Another Record Low—The 2020 Fatality Summary
By Jim Crouch
Without a doubt, we will remember 2020 as one of the most unusual years in recent history. Between the deadly pandemic wreaking havoc around the world and the heated political environment in the U.S., it seemed like a never-ending stream of horrible and crazy news flowed into our lives on a daily basis. So, it’s no surprise that a new record low number of skydiving fatalities—only 11 in 2020, the fewest number of U.S. civilian skydiving deaths since record keeping began—went by largely unnoticed.
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.
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.
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.
A polling of the USPA membership indicates that the total number of jumps was about 2.8 million in 2020, which represents about a 15% drop from 2019. However, even with the lower level of skydiving activity from licensed jumpers across the country, the fatality index rate was still remarkably low. In 1961, the average was approximately one fatality for every 9,000 skydives, or a rate of 11.12 fatalities for every 100,000 skydives. With 11 fatalities in 2020, there was one fatality for every 254,545 skydives, a rate of 0.39 fatalities for every 100,000 skydives. This matches the record-low fatality index rate seen in 2018.
Prior to 2000, when the annual fatality count was consistently in the 30s, fatalities would occur every week or two. In the 2010s, this began to change, and it was not unusual for several months to go by without a fatal accident, even with higher activity levels. In 2020, after one fatality in January, there were no fatalities for five months simply because there was so little skydiving taking place. Eight of the 11 fatalities occurred in June and July, just as drop zones got back into operating, and several of those seem to have been in part related to a lack of currency. By jumping frequently, skydivers can improve their situational awareness and help to reduce the inherent risks of the sport.
In each of the following categories, we listed the number of fatal accidents for the year followed by the percentage of the annual fatalities in that category. Following that is the average percentage for the previous 20 years, which allows us to see how last year stacked up against the previous two decades.
This section combines three subcategories that are all related to canopy control and landing. While each subcategory involves parachute landings, they involve separate and unique issues that different types of training and education must address to correct the mistakes. These categories are:
- Non-turn related—This category includes jumpers who were killed while landing on a hazard (such as deep water) or an obstacle (such as a tree, building or vehicle).
- Unintentional low turn—This category includes jumpers who struck the ground after making an unplanned low turn, usually in an attempt to face into the wind or avoid another parachute or obstacle at a low altitude.
- Intentional low turn—This category includes jumpers who died after initiating a turn under canopy to increase the descent rate and forward speed of the parachute for a planned high-performance landing.
A 20-year-old accelerated freefall first-jump student, who was also a licensed airplane pilot, exited a Twin Otter from 13,500 feet and had an uneventful freefall and initial canopy descent. Guided by radio, he flew his canopy correctly to the assigned holding area. However, as he began his landing pattern, he flew farther than planned on his downwind leg and over a wooded area. It is unknown whether the instructor on the ground radio gave the student a correction to his flight path or any other instructions at this time. When he turned onto his final-approach leg, the student descended toward the loading area (just on the other side of the wooded area), where the Twin Otter was taxiing to pick up the next load of jumpers. The jumper then landed on top of the airplane and struck the spinning propeller of the left engine, which killed him instantly.
What This Can Teach Us
During their first-jump courses, students learn to fly a specific canopy descent and landing pattern, then should review that plan with the instructors just before loading based on the specific wind conditions at the time of the jump. They also learn not to rely on the radio operator for guidance but to treat the radio as a back-up device.
In practice, though, students do rely on the radio, especially on the first jump where sensory overload can be high. It is unknown whether the ground radio operator was in contact with the student when the student flew too far downwind, whether the student simply did not respond to commands at that time or whether the radio operator misjudged the student’s height above the ground and distance from the intended landing spot. However, it is common for students—particularly those who are airplane pilots and used to the distances covered in powered flight—to misjudge the distances they can cover under a parachute. For these reasons, it is critical for a student to have a plan to land in a large, open area that provides plenty of space to compensate for all the variations of the landing pattern that might occur.
