How safe is skydiving?
Skydiving is a popular sport in the U.S., and in 2020, participants made approximately 2.8 million jumps at more than 200 USPA-affiliated skydiving centers across the country. In 2020, USPA recorded 11 fatal skydiving accidents, a rate of 0.39 fatalities per 100,000 jumps. This is comparable to 2019, where participants made more jumps—3.3 million—and USPA recorded 15 fatalities, a rate of 0.45 per 100,000.
Each fatality is a heartbreak for the skydiving community, which has collectively taken steps each year to learn from these events and improve the sport. Consequently, better technology, improvements to equipment and advancements in skydiver-training programs have made the sport safer than ever before.
USPA (then called the Parachute Club of America) began keeping records on annual fatalities in 1961, and that first year, PCA recorded 14 skydiving deaths. The numbers increased significantly over the next two decades, peaking in the late 1970s, when fatalities were in the 50-plus range for several years. The annual number of deaths stayed in the 30s through the 1980s and 1990s before beginning a slow, general decline after 2000. In 2018, the annual fatality count hit a record low of 13, followed by 15 in 2019. Now we’re at another record low of 11 in 2020.
Tandem skydiving—where you’re attached to an experienced skydiving instructor for your jump—has an even better safety rate, with one student fatality per 500,000 jumps on average over the past 10 years.
Each January, USPA gathers data for the production of an annual fatality summary. Examining each fatality from the previous year and comparing that information to the same categories in the previous five-year and 10-year periods helps the USPA Board of Directors and staff identify trends. This in turn allows the Safety & Training Committee to make informed decisions on any changes needed to policies, rules or recommendations, and it informs the staff so they can educate the membership on problem areas.
The trends are definitely heading in the right direction, especially when you consider the actual fatality index rate, not just the total number of fatalities. The index rate—which shows the number of fatalities per 100,000 skydives—provides a consistent standard based on the level of activity each year. In other words, it takes into account any drop off in activity due to circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed many drop zones for the spring season then forced them to operate at a reduced level for the rest of the year. Interestingly, although many DZs reported a reduction in the total number of jumps in 2020, quite a few reported an increase in tandem skydives.
What are the risks involved?
Like any outdoor sport, skydiving involves inherent risks, but proper preparation and good judgment can minimize the vast majority of them. If you’re unfamiliar with skydiving, you may think that equipment failure causes most skydiver deaths. Although no equipment can be perfect, modern parachute equipment incorporates advanced safety features and undergoes testing in conditions that far exceed the stresses it will endure on a normal jump. Each parachute system is equipped with a main and reserve parachute, and all student systems include an automatic activation device that will release the reserve if the main parachute does not deploy. (Most experienced skydivers also equip themselves with this device.) Skydivers train and retrain each year to handle malfunctions. In 2020, 8% of skydivers reported using their reserve parachute.
The reality is that the vast majority of skydiving accidents are a result of simple human error. Many of the accidents occur because the jumper—oftentimes an experienced skydiver who is pushing the limits— makes an error in judgement while landing a perfectly functioning parachute.
What about jumping out of a “perfectly good” skydiving aircraft?
Skydiving operations have a much lower accident rate than all of general aviation. There was a single skydiving-related aircraft accident in 2020, which was not fatal. The aircraft sustained damage and its pilot sustained minor injuries during an off-airport landing after the pilot had released all skydivers at normal jump altitude. Skydive jump pilots receive thorough training prior to flying skydivers, and that training must include aircraft-specific systems, preflight inspections, weight and balance considerations and proper fuel management. Skydivers receive instruction on how to respond to aircraft emergencies during their initial student training, and most skydiving centers reinforce this training at various times of the year, most often during USPA Safety Day in March.
USPA provides jump pilot resources including the Skydiving Aircraft Operations Manual, a Jump Pilot Training Syllabus and a Flight Operations Handbook under the Governance tab
Safe skydiving centers
Skydiving centers, clubs and schools that join as USPA Group Member drop zones are required to provide USPA-developed first-jump courses, use current USPA-rated instructors and provide USPA-required skydiving equipment. Here is a list of USPA Group Members. Skydiving’s safety record stands as a testament to decades of strict safety standards, training policies and programs, including a USPA Safety Day taking place every March, as well as improvements in skydiving equipment over the years.
Check out this video of the wonderful world of skydiving!