 6—60% (2004-2023—35.2%)

The fatalities in this group involve those who die while landing parachutes that were open and functioning correctly. These are divided into three sub-categories:

Intentional Low Turns—A fatality is placed into this category when the skydiver strikes the ground while attempting a high-performance landing by purposely turning the parachute to build speed. The incident is usually due to initiating the turn at too low of an altitude.

Unintentional Low Turns—A fatality is placed into this category when a skydiver strikes the ground hard in a low turn but did not initially intend to turn the parachute for landing. This might be a case of a skydiver turning to avoid another parachute or an obstacle on the ground. It often involves those without the experience or training to realize just how rapidly the parachute will lose altitude in a turn, and it is usually a panic maneuver. There were no fatalities in this category in 2023.

Non-Low-Turn-Related—A landing fatality is placed into this category when it does not involve a low turn and the parachute was functioning properly. This could be from drowning after a water landing, hitting an obstacle such as a tree or building or experiencing a weather phenomenon such as extreme turbulence or a dust devil. 

 

 

The fatalities in each sub-category have the same type of cause, which requires distinct training and education initiatives to address.

Intentional Low Turn 4—40% (2004-2023—16.1%)

♦ A 42-year-old male with more than 5,000 skydives and six years of experience was jumping a 70-square-foot cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 3:1 at an airport that was not a regular drop zone. His deployment and initial parachute flight were uneventful. Witnesses on the ground reported that he initiated a 270-degree turn for an intentional downwind landing in winds that were gusting at 15 to 25 mph the entire day. His altitude at the start of the turn was reported only as “too low,” and he struck the ground at high speed in a steep, diving descent. After the initial impact, he continued another 130 feet and struck a parked vehicle. First responders reported that he was found unconscious with significant head injuries and an open femur fracture but was still breathing. Although he received immediate medical attention, he died before reaching the hospital.

♦ A 27-year-old male with more than 1,000 skydives and three years of experience was jumping a 96-square-foot cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 1.8:1. He planned to attempt a 270 degree turn while another canopy pilot followed him closely and filmed the landing. He initiated the left turn at approximately 850 feet above the ground while the other canopy pilot followed from a safe distance. He completed the turn at approximately 100 feet above the ground and was heading toward an asphalt taxiway. He made a left turn of approximately 60 degrees (likely in an attempt to avoid the taxiway and land in the grass), flared late and struck the ground at high speed in a 20-degree bank. He received immediate medical attention, and a helicopter airlifted him to a local hospital, but he died from multiple blunt-force trauma on the way. 

♦ A 29-year-old female with 1,850 skydives and 12 years of experience was jumping a 97-square-foot cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 1.5:1. At approximately 500 feet above the ground, she initiated a 270-degree turn toward a swoop pond. She struck the water in a steep, diving descent and came to a stop face down in the pond. First responders reached her very quickly and began to administer first aid until emergency medical services arrived and took over. She was unresponsive and declared deceased upon arrival at the hospital.

♦ A 23-year-old female with 700-plus jumps and three years of experience was jumping a 96-square-foot cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 2.2:1. Investigators reported that she initiated a 270-degree turn for her final approach over a swoop pond. It was her fourth jump of the day using the same approach. The altitude at which she initiated the turn was not reported; however, her canopy coach, who was watching on the ground, thought that it may have been slightly higher than on her previous jumps.

Still in a steep dive during the final 90 degrees of her turn, she was looking over her shoulder toward the entry gates at the swoop pond. She apparently then realized the water surface was rapidly approaching and pulled both rear risers, then both toggles, to flare the parachute for landing. However, the parachute was still descending rapidly when she struck the water at more than 60 mph. She came to a stop in the water, entangled in her parachute. First responders reached her immediately and initiated first aid until the ambulance personnel arrived and took over. She was unresponsive with no pulse and declared deceased upon reaching the hospital.    

 

What This Can Teach Us

Despite the risk of turning small and fast parachutes at low altitudes to build speed for high-performance landings, skydivers continue to attempt them. Even with thousands of jumps of experience, the risk of serious injury or death is substantial. High-performance landings require nearly flawless hand-eye coordination throughout the entire descent and landing. To the casual observer, it may appear that not much is happening, but high-speed maneuvers require a keen eye and flawless depth perception to manage the speed and energy of a parachute flying through its recovery arc. It’s an intricate balance of quickly switching between front risers, rear risers, steering toggles and harness inputs in a multitude of ways to control the parachute that is often flying toward the ground at more than 80 mph. Highly experienced canopy pilots can correct for a high- or low-altitude error throughout the recovery arc, but there are limits. And it all takes place in a matter of seconds.