When faced with flying directly at a landing hazard, target fixation can be an issue, causing the jumper to subconsciously fly directly at the hazard instead of looking for a clear area and steering toward it. The first-jump-course materials in Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 4-A emphasize that jumpers should continually adjust their final approaches to keep their parachutes flying into clear, open areas free of obstacles.
Unintentional Low Turns
- A 49-year-old jumper with 24 years of experience and approximately 1,600 jumps exited a Twin Otter at 13,500 feet for a canopy formation jump using a canopy of an unreported model and size. As this group of canopies descended, another load of jumpers exited a second airplane. The two groups of jumpers descended into the landing area at the same time. As this jumper flew his base leg, he saw that he was flying directly toward the jumpers under canopy from the other load, who were already on final approach. He then made an aggressive 180-degree turn at a reported 20 feet above the ground (although this was most likely a higher altitude), and he struck the ground in a hard, diving turn.
- A 49-year-old jumper with seven years of experience and approximately 190 jumps had an uneventful exit, deployment and initial descent after exiting a Cessna Caravan at 5,500 feet. He was flying a Fluid Wings Nexus 190 loaded at 1.2:1. As he flew the base leg of his landing pattern, he remained fixated on the landing area to his left as he descended toward a tree line at a fairly low altitude. As soon as he realized how close he was to the trees, he made an abrupt turn to the left in an effort to land in the grass landing area and avoid striking the trees. (He suffered an injury the year before from hitting the same tree line.) The parachute made a steep, diving turn as the jumper lifted his feet and knees to avoid hitting the tops of the trees. He struck the ground in a steep descent approximately 20 feet from the edge of the tree line. He died of his injuries later that day in the hospital.
- A 49-year-old jumper with six years of experience and 150 jumps exited a Cessna 182 at 4,000 feet and deployed his main parachute, a PISA Hornet 210 loaded at 1.12:1, at 2,700 feet. Investigators reported that the spot was slightly far upwind but there was sufficient altitude for all four jumpers to descend normally and land in the main landing area. Witnesses on the ground observed this jumper perform an abrupt turn at a low altitude in an apparent attempt to face into the wind for landing. He struck the ground at the same time as the nose of his 210-square-foot canopy hit the ground. He was flown to a hospital in a helicopter and died of his injuries a few hours later.
What This Can Teach Us
The greatest threat of a canopy collision is above the main landing area, usually at the intersection of the base leg to final-approach leg, as jumpers prepare to land. When two different plane loads of jumpers converge into the area at the same time, and the two groups are flying landing patterns in different directions, chaos and confusion is the usual result. When winds are light and variable, it is not unusual to see jumpers landing in different directions, usually due to a lack of planning or communication among the jumpers on the load. In winds such as these, jumpers can minimize confusion by establishing a set pattern, including landing direction, and ensuring that everyone understands it. When faced with canopy traffic at low altitudes, it is important to turn just enough to avoid the impending collision and not perform a hard toggle turn while close to the ground, which is frequently a fatal mistake.
Situational awareness is a critical requirement for each skydiver to maintain during every single skydive, from gearing up before the jump to walking back to the hangar after the jump. During the descent under parachute, jumpers always need to be aware of where they are, where they will be in the next 10 seconds and where other parachutes are located. After starting the landing pattern, jumpers must continue to scan the airspace in every direction. Focusing only on the landing spot can lead to canopy collisions and unknowingly descending toward obstacles.
Low turns close to the ground are often fatal, especially when a jumper makes an unplanned hard-toggle turn in a panic to attempt to land into the wind or avoid another parachute or obstacle. When a jumper makes a low turn close to the ground, the vertical speed of the parachute rapidly increases, and the jumper will strike the ground at a high rate of descent before the parachute can level off for the landing flare. It is much safer to land with the wing level. Jumpers flying downwind or crosswind can reduce most of their horizontal speed by flaring the parachute, then sliding in the landing or performing a parachute landing fall.
