“Modern equipment, technology and training have made skydiving so much safer than ever before.”
Well, in some ways, yes (the fatality rate has plummeted compared to 40 years ago), but in other ways, no. Over the years, skydiving has seen incredible progress in training, equipment and the evolution of so many different disciplines. It’s been absolutely amazing, even inspiring, to watch. But it’s important to realize that each technological advance in skydiving, just as in society in general, has its negative repercussions and presents new risks.
In many ways skydiving is much safer than it used to be. At the same time, the advancements in our sport have created so many more ways to hurt ourselves and each other. In addition, there are different and new situations we need to anticipate and practice for. For example:
When skydivers were jumping rounds, safety concerns mostly stopped when they had a good parachute overhead. Generally, the worst thing that would happen on landing was a broken leg. Now, with far better, faster canopies, most critical injuries and fatalities happen under fully open parachutes. The game is just starting when you have a good parachute over your head.
Prior to having audible altimeters, skydivers built up instinctive, internal freefall clocks. Most jumpers felt like they could feel, see and smell when it was time to break off and pull.
When I first got an audible, I had it for a week before it didn’t work (or I forgot to turn it on). One week was all it took for me to lose that instinct and become completely dependent on this new device. I found that out when my 4-way team was still turning points as we went through 2,000 feet. We were skydiving into the basement with smiles on our faces, unaware of how close we were to the ground.
The bigger, better jump planes we use now fly more slowly and are easier to exit from than the DC-3s and Twin Beeches we used to use. Jump-run speeds were fast, and the planes had small doors that took some time to climb out of. Jumpers never had to wait between groups. Now, exiting is so easy and quick that it’s extremely important to know the upper winds and how long you need to wait between groups to ensure adequate separation on exit.
Sharing airspace was simple when nearly all skydivers flew belly to earth, fell straight down, opened at the same altitude and jumped similar canopies. Today, belly flyers, tracking groups, angle flyers, wingsuiters, freeflyers and students may all exit on the same pass. They can be in freefall from 20 seconds to two minutes, fly straight down or horizontally for miles and fly their 70- to 370-square-foot parachutes at vastly different speeds. It’s awesome! But it’s certainly not simple.
Without 3-rings, reserve static lines (including main-assisted reserve deployment devices) and automatic activation devices, cutting away and getting a reserve out was a much more task-heavy process. Canopies weren’t nearly as reliable and most skydivers practiced their emergency procedures in their sleep every night. With modern equipment, cutting away and getting a reserve out is much easier … or so we think. But nothing is easy in high-speed, stressful situations when your life depends on acting and you have only a few seconds to execute proper procedures.
Many of us—probably even most—are over confident in ourselves, our equipment or both. We don’t develop good, instinctive altitude awareness, because we put our trust in our variety of altitude-reading devices. We expect our parachutes to open and open properly, so we’re behind the power curve when they don’t. We think knowing what to do in an emergency is sufficient, so we don’t practice emergency procedures to the point where they are automatic responses that we can make calmly and immediately on any given jump. We think our packers never make mistakes and that AADs always work.
Skydiving is the ultimate sport of self-reliance. The good decisions we make before getting on a jump serve to minimize most risks. These decisions include knowing the condition of our equipment, that we’re getting on loads we’re ready to safely be a part of and that we’ve practiced our emergency procedures and other responses to dangerous situations so that they’re automatic (just to name a few).
Safety requires a fine balance of skill and experience. One current safety concern is skydivers doing too much, too soon. AFF programs, wind tunnels and the availability of great coaching in all disciplines allow jumpers to develop amazing flying skills in very short periods of time. In particular, tunnel flyers can have incredible air skills before they’ve even made a jump. They may have the flying capabilities to get on more advanced skydives, but they don’t have the canopy skills, decision-making ability or freefall awareness necessary to keep themselves and others safe. These only come with time and experience.
This Safety Day, we need to be especially conscious of overstepping our current skill levels. It’s likely that you have not done a lot of jumping over the last 12 months. Even if you’ve been jumping a lot, those around you are likely to be less current than usual. We can create dangerous situations for each other and ourselves if we’re not smart. This is no time to be overconfident. Take it easy as you get back in the air. Review all your plans and make good decisions. Don’t rush back into it. The sky will always be ready when you are.
About the Author
Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, D-8424, is a world-champion skydiver, manager of Skydive Perris in California, motivational speaker and author of “Above All Else.” More from Brodsky-Chenfeld is available at danbrodsky-chenfeld.com.