Three of these fatalities involved turns started at an unsafe altitude, even though each skydiver had previous experience with high-performance landings. One of the jumpers attempted their landing in strong and gusty winds in a downwind direction.

Target fixation may have been a factor in two of these fatalities, as the skydivers seemed to be focused on reaching the entry gates of a swoop pond and apparently lost track of their steep descent toward the water. It is possible to manage slight altitude errors through the recovery arc of the landing by using toggles or rear risers to flatten the approach of the parachute. However, if the jumper initiates a turn much too low or the parachute remains in a steep dive for too long, it becomes impossible to recover to straight-and-level flight before reaching the ground at a high speed. Once a jumper realizes a turn is too low, they must stop turning and flare the parachute. 

As parachute designs have continued to improve and advance, wing loading has increased as the square footage continues to shrink. In the early 1990s, a 60- or 70-square-foot parachute was not available for sale from any parachute manufacturer. Today it is not that unusual to find someone at a drop zone flying a 60-to-70-square-foot parachute at a wing loading of 3:1.

The four jumpers in this category were either very experienced or moderately experienced and had advanced to higher wing loadings with canopy coaching. However, rapid downsizing was likely a factor with three of these fatalities. With 700 to 1,250 jumps of experience, these three jumpers likely decreased the size of their parachutes quickly to reach these higher wing loadings.

All four were equipped with visual and audible altimeters that provided accurate altitude information, yet three of the jumpers chose to initiate turns much too low for a safe landing. Even with professional canopy coaching and the latest in parachute designs and altitude tracking equipment, the risks of attempting high-performance landings remains substantial and unforgiving of any mistakes made close to the ground.

 

Unintentional Low Turn 0—0% (2004-2023—7.1%)

There were no fatalities in this category in 2023.

 

Non-Low-Turn-Related 2-20% (2004-2023 12.0%)

♦ A 33-year-old male to whom English was a second language was making his first skydive, an accelerated freefall jump with two instructors. He reportedly performed well during ground school, and his exit, freefall and deployment were uneventful. The jumper was flying a yellow parachute loaded at 0.8:1, and there were two other students under canopy at the same time, one of which was also under a yellow parachute. An instructor on the ground was assisting the students with radio instructions while they were under canopy and reminded all three to head to the holding area upwind of the landing area. The other two students remained in the correct holding area, where the position of the sun made it difficult for the ground instructor to see them clearly, but this jumper flew in a downwind direction away from the main landing area and did not respond to radio instructions to turn toward it. He was conscious and steering the parachute but responded only sporadically to commands.

♦ Once he was too far downwind to make it to the main landing area, he was instructed to land in a clear area and avoid any trees or other obstacles. He was then seen making a slight input to his right toggle just before the left side of his parachute struck a 50-foot-tall tree. Had he steered slightly more to the right, his parachute would have missed the tree and he would have landed in a clear area. The canopy partially collapsed, causing it to spin to the ground. He landed hard in a diving spin. An ambulance was driving past as this occurred, and the crew provided immediate medical assistance. However, he did not respond to first aid and was declared dead at the scene.

♦ A 36-year-old male, who held only an A license although he had 200-plus skydives and two years of experience, was jumping a 150-square-foot semi-elliptical parachute at a wing loading reported to be slightly more than 1:1. He had recently downsized from a 170-square-foot parachute. Investigators did not report whether he had completed the USPA B license canopy training or any other canopy courses. He was visiting this drop zone for a special event and organizers were not aware of his previous skydiving history, but investigation later revealed that jumpers at his home drop zone had counseled him about his aggressive canopy control and hard riser turns.

His exit, freefall and initial parachute descent were uneventful. Witnesses on the ground observed him entering the landing pattern at approximately 1,000 feet using a series of aggressive rear-riser turns. Approximately 600 feet above the ground, he made another aggressive turn by pulling down hard on the right-rear riser. The parachute collapsed on the right side, developed line twists and began spinning hard to the right. This jumper was observed trying to kick out of the line twists for the remainder of the descent. He struck the ground hard while he was still rapidly spinning and in a steep descent. He received immediate first aid but had died instantly from the hard impact.