Intentional Low Turn
A 59-year-old jumper with 17 years of experience and 4,500 jumps was jumping a 99-square-foot parachute of an unreported make and model at a wing loading of 2.3:1. He initiated a turn at an altitude reported only as “too low” and attempted to level off the parachute near the ground by pulling on the rear risers. The parachute abruptly stalled while the jumper was near the ground and still traveling at a high forward speed. He struck the ground feet first and tumbled violently. First responders found him unconscious with labored breathing. He was airlifted to a hospital where he died of his injuries 18 days after the accident.
What This Can Teach Us
Small, highly-loaded parachutes can provide incredible flight performance, which continues to attract jumpers to flying them. However, they provide almost zero room for incorrect control inputs such as pulling too hard on the rear risers and causing a stall. Because this stall occurred close to the ground, there was not enough altitude for the parachute to recover before the jumper struck the ground. A better option in this situation would have been to use toggles to flare the parachute instead of trying to flatten the recovery arc using rear risers. Investigators reported that this jumper was current and very experienced, but did not provide information on his experience with high-performance landings. This accident highlights the unforgiving nature of high-performance landings. When a jumper starts a turn too low, it can often be fatal if the jumper does not take steps to recover the parachute to level flight before striking the ground.
A fatality is included in the medical category when a jumper is incapacitated or dies from a heart attack or other medical problem while in freefall or descending under parachute. This category also includes jumpers who commit suicide during a skydive, as suicide is a mental-health condition that requires treatment by medical professionals.
- A 47-year-old jumper with approximately one year of experience and 39 jumps was making a currency jump after an 18-year absence from the sport. He received a complete first-jump course as refresher training before making the currency jump with an instructor. His ground training, exit, freefall and initial canopy descent were uneventful. When he was at approximately 1,500 feet, witnesses on the ground observed his parachute slowly turn away from the drop zone and then disappear from view behind a hill. First responders from the drop zone found him soon after the landing and determined he was not breathing and had no pulse. They administered first aid until the ambulance crew arrived and called a medivac helicopter. Investigators did not report whether he ever responded to the first aid, but he was either dead at the scene or died before reaching the hospital.
- A 40-year-old jumper with three years of experience and 170 jumps was making a currency jump with an instructor. He received a full review of emergency procedures, the freefall dive flow and landing procedures. The instructor reported that the exit and freefall went as planned, and the jumper tracked away and deployed above 3,000 feet. The instructor observed the deployment, which was normal, and the main parachute fully inflated. At some point after the deployment, the jumper left the harness and went back into freefall. He was found in a parking lot soon after the impact. The parachute and container were never recovered. Before the jump, he had cleaned out his locker and placed all his belongings in his car. Investigators did not find a suicide note, but determined that his death was intentional.
What This Can Teach Us
Skydiving adds physiological stress to the body. Even for those who are very current with jumping, there is an increased heart rate and surge of adrenaline on every jump. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 30.3 million Americans (approximately 12% of the population) suffer from heart disease. A whopping 48% of the U.S. population will develop some form of cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke and high blood pressure. It remains the top killer of Americans. If there is a history of heart disease in your family, it is a good idea to discuss this with your doctor to develop a plan to monitor your health. Most medical professionals recommend that adults receive an annual physical.
Suicide is a more common problem than many would think. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that suicide accounted for 1.8% of all deaths in the U.S. in 2018. Suicide by skydiving has been a small but consistent part of the total number of fatalities, averaging one fatal jump every other year for the past 20 years. Regardless of how rare it is, it is still a tragic loss when a friend or loved one commits suicide. Overall, suicide is on the rise in the U.S., especially among teens and young adults. If you know of someone who is struggling, there are many resources available for them, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
Incorrect Emergency Procedures
A fatality falls into this category when a jumper faces a malfunction that requires the use of emergency procedures and the jumper does not perform them correctly, leading to a fatal outcome. The two fatalities in this category in 2020 stemmed from a single tandem skydive.
