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Every Safety Day, Skydive Arizona in Eloy tries to combine practical safety exercises in the daytime with a more generalized, thoughtful look at safety trends during an evening presentation. The latter element has always been my job and my passion. I’ve been a Safety and Training Advisor since they were known as Area Safety Officers, and although I only have a few thousand jumps, I’d be willing to bet good money that I’ve seen more jumps than anyone alive. The downside to my job is the 25 fatalities I’ve worked over the last two decades and the hundreds of serious accidents. I want to do everything I can to reduce that, and education based on solid facts is my best tool. Most of those accidents were preventable.
The 2012 fatality summaries UPSA 2012 Fatality Summary are certainly the most comprehensive and useful that USPA has ever produced, thanks largely to their decade-long perspectives. To prepare for my Safety Day talk, I combined about 750,000 jumps worth of detailed incident reports here at Skydive Arizona with USPA’s 2012 report and reports from the International Parachuting Commission (IPC). This is what I concluded.
The fact that canopy-collision fatalities and unintentional-low-turn fatalities were zero in 2012 means we can successfully train skydivers to prevent or avoid these accidents, which have been major killers in the past decade. Sure, some of the improvement was dumb luck. (We had several near misses here that could have gone much worse.) But I think at least half –probably most – of that incredible gain in safety is from improved training. The bottom line is that you need to learn good canopy skills and, no matter what your skill level, always remember one thing: every turn, top to bottom, is an accident waiting to happen. Eliminate all unnecessary turns, and execute the necessary ones with restraint and caution.
The fact that intentional low turns continue to be a major cause of fatalities for more than a decade leads to one conclusion: they cannot be made 'safe'. Every year, under-skilled, under-trained people on the wrong gear perform some of these fatal, intentional turns. But every year, incredibly skilled, highly experienced people with the best possible training, currency and equipment perform fatal, intentional turns. Deliberate high-performance landings simply can never be safe any more than Base jumping can ever be safe. When even the best can die doing it, it is not safe compared to regular skydiving practices.
Since Skydive Arizona imposed strong restrictions on intentional turns about six years ago (and began to aggressively police canopy flying in general), we have hosted more than 600,000 jumps without a fatal accident among our civilian skydivers. That’s about five times better than the US and global average. Again, could it be dumb luck? Somewhat. But the numbers are too big to ignore. Cut back on turns and you cut back on accidents.
Safety is a constantly evolving problem. Malfunctions, a major killer 25 years ago, are now almost non-events thanks to standardization of equipment and training, as well as the very high quality of containers and reserves compared to a generation ago. Landing a parachute, almost a non-event 25 years ago, became a major killer in the ‘90s and remains so today but there is real progress. I hope we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel on this problem. It is pretty clear that better canopy training and discipline could reduce the overall fatality rate by as much as 80 percent within a year or two.
What is the next fatality frontier? I’m putting my chips on the Go-Pro generation. If a team of engineers was challenged to come up with the best possible device to capture pilot-chute bridles or steering lines, I doubt they could surpass small-format cameras, unless they recommended that everyone bolt large shark-fishing hooks to their helmets. Real-life experience and practical tests have shown these cameras are very good at catching lines or bridles and not letting go (not to mention distracting the jumpers). Most of these jumpers are not equipped or trained to deal with the problem of having their main parachutes tied to their heads as they whiz through 2,500 feet. For more on this problem see; C for Camera and Common Sense
Beyond that, it seems everyone wants to post a cool video, so now I’m busting people in the 100-jump range wearing cameras and leading (on their backs!) equally inexperienced buddies on their first tracking dives… with absolutely no coaching about how tracking dives work and how their poorly-planned experiments might endanger completely innocent people in other exit groups. None of these have been our local skydivers. Either they were poorly trained at their home DZs and just didn’t know any better, or they were wilfully sneaking off to other destination DZs to try stuff without adult supervision. Either way, it is a frightening trend.
It is very reminiscent of the days when people were teaching themselves to hook turn or freefly, but with one big difference: back then, the learn-by-doing crowd had hundreds or thousands of jumps. Now they often have less than 200 jumps and don’t even realize this is a problem! We know better now, or at least we should.
DZOs, please do the sport a favor: teach your students that nothing – absolutely nothing – should be self-taught. Knowledge isn’t just power, it is survival! Tracking, angle flying, jumping with a camera – jumpers should treat these just as seriously as first-jump training, downsizing canopies, high-altitude jumps, learning to freefly, jump wingsuits or do front-riser turns for landing. I’m sure all the destination drop zones will back me on this one: we don’t need 100-jump wonders with GoPros on their heads learning to track in our airspace.
The best thing we can do for safety is to encourage everyone to ask for advice and instruction from people who are in a position to know. We’ll do our best to provide it, and when we don’t know, we’ll do our best to learn. Honest dialogue, learning from our mistakes and clear thinking about the future are the best safety tools we have.