 

What This Can Teach Us

First skydives are a stressful and adrenaline-filled experience, and it is easy for students to become confused. Object fixation may have caused the jumper to hit the tree, or he may have thought he was clear, not realizing the parachute was wide enough to catch its branches. He may also have been confused with his radio instructions since there was a second student in the air with the same-color parachute. In addition, English was his second language, and studies have shown that translating language is difficult in stressful situations when there is a lot of adrenaline flowing. In the article “Jump, Salto, Saut” in the August 2006 edition of Parachutist, the author writes: “According to studies, the ability to translate from a second language greatly diminishes during a stressful situation, and bilingual subjects placed in these situations tend to revert back to their native languages. Translation is largely a cognitive process, but stress produces an increase in the phonemic, as compared to the semantic, processing of information.” This is one possible explanation for his acceptable performance during the classroom training but failing to respond to radio instructions during the jump. 

Any turns initiated under canopy should be smooth and balanced, especially below the decision altitude for emergency procedures. Regardless of the size of the parachute or the wing loading, aggressive toggle or riser input can induce line twists. If the parachute spins into line twists too low for a safe cutaway, the only option is to pull the reserve ripcord and hope the reserve parachute inflates. Although an aggressive turn caused this fatality, it was not an intentional turn like those performed to build speed for landing or a turn to avoid an obstacle on landing, which was why it is categorized in the non-low-turn-related category.

The Integrated Student Program, Category G, Section 4 of the Skydiver’s Information Manual includes training and practice drills for rapid reverse turns that teaches students that there are limits to how hard and fast they should pull a steering toggle. USPA developed this canopy exercise so that throughout their skydiving careers, jumpers can carry the knowledge that each parachute has its limits as they progress toward jumping smaller and more highly loaded canopies.

From the 1990s through the early 2000s, there were approximately a half-dozen cases of skydivers—one every one or two years—who induced line twists at a low altitude and fatally spun into the ground. The last time this type of fatality occurred was in 2005, and hopefully the 18-year gap between these incidents means new skydivers have benefitted from the updated training and information available as part of the requirements for the USPA A and B Licenses. The training and information that is part of the USPA Integrated Student Program and the additional training for the USPA B-license requirements provide valuable information and practice drills that can help each skydiver become a better and safer canopy pilot.

One jumper was reportedly advised by his peers that his aggressive canopy tactics were inappropriate. Jumpers stand to gain significantly from communal knowledge and insight by actively listening to and interacting with their peers, thereby improving their safety and overall enjoyment of the sport. It is prudent for individuals to heed warnings from other jumpers about unsafe practices.

 

 

Entanglement-Instability 1—10% (2004-2023—1.79%)

A fatality falls into this category when a skydiver entangles with a main or reserve parachute due to tumbling or spinning during the deployment, and the entanglement does not allow the parachute to deploy correctly.

♦ A 31-year-old male with 800 jumps and six years of skydiving experience was jumping a 96-square-foot cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 2.3:1. His exit and freefall were uneventful. He deployed his main parachute at approximately 4,000 feet and it immediately began to spin rapidly to the right because the two A-lines at the front of the parachute were broken. After several rotations in a back-to-earth orientation, he pulled his cutaway handle to release the main parachute and soon after pulled his reserve handle. However, the reserve static line had already initiated the reserve deployment by extracting the reserve closing pin as he continued to rotate to the right on his back in a fetal position.

Video from his helmet-mounted camera revealed that his right leg caught in the front and rear suspension lines on the left side of his reserve, causing it to partially inflate and rapidly spin. He attempted to work free from the suspension lines until he struck the ground hard under the partially inflated and spinning reserve. Emergency medical personnel administered first aid but then declared him dead at the scene. His autopsy included a toxicology screening that revealed a positive result for Delta-9 THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, at a level that is associated with recent use of the drug and impairment (although the level of impairment can vary quite a bit from one person to another).

 

What This Can Teach Us

Entanglements following a cutaway are rare. Records show that since 1999, there have been nine fatalities from eight separate incidents (one was a tandem double fatality) in the U.S. from skydivers entangling with a reserve parachute following a cutaway. Six of those jumpers were not equipped with an RSL and activated the reserve by pulling their reserve ripcord while tumbling and unstable. Three jumpers were equipped with an RSL: this jumper, who was spinning under a 96-square-foot cross-braced parachute, and two jumpers who were students on solo equipment.

