Danger Zone

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Are YOU in the Danger Zone?

A Dozen Factors that put you in the DANGER ZONE…

Personal factors

  • Do you have between 500 and 1,000 jumps?
  • Do you think you’re an above-average pilot for your jump numbers?
  • Are you male?
  • Have you downsized or bought a more sporty canopy in the last 100 jumps?
  • Do you have a high-pressure job?
  • Have you attended zero/one canopy skills courses?
  • Are you a very experienced tunnel flyer, with comparatively low skydiving experience?
  • Jumping alongside skydivers with much more experience than you?

Situational factors

  • Are you hung over, tired, unfit, or have an injury?
  • Are you uncurrent?
  • Are you jumping at a new DZ/ Event?
  • Do you have family or a partner with you?

If you answered ‘YES’ to more than half of those questions you are in the DANGER ZONE.

If you answered ‘YES’ to most of those questions you could easily be in the DEATH ZONE.

We asked a range of instructors and safety officers worldwide what factors in their experience place jumpers particularly at risk of having an accident in skydiving.  The above list is compiled from their collective experience in the sport, and these factors were repeated many times by different coaches.


Let’s have a closer look at each of those factors, which are interrelated…

1, Jump Numbers

Shannon Har-Noy Pilcher commented, “Within the original PD Factory Team, we came to a collective feeling that between 600-1,000 jumps is the Danger Zone… As we’ve travelled around the world and become teachers in the sport, we’ve seen that.”

Why does this jump range represent the Danger Zone? Because it can be a stage of overconfidence. You’ve been around the sport long enough to think you know more than you actually do. Which brings us to the next factor…

2, Overconfidence

If you think you’re a better than average pilot, this may be true – or you may be overconfident. Shannon expanded as follows…

Shannon Pilcher, Flight-1 and PDFT

“It’s about the 4 levels of mastery

                        1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know. Ignorance is bliss.

                       2. Conscious incompetence –  you know what you don’t know. “Wow, I’ve got still got a lot to learn.”

                        3. Conscious Competence  – you know what you know…and what you know is not enough for many situations… so that’s the Danger Zone

                       4. Unconscious Competence – you don’t know what you know…this is the mastery that Malcom Gladwell says is gained from 10,000hrs of repetition.

“I broke my femur when I had 600-700 jumps and I broke my back a year later with probably under a thousand jumps. I wish I had been aware of this phase – conscious competence – of being a bit of a Danger Zone when you start to become overconfident.”

Shannon Pilcher, Flight-1 and PDFT

3, Male

It’s a fact that proportionally far fewer women die than men.

Bryan Burke

“Statistically, women die in far smaller numbers than their representation in the sport. Women don’t seem to be as obsessed with recognition and peer pressure and are more likely to make wise decisions about things like standing down in marginal conditions, wing loading, overly ambitious dive plans, and so on.”

Bryan Burke, Skydive Arizona Safety & Training Adviser

4, Are you on the right canopy?

Have you recently downsized or moved to a higher performance canopy? Be aware the margin for error if you get into a situation is hugely reduced.

“My personal biggest red flag always comes into play with people who are much too confident about their own skills. Those people who fly canopies well above their skill set. I’ve seen so many people who were not flying the right canopy or the right size, who have had accidents that would probably not have happened if they had been flying the right wing.”

“The most distressing thing is that this kind of skydiver will always be active. From really dumbass people to super-smart highly qualified people: it’s a certain part of their character they all have in common. Lacking to understand or believe that they do not have the talent they need to safely fly such a parachute in all circumstances. They will definitely be safer when they get canopy coaching, but if you don’t have the talent, then coaching alone will not prevent that accident waiting to happen.”

Grim Swinnen, Flight-1 instructor

5, Do you have a high-pressure job?

You might wonder what relevance that has to skydiving accidents. Bryan Burke explains…

“I’ve seen a very high correlation between people who have dangerous jobs, or were very highly successful in business, and serious skydiving miscalculations. In particular, men often believe that a high level of competence in one field – especially a challenging one – means they are more competent than most people. Which is like saying that being a good guitar player should automatically make you a great high-performance canopy pilot.”

Bryan Burke

6, Lack of training

Pete Allum’s number 1 Red Flag is some-one who has a poor understanding of canopy control – all elements. If you have only taken one or zero canopy skills courses you probably lack understanding of the various ways of flying a parachute.