A 35-year-old tandem instructor with eight years of experience and approximately 9,000 jumps exited a Twin Otter with his student for a tandem skydive using 365-square-foot Precision Aerodynamics tandem main canopy in a United Parachute Technologies Sigma system. The exit and freefall were uneventful. The tandem instructor deployed the main parachute at approximately 5,500 feet, and it was fully inflated at approximately 4,700 feet. However, there were tension knots on the right-side suspension lines, and the canopy began to spin. While trying to stop the spin and clear the tension knots, the left steering line became entangled with the hand-mounted video camera on the instructor’s left hand. He struggled with clearing the entanglement as the parachute rapidly lost altitude in a diving spin. Investigators estimated that he cleared the camera from the steering line at approximately 1,000 feet.
As the rapid spin continued, he disconnected the reserve static line from the right riser and pulled it to deploy the reserve parachute. Although it is unknown why he chose to do this, it was likely an attempt to deploy the reserve parachute without cutting away the main (although pulling the reserve ripcord would have activated just the reserve). However, pulling the RSL on a Sigma tandem system not only deploys the reserve pilot chute, it also releases the left main riser via the Collins lanyard. The main parachute then partially deflated and the reserve pilot chute launched, but there was not enough drag or altitude remaining to extract the reserve freebag from the container. The pair struck the ground under a partially inflated and spinning main parachute, and both the instructor and student died instantly from the hard impact.
What This Can Teach Us
Tandem instructors often make thousands of tandem jumps over many years without experiencing a malfunction, so it’s easy to become complacent. While it is very important for solo skydivers to know their equipment and emergency procedures and practice them frequently, it is twice as important for tandem instructors. An instructor who regularly practices emergency procedures will be better prepared to react to both a standard malfunction that requires just a basic cutaway and reserve activation, as well as a more complicated situation such as this one.
In this case, the handcam entanglement caused the instructor to lose altitude awareness as he struggled to free his hand. Although the handcam was secured with a Velcro strap and the instructor could have released it quickly, he continued to work to clear the steering line. Had he decided early in the sequence of events to remove the camera and perform emergency procedures, it may have changed the outcome.
The instructor also pulled the RSL lanyard, apparently forgetting that this would disconnect the left riser. At a low altitude, his left hand was reportedly free from the entanglement, and investigators were unable to determine why he decided to pull the RSL on the right side instead of the reserve ripcord handle. However, at that low altitude, the result—trailing the reserve pilot chute and striking the ground hard under a spinning main parachute—would have likely been the same even if he had pulled the reserve ripcord.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about this accident—and what every tandem instructor needs to realize—is that it took only 78 seconds from deployment to striking the ground. The parachute was spiraling rapidly with the tandem pair spinning horizontally around the main parachute. This means the tandem pair reached the 3,500-foot decision altitude in just 18 seconds. Altitude awareness is critical, especially during a violent malfunction. Tandem instructors must practice emergency procedures and review the function of all of the tandem system components frequently.
Cutaway with Low or No Reserve Deployment
A 51-year-old jumper with 30 years of experience and an unreported number of jumps exited an airplane over an airport at approximately 2,500 feet for a practice jump for a public fundraising event the next day. He deployed his 107-square-foot main parachute after a three-second freefall, and it began to spin as soon as it inflated. He released the main parachute and continued in freefall for 14 seconds before he pulled his reserve ripcord handle. The reserve parachute deployed but did not have enough altitude remaining to inflate before the jumper struck the ground at a high rate of descent. The hard impact killed him instantly.
What This Can Teach Us
A review of this jumper’s video provided helpful information to determine the exit altitude and time between his cutaway and reserve deployment. His parachute system was not equipped with a reserve static line or automatic activation device. Investigators did not report why there was a 14-second delay between the cutaway and the reserve activation, but it is most likely that the jumper spent that time searching for the reserve ripcord handle. The report did not include any information about his total number of jumps, whether he was active and current or whether he had spent any time in the past practicing emergency procedures.