In every solo-skydive first-jump course, students learn to arch before pulling the cutaway handle. Arching the back and bending the knees slightly into the freefall position before pulling the cutaway handle helps to improve stability once the main parachute releases. Even when spinning rapidly back-to-earth, arching and keeping the feet and knees together causes the body to fly away from the malfunctioned parachute in a straight line, feet-first, allowing the reserve to deploy in clean air after the RSL or the jumper has deployed it. The same is true for reserves deployed by main-assisted reserve deployment (MARD) systems, which initiate reserve deployment even faster than RSLs.

Some skydivers have reported experiencing line twists of the reserve parachute following a cutaway from a spinning main parachute. However, these have proven to be uneventful due to the stable design of reserve parachutes. Keeping the feet and knees together during the reserve inflation also ensures that the risers and harness remain even on both sides, which further helps to ensure the reserve parachute flies straight and level while the jumper untwists the suspension lines. Unfortunately, this jumper remained in a fetal position, bent forward at the hips with his knees toward his chest, as he initiated the cutaway, which led to an entanglement with the reserve lines.

Equipment maintenance is an important and necessary part of skydiving. Especially on small, highly loaded main parachutes, it is critical that the user replaces the suspension lines regularly, before they reach the point of failure. Small diameter high-modulus aramid (HMA) suspension lines do not always show external signs of wear, so they can break unexpectedly. Manufacturer recommendations for line replacement for HMA-equipped parachutes can be as few as 100 sub-terminal jumps, depending on the size of the line.

Skydiving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is never a good idea, and it is against Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Slowed reactions, impaired vision and similar effects do not mix well with skydiving.          

 

 

Incorrect Emergency Procedures 1—10% (2004-2023—7.4%)

A fatality is recorded in this category when a skydiver is faced with a malfunction at an altitude that would allow for a safe cutaway and reserve deployment but fails to initiate emergency procedures or performs them out of sequence.

♦ A 48-year-old male with 745 skydives and six years of experience exited a Cessna Caravan for a solo wingsuit skydive from approximately 13,000 feet. He reportedly had previous wingsuit experience, but the number of wingsuit jumps and amount of training completed was not specified. He had previously experienced a parachute malfunction during a non-wingsuit skydive and had successfully released the main parachute and deployed his reserve.

A tandem instructor reported that shortly after deployment of his own main parachute, he observed this jumper still in freefall, rolling and unstable with an uninflated wingsuit. There were no witnesses to the jumper’s main parachute deployment. A witness on the ground observed the jumper spinning rapidly under his main parachute from approximately 1,500 feet until he disappeared behind a tree line. Another ground witness also reported observing the spinning parachute and stated that the jumper did not appear to be moving his arms or legs. A third ground witness reported hearing the jumper screaming during the descent under the spinning main parachute.

The jumper was found face down on a road in a neighborhood near the drop zone with both sleeves of the wingsuit unzipped, both main-parachute toggles stowed and the cutaway and reserve-ripcord handles in place on the harness. The automatic activation device had activated and cut the reserve closing loop, but the reserve pilot chute was entangled in the main suspension lines with approximately six feet of bridle extended. The reserve parachute was still in its freebag, lying on the ground next to the jumper. Responders declared him dead at the scene.

 

What This Can Teach Us

Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 6-9 states that poor body position or overly aggressive turns while using a wingsuit can lead to flat spins or instability and that jumpers should follow the wingsuit manufacturer’s recommendations for recovering to stable wingsuit flight. If the jumper has not recovered by 6,000 feet AGL, they should deploy the main parachute. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-1 recommends that students and A-license holders initiate emergency procedures by 2,500 feet AGL and B- through D-license holders by 1,800 feet AGL.

Investigators were unable to determine why the main parachute was spinning or determine why the jumper did not initiate emergency procedures. SIM Section 5-1 warns a spinning malfunction can lose altitude significantly faster than a parachute flying straight and level, and it will require a faster response. Investigators noted that the jumper had unzipped the arms of his wingsuit, although wingsuits are designed to allow enough range of motion to perform emergency procedures without unzipping the arm wings.

 

Equipment Problems 1—10% (2004-2023—13.5%)

A fatality falls into this category when it is due to a problem with the parachute or harness-and-container system. The most common causes are related to packing or assembly errors and maintenance issues such as worn components or incorrectly performed maintenance.