Jason Moledzki, Flight-1 Instructor had this to say,

Jason Moledzki, Flight-1, PDFT

“Most definitively the key factor is, the lack of developmental skill acquisition in an equal or greater proportion to the rate of increasing risk assumption. Most certainly this is a flawed recipe. Unfortunately, it is not always easy for us to recognize this flaw in our perspective, this is the lack of ‘experience’ showing itself. Experience informs us to recognize our errors before they become accidents. 

“Wisdom comes from experience, experience is gained as a result of having made mistakes, mistakes happen when we take risks… There are two ways to survive taking risks; good luck and good training. For me, I’ll take a healthy serving of luck right alongside the best training I can possibly get.”

Jason Moledzki, Flight-1

7, Highly experienced tunnel flyer with relatively low skydiving experience

Julian Barthel, Flight-1 instructor
Photo by Vania Da Rui

“Skilled tunnel flyers with comparatively low skydiving experience, especially freeflyers, tend to get disoriented, their inner clock is off, and they get into big or technical jumps outside their ability level. It’s easy to think that being an amazing tunnel flyer makes you automatically an experienced skydiver – but there are countless extra skill sets required. Sometimes people are nervous to approach them offering help or advice on safety or canopy matters, because they are such good flyers.”

Julian Barthel, Flight-1

8, Part of a group of much more advanced skydivers (with smaller canopies)

“It’s easy to get sucked into the belief that they can fly small canopies because their peers do. This is especially dangerous if combined with the tunnel flyer mentioned above,” commented Julian Barthel, Flight-1 instructor. “Peer pressure can compound this problem for people who are extrinsically motivated, the wish for the respect of others around them pushes them out of their depth to try and prove themselves.”

On the other hand, it’s important not to think coaching can substitute for real worldexperience. As high-level coaching is more accessible and affordable than ever, this can lull jumpers into overestimating their ability. Survival skills are very different to freefall skills but there is a danger of assuming they come as a set together.

Progressing too quickly

Factors 7 and 8 are examples of a risky trend in the sport, which is people ‘progressing’ too quickly for safety, as Andy Pointer, Skydive Algarve explained,

Andy Pointer, Skydive Algarve Instructor

“We see people go for 1 on 1 coaching for weekends at a time, and then suddenly go from 2 ways to 10-way group jumps. Body flight ability isn’t everything and awareness is something that is very difficult to improve artificially, even with very high level 1 on 1 coaching. Another perfect example is the expectation that hours in the tunnel should translate directly to group jumping experience.

“And it’s the same process with canopy sizes. I regularly have people with less than 1,000 jumps ask to jump very small Velos, JVXs, even Valkyries and Leias. And they’ve always done countless canopy courses and have a couple of references. The problem is that the few jumps that they’ve got have been hop and pops or high pulls; dedicated canopy jumps with clear airspace where landing on the PLA is all but a certainty. Unfortunately, they don’t always have a huge amount of experience landing off, flying in heavy traffic or recovering from low turns (to give some examples), on slower, more forgiving canopies. When these situations occur on a fast, cross-braced wing, they’ve never had to deal with them before, and they might not have the skill set to fix it in time.

“Coaching is brilliant. Essential. And progress will always be way faster with a coach than without. But experience is essential too, and can only happen through lots of jumps and lots of years. I do witness people trying to substitute one for the other. I don’t want this to sound discouraging – people should get all the coaching they can, and move on to fun, challenging jumps when they are ready. Just be wary of straying too far from your comfort zone, and remember that awareness and experience are just as important as physical flying ability. Finding yourself in the middle of a jump, or landing a parachute that suddenly feels outside of your capabilities is a very unpleasant place to be.”

Andy Pointer, Skydive Algarve


The first eight factors are more personal, and are especially dangerous when combined with any/all of the four Situational factors…

9, Unfit to jump

“Being physically or mentally unprepared is a big problem. This includes physical problems, injuries, tiredness, substance/alcohol mis-use, lack of currency with emergency procedures.”

Pete Allum, Flight-1

10, Uncurrent

Lack of currency is a real issue as your awareness, perception, skill set and judgement depend on recent exposure to the freefall/canopy environment.

