Safety Check | Community Responsibility
Safety Check | Feb 24, 2023
Safety Check | Community Responsibility

Ron Bell

Photo above by Mike McGowan.

When a skydiving fatality happens, USPA dissects the incident looking for lessons. It then analyzes the issues and holds them up against current rules and recommendations to see whether updates are needed to raise the safety bar. But regulations and standards are only helpful if the skydiving community realizes their intent and embraces their concepts. Let's look at two examples of how incidents are a community issue.

In the first example, USPA received a report of a fatal incident that said the jumper “was known as a conservative canopy pilot," but also noted that he downsized to a 135-square-foot high-performance elliptical parachute at 320 jumps, a choice that was anything but conservative. The claim that the jumper was “conservative” is in direct contrast to the standards that USPA has developed and placed in Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-3, which states, "Any parachute 150 square feet or smaller is considered a high-performance parachute and falls into the D-license guideline regardless of the wing loading," as well as the canopy manufacturer’s statement that the model is suitable for advanced and expert canopy pilots.

To sustain a strong safety culture, we must not ignore violations of sensible and well-researched recommendations. This jumper’s choices were high-risk, regardless of how he flew the canopy. Jumpers in a risk-aware culture would have identified these high-risk choices and impressed upon this jumper that he was taking a dangerous path. Excusing shoddy choices normalizes deviance and others will begin to see these poor choices as acceptable. If a jumper with 320 jumps arrives at an entry-level canopy-control course with a heavily loaded, high-performance canopy, the instructor of that course should point out the inappropriate canopy choice. And it is entirely appropriate for that coach to refuse to work with someone operating beyond current recommendations. 

Of course, sometimes jumpers will take additional steps to advance their skills so they can exceed the recommendations as safely as possible. Although the community may not want to hold the jumper back from this goal, we still need to emphasize that the jumper is aggressively pushing their limits and that it is not the normal course of events.

In another fatal incident, a jumper with fewer than 600 jumps flying a 135-square-foot semi-elliptical canopy at a wing loading of 1.8:1 died after making an intentional low turn and striking the ground without returning to level flight. The jumper was relatively new to the drop zone and local jumpers did not have any information on his canopy progression, although his jump numbers, license level and wing loading should have been red flags. On the way to altitude, others on the load thought they smelled alcohol on his breath, and a later blood test confirmed the suspicion (he was well over the legal limit to drive, much less skydive).

Mitigating the danger of a reckless jumper who bounces from DZ to DZ requires a strong safety culture at both the new DZ and the DZ that has banned the jumper. When a jumper shows up at a DZ for the first time and red flags appear, staff should call around to find out additional information. But neither should DZs simply ban a jumper and pass the problem along to an unsuspecting drop zone; they should relay their concerns to other local DZs, the regional director or USPA. In a risk-aware culture, jumpers from DZs at both ends of the equation would do their part. And strong local leadership makes fun jumpers feel more secure about speaking up when they think there may be a problem.

Certainly, each jumper needs to take responsibility for their own safety. But the community surrounding that jumper can be just as important. When an incident occurs, everyone must analyze their roles. To what extent did lack of dedication to established standards contribute? How easy did the community make it for the jumper to make their bad choices? This attitude shift is the next big hurdle in the community to improve our safety culture. If we are going to lower our fatality numbers, we need to start accepting responsibility for our actions individually and as a community!

Ron Bell | D-26863 
USPA Director of Safety and Training

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