♦ A 69-year-old male with approximately 5,000 skydives and 24 years of experience performed a solo skydive from a King Air from approximately 14,000 feet AGL. His exit, freefall and main parachute deployment were uneventful. He was jumping a cross-braced parachute at a wing loading of 2.3:1. Investigators reported that his descent under parachute placed him flying away from the main landing area toward the edge of the airport property. They believe that if he had performed a 90-degree turn to the left, he probably could have landed in a clear area on the edge of the airport property. Instead, at approximately 200 feet above the ground, the parachute made a hard right turn and the jumper struck the driveway of a residence, coming to a stop in the front yard. The hard impact after the steep, diving descent killed him instantly.

Later inspection of the main parachute found the left steering line knotted around the rear riser (which most likely occurred when the jumper released the brakes) and the toggle pulled through the excess loop of steering line that forms when the brakes were set. A review of video footage of his previous skydives showed that after his main deployment he would use a lot of time and altitude detaching his removeable slider, folding it neatly and placing it in his jumpsuit. He would then steer the parachute using rear risers and release his brakes while entering the landing pattern, which left little time to identify any problems with the parachute and certainly not enough altitude to initiate emergency procedures.

 

What This Can Teach Us

Landing safely under a controllable parachute is an essential part of every skydive. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-1 recommends that as soon as practical after main parachute deployment, skydivers should release the brakes, perform a turn in both directions and perform a practice flare to ensure the parachute can be steered and flared. This ensures that the main parachute is functioning normally before reaching the decision altitude (no lower than 2,500 feet AGL for students and A-license holders or 1,800 feet for B- through D-license holders). Jumpers can then focus on the rest of the parachute descent and landing.

Additional post-deployment tasks such as detaching a removeable slider use up time and altitude. At a high wing loading, even after full inflation with the brakes set, a parachute will descend very quickly. Skydivers should adjust their deployment altitude to ensure that they can complete any necessary post-deployment tasks and a control check before reaching the decision altitude.

Setting the brakes and stowing the excess loop of steering line properly should be part of every main parachute pack job. Leaving a large loop of steering line beside the riser after setting the brakes is asking for trouble. Years ago, manufacturers stopped using Velcro and began using elastic or binding tape keepers to stow toggles and the excess steering line on rear risers. But skydivers often ignore the packing instructions, and leave the excess steering line as a large, loose loop. Spend the extra minute it takes to properly stow the excess loop of steering line to eliminate the chances of fouling the main parachute.

The risk of an injury or death from attempting to land a parachute that is not fully controllable increases as wing loading increases. Jumpers must manage the fast forward speed and high descent rate of highly loaded canopies to near perfection on every landing.

Once the jumper discovered the disabled steering line below his decision altitude, steering and landing into a clear area using just the rear risers may have been the only option left. However, he may not have felt he could reach a clear area. This accident demonstrates how a combination of problems can stack up in a very short time and lead to a fatal outcome.     

 

 

Medical 1—10% (2004-2023—9.18%)

A fatality falls into this category when a skydiver experiences a medical emergency such as a heart attack or seizure after exiting the airplane or the skydiver commits suicide (a mental-health-related fatality).

♦ A 44-year-old female with two skydives and two months of experience was making her second skydive, an instructor-assisted deployment (IAD) jump from a Cessna 182 at approximately 3,500 feet. She was the third student to exit the airplane, followed by her instructor. The instructor threw the student’s pilot chute as she let go of the airplane. He observed her main parachute begin to inflate as he exited, but he did not witness the entire inflation as he was dealing with a deployment problem of his own.

An instructor on the ground assisting the three students via radio reported that this student’s main parachute opened normally, that she performed a control check of the parachute and responded to his instructions to fly toward the holding area. He then focused his attention on one of the other students. Shortly thereafter, he observed this jumper’s parachute in a slow turn that continued to accelerate into a spin.

The instructor who exited the airplane did not see the student’s initial control check and parachute flight due to his delayed opening, but observed her once the parachute was already spinning. He pursued her as she continued in a spin and saw that her parachute was in line twists and that she appeared to be unconscious and unresponsive. The spin continued until she struck the ground. He immediately landed near her, and another licensed skydiver was already at the scene. The student was unresponsive with a weak pulse, so the instructor administered CPR until emergency medical personnel arrived and took over. Following this incident, investigators discovered that this jumper had experienced seizures in the past. First responders found that she had a severely swollen tongue, which can be a sign of seizures that influence muscle control. She died from blunt-force trauma to the head, neck and torso.