“People with big gaps between jumps are in danger. Medium jump numbers over long periods of time (like 1,000 jumps in 20 years). People with low ability for their experience.” –Julian Barthel, Flight-1

“Currency needs to be considered in a longer-term capacity. Someone can meet currency requirements of a DZ or a federation, and still have only 300 jumps over 15 years. These guys have never been truly current. Always just about meeting the criteria to be allowed to jump and then taking another lay off. They are a big danger zone for me and also one that can slip under the radar sometimes.” –Andy Pointer, Skydive Spain

11, Jumping at a new DZ

It’s common to have accidents at a new DZ, especially after a long travel. Maybe make a small or solo jump to start, to minimise your overload.

Dedric Hourde, European Marketing Rep

“A group the most at risk are travelling skydivers, especially those going on vacation, especially for the first time, to a fun boogie in a foreign country, where skydiving rules are more flexible than in their own country.”

Dedric Hourde, PD

12, Do you have family or a partner with you?

Be aware this can change your mindset.

“It’s common to have accidents when trying to impress a new or possible future girlfriend or family, or when you’re not fully focussed on skydiving because you’re distracted by family or friends.” – Dedric Hourde, PD


So, there we have it, the 12 biggest factors that signify a jumper is at risk. Of course, they are related. All our advisers highlighted overconfidence as a huge risk factor – which then spills over into other factors such as choosing an overly sporty canopy, and making jumps that are too risky for your experience, condition and/or prevailing weather.

ALL our advisers highlighted overconfidence as a huge risk factor

What can we do about it?

You may recognise someone at your dropzone who ticks all these boxes. You can try to talk to them, in a non-aggressive manner, about making good choices. For example, starting the post-COVID period gently (when we are all uncurrent), making only small jumps in low stress situations at the beginning, building up gradually, perhaps on a larger canopy at first.

As Brian Germain said in his excellent aricle, SAY SOMETHING!, If we do not say anything, or we are ineffective due to our failure to communicate, we have a degree of blood on our hands.”

You may well have ticked most of the boxes but you still don’t think this article applies to you. You’re not at risk, you’re a great canopy pilot!  The problem with overconfidence is that it’s very hard to recognise in yourself.  It’s easier to see from the outside. Most highly experienced skydivers – legends – have looked back at their younger selves and recognise a stage of overconfidence.  Try to understand the four stages of competence and identify if you may be in the Danger Zone.  If different people – other jumpers, instructors, coaches – are talking to you about your canopy skills/choices, they probably have a good reason.  As hard as it is for you to believe they could be right, if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to listen, this could just save your life.

  • Do you feel some of the DZ rules don’t apply to you? 
  • Or that there is no reason you should wait till X number of jumps before wearing that camera/downsizing/freeflying?
  • Do you sometimes miss a gear check or forget to turn on your AAD?
  • Do you feel you are blamed for the mistakes of others?

These are all symptoms of overconfidence and complacency. Another symptom of complacency is lack of knowledge or interest in your own equipment, relying on others to check it and let you know when it needs maintenance.

Noel Purcell, Chief Instructor,
Skydive Hibaldstow

“To me the biggest issues are complacency and pride. People just assume because they’ve done it before they can do it again. Most don’t know if they were close to the line and if the outcome could have been different. We all need to stop and think after each jump, did the freefall go to plan and were my landing pattern and landing good? Just a few seconds to think might prevent something in the future. I’m not saying we need to birch ourselves after every jump. But we do need to think, and if we aren’t sure, go ask for help or coaching. It’s our pride that stops us from asking for help, and that can be costly.”

Noel Purcell, Chief Instructor, Skydive Hibaldstow

Food for Thought

I’ll leave you with an extract from an email from Bryan Burke, “A few years ago, I talked to a guy visiting [Skydive Arizona] from Europe who was consistently turning too low on a canopy that he had recently downsized to. He had to stab out almost every landing. The second time I talked to him (after talking with his friends, who were very worried) I just asked him some questions.

“How old are you?” ‘Thirty’

“How many jumps do you have?” ‘A little more than 1,000’

“How many jumps did you make on your previous canopy before you bought this one?” ‘Three or four hundred’

“What do you do for a living?”  ‘I’m in the military.’

“You just checked four out of four boxes. Make sure all of your paperwork is in order in case you end up in the hospital, or dead.”

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Meet: Lesley Gale

Lesley has been in love with skydiving for 35 years. She is a multiple world and national record holder and a coach on 20 successful record events worldwide. She has over 100 competition medals spanning more than 25 years and has been on the British 8-way National team at World events. She started Skydive Mag to spread knowledge, information and passion about our amazing sport.
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