Skydiving....A Safe Sport?

A lot of people ask about how dangerous skydiving is.  I keep telling everyone, it's not.  I think most people are afraid due to the lack of control.  If you're skiing down a mountain and something goes wrong, there's the idea you can do something as physics slides you downhill headfirst into a tree.  Skydiving accentuates the fear of flying, most of which comes from the complete and utter lack of control when something goes wrong.

Due to the technological advances in the equipment, the addition of several new pieces of equipment, there's been a huge drop in skydiving accidents in the last 10 years.   Heck, there's people who get knocked unconscious on their way out the plane door who have landed unharmed.  There is a price for this:  Sport skydiving is about 20 years old.  In the first 10 years, most of the accidents occurred in new jumpers, while the more experienced jumpers were safe.  In last 10 years, the improvements in safety gear and the higher performance equipment has led to people pushing the edge.  Now the newer skydivers (<200 jumps) rarely have problems, while the more experienced skydiver (200 to 5000 and up) are pushing the edge...and paying the price.  In 1999, 75% of accidents were by D-licensed skydivers (the highest rating).  The lowest rating, "A" license skydivers were only about 10%.  Hook turns (which are very low altitude [under 50 feet], high velocity, "this looks cool" turns) kill over half the skydivers.

Even with those deaths, the majority of which are caused by "showing off," there's some statistics plus an article that show how safe it really is.  

For a comparison to other sports, check the table printed on page 13 of the April 1990 issue of Parachutist. Here is a comparison of the risks of participating in various activities. It was put together by the U.S. Hang Gliding Association using data collected from various air sports organizations and melding it with data from the National Safety Council and other sources.

                                Fatalities  Rate per 100,000
Activity            Participants  per year   participants/yr
All accidents       230,000,000    96,000         42
Traffic  Fatalities 162,850,000    46,000         28
Power Boat Racing         7,000         5         71
SCUBA                   300,000       140         47
Mountaineering           60,000        30         50
Boxing                    6,000         3         50
Air Shows                 1,000         5        500
Homebuilt                 8,000        25        312
General Aviation        550,000       800        145
Sailplane                20,000         9         45
Balloon                   4,500         3         67
Hang Gliding             25,000        10         40
SKYDIVING               110,000        28         25

The skydiving stats are for 1988, and it implies that the other figures are for 1989.

Jumpers: Skydiving safety not an oxymoron
Cody V. Aycock, Times Record News

To a lot of people, "skydiving" and "safety" are hard to fit in the same sentence. But things have changed drastically since Allied forces jumped from planes over Europe during World War II. Saturday, thousands of jumpers nationwide, including those at Skydive Rio Vista in Grandfield, Okla., will participate in National Skydiving Safety Day to reiterate safety training and practices. The center, at Grandfield Municipal Airport, will be open from 9 a.m. until sunset.

Elliptical wings and ever-smaller canopies have evolved from the lumbering, circular parachutes that slowly twisted and turned the early jumpers toward earth. Their slow descents turned many fighting men into dangling targets, while landing the parachutes left countless others with broken ankles and legs. Now, instead of letting the wind and ground dictate the terms, skydivers can swoop from the heavens at faster speeds and with better accuracy, pulling their parachutes at much lower altitudes. And if all goes as planned, they land on their feet.

But an increasing number of skydivers are pushing the computer-designed canopies and the sport's latest safety devices to the limit -- and sometimes to their own deaths. In 1996, high-performance landings accounted for about half of the 39 deaths recorded by the U.S. Parachute Association. Thirty-two skydivers died in accidents in 1997, but the association hasn't categorized the types of accidents yet, said Danny Brooks, director of communications for the association.

Eighteen skydivers, either because of the canopy's inability to perform a maneuver or operator error, were killed in accidents in 1996 - seven more than the two previous years combined, according to the association. Most skydiving accidents are the result of a chain of events, and breaking that chain of equipment or instructor mistakes will help reduce the sport's death rate, according to the association.

Mike Marthaller, president of Skydive Rio Vista in Grandfield, said skydiving goes through cycles of increased fatalities when new technological advances are made in the sport. That technology includes high-performance canopies and automatic activation devices, which deploy parachutes at a pre-selected altitude. Aiming for bragging rights and the most difficult maneuvers, skydivers can become too dependent on their equipment and often expect it to save them, instead of focusing on their preparation and keeping a level head, Marthaller said. "People have become so complacent because of the reliability of their equipment," he said.

All told, skydiving enthusiasts say 39 and 32 are low numbers of deaths in light of the 3.25 million jumps done per year - less than 1 per 100,000 in 1996.

On average, skydiving enthusiasts point out, 32 people die in snow skiing accidents per year, while more than 60 died in snowmobile accidents. And the biggest fear of most first-time skydivers --- failure of both the main and reserve parachutes chutes - rarely occurs, they say. "The odds of two chutes failing is almost incalculable," said Marthaller, who has logged more than 3,700 jumps. "I won't say it could never happen, but the odds are almost incalculable." This warning appears in the introduction to the "Skydiver's Information Manual": "Sport parachuting or skydiving is a potentially dangerous activity that can result in injury or death."

In bold, capital letters, the manual's warning continues: "Each individual participant, regardless of experience, has final responsibility for his or her own safety." Despite the warnings, automatic activation devices and tandem jumps have also left many new jumpers with the idea that skydiving requires little preparation or thought on their part, Marthaller said. "The bottom line is the only automatic device that is reliable is in between your ears, and my job is to ensure that you are properly programmed," Marthaller said. "When you leave the airplane you are on your own."

Regional Staff Writer Cody V. Aycock can be reached at (800) 627-1646 or (800) 627-1646, Ext. 538.