 

What This Can Teach Us

There were no witnesses who observed this skydiver when her parachute began to turn, and investigators could not determine the cause of the line twists. It’s possible that a steering line was pulled down and trapped in the line twists, but the main parachute was disconnected to administer first aid, so it was not possible to determine whether that or something else was the cause. It is possible that she experienced a seizure while under canopy that led to involuntary muscle control and an induced line twist. However, a definitive answer as to why her parachute entered a turn fast enough to induce a line twist cannot be determined based on the available information.  

 

General Comments

Students

Two solo students died in 2023, which is tragic but an improvement over the previous year. In 2022, there were five student fatalities, which included three tandem students. There were no tandem student fatalities in 2023. Student fatalities in past years have been slightly higher than 2023, with an average of 3.4 per year from 2000-2009 and 2.8 for 2010-2019. Only one year has ever ended with no student fatalities: 2021.

Evolution

Skydiving has always been an evolving sport with constant changes in equipment and training. Similarly, the causes of fatal accidents have also evolved through the years. Decades ago, most skydiving fatalities came from no/low pulls or equipment problems. The widespread use of automatic activation devices and reserve static lines (or main-assisted reserve deployment systems, a type of RSL), increased deployment altitudes and improvements in equipment design and materials have nearly eliminated fatalities in categories that used to contribute significantly to the annual total. Improved student training programs, widespread improvements in canopy training at all experience levels and more emphasis on safety at the drop zone have combined to help reduce the number of fatalities to record lows while the total number of skydives each year has continued to increase.

Landings

Beginning in the early 1990s, deaths under normally functioning main parachutes began to escalate. Zero-porosity fabric and improved designs provided large gains in performance, allowing skydivers to jump with much smaller parachutes at increased wings loadings. Training and education on how best to fly these smaller and faster parachutes lagged, and rapid downsizing became a problem. However, in recent years, we’ve made progress. The canopy training contained in the Integrated Student Program and the additional training required for the USPA B license helped to reduce the number of parachute-related fatalities in the Unintentional-Low-Turn category (involving mostly newer jumpers).

Fatalities in the Intentional-Low-Turn category remain stubbornly high. Initially, most of these fatalities were due to skydivers rapidly downsizing and flying small parachutes with relatively low experience levels and a lack of knowledge about high-performance parachute flight. More recently, the shift is toward fatalities involving skydivers who have plenty of training and experience. Wing loadings are higher than ever before, and parachutes are reaching incredible speeds and descent rates. Over the years, many very experienced and talented canopy pilots have been severely injured or killed while attempting high-performance landings because there is simply no room for any error close to the ground. Despite all the risks involved with flying small parachutes, skydivers continue to move toward higher wing loading and high-performance landings.

Blurred Lines

Although fatalities fall into certain categories based on how the skydive and sequence of events unfolded, last year small parachutes played a part in seven fatalities in three different categories. Regardless of whether the fatality was due to equipment maintenance, packing error or low turns, small parachutes were involved 70% of the time. This highlights just how challenging skydiving with small and fast parachutes can be. Not only does the landing need to be nearly perfect every time, but skydivers need to exercise caution with every aspect of the skydive. Even with a cautious approach and structured training, just a small mistake can be fatal. Those who decide to jump with smaller and faster parachutes need to decide if the substantial risks involved are worth the reward.

Nearly Fatal

Not included in this annual summary are reports of the serious injuries that occur around the country. There are a significant number of near-fatal injuries each year, mostly stemming from high-performance-landing attempts gone wrong. The severity can be substantial, leading to both temporary and permanently life-altering consequences for the injured skydiver. Thanks to the efforts of first responders and more readily available access to life-flight helicopters, badly injured skydivers have survived serious injuries that may have been fatal in previous years. Some injuries can lead to a lifetime of aches and pains from broken bones, and many jumpers have experienced permanent paralysis when the injury involved damage to the spinal column.

 

The work continues to further improve the safety record of skydiving. As time goes by, we slowly inch forward toward an improved record and lower annual totals. There are no secrets or surprise causes for any of the fatalities now. The reasons are clear, and for the most part easily avoidable. It is a never-ending collective effort from equipment manufacturers, the Parachute Industry Association, USPA, hundreds of drop zone owners, thousands of instructors and coaches and the individual efforts of tens of thousands of skydivers. A strong drop zone safety culture and each skydiver’s focus on adhering to the sport’s rules, regulations and best safety practices will help to ensure that the annual number of fatalities continues to decline. Hopefully, maybe even sometime soon, we’ll see it at zero.

 


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. He now spends his time happily flying other people’s airplanes for aerial survey flights.

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