After the main parachute releases, tension is removed from the parachute harness and the location of the reserve ripcord will shift downward on the torso toward the hip. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 4, Category A recommends that jumpers who use both hands on the cutaway handle should visually locate the reserve ripcord handle and keep an eye on it following the cutaway, so it is easier to locate and grab. Jumpers who use one hand on each handle should pull the cutaway handle with the right hand and pull the reserve ripcord with the left hand as soon as both main risers leave the harness.
Using a standard or MARD (main-assisted reserve deployment) RSL can help ensure the reserve activates immediately after the main parachute risers disconnect from the harness. Although an AAD is not designed to be used as a backup device following a cutaway (they are meant to activate the reserve parachute if a jumper remains in freefall and reaches the activation altitude), if the cutaway occurs above 1,000 feet, an AAD may still activate the reserve parachute in time for the reserve to deploy and inflate before the jumper strikes the ground. All jumpers should consider using RSLs and AADs as backups to their emergency procedures.
If a jumper dies due to a problem related to the parachute equipment (such as a component failure or packing error), USPA categorizes it as an equipment problem. Equipment problems account for as many as six fatalities per year. Although hard openings have dominated this category in recent years, no hard openings caused a fatality in 2020.
A 41-year-old jumper with six years of experience and 3,000 jumps made a turn under parachute (model and size unreported) at an unreported altitude with the intent of making a high-performance landing. Witnesses on the ground reported seeing him take his hands off the risers to transition to his steering toggles to finish the landing by flaring with the steering toggles. As soon as he pulled down on his toggles, the parachute abruptly made a diving left turn into the ground. He was airlifted to a local hospital where he died from the injuries sustained in the hard landing.
Inspection of the parachute equipment revealed that one steering line had looped around the guide ring on the rear riser, locking the steering line to the guide ring. When the jumper pulled down evenly on the toggles, the locked left steering line pulled down the rear riser on that side of the parachute. The parachute turned abruptly to the left because of the asymmetrical input. Investigators believe that the steering line was stowed incorrectly during the packing of the parachute, and the jumper never performed a control check after deployment to ensure the parachute steered and flared correctly.
Investigators reported that this jumper had been admonished by other experienced jumpers earlier that day for his dangerous landings that included turns made too low to the ground. While his attempt at a high-performance landing on this jump was intentional and also reported as being too low, a probable packing error that locked the steering line led to the fatal outcome.
What This Can Teach Us
After the parachute opens, its pilot needs to look and make sure it is fully inflated with no line twists and that the slider is all the way down. After that, it is equally important to release the brakes and perform a control check to ensure the parachute steers in both directions and flares properly. A jumper should do all this before the decision altitude in case it’s necessary to release the main parachute and activate the reserve. A simple control check at the proper altitude allows a jumper the time to react to problems such as a locked steering line and initiate emergency procedures if necessary. The last time a jumper died from failing to perform a canopy control check was in 2018.
For the fifth consecutive year, no jumper died from failing to activate a main or reserve parachute. Decades ago, a fatality due to failing to pull was one of the more common categories. Better training, jumpers deploying at higher altitudes on average and the widespread use of AADs has made a significant impact on reducing instances of no-pull fatalities.
A fatal canopy collision has not occurred since 2017. Considering some of the tragic years for this category in the past, this is a phenomenal achievement. Fifty-one skydivers died from canopy collisions in the previous 20 years. In 2007, USPA began to require Group Member drop zones to separate jumpers who are performing high-performance landings from those who are flying standard landing patterns. That separation, along with jumpers paying more attention under parachute, especially in the landing pattern below 1,000 feet, is helping to reduce the number of fatal canopy collisions.
The fatalities in 2020 highlight the importance of basic canopy control on every single skydive. Of the fatalities in this report, 45.5% involved a mismanaged landing under a main parachute. Avoiding conflicts with other parachutes, descending into a clear, open area free of obstacles and flaring and landing with the wing level is required to survive each skydive.
Any turn initiated under the parachute increases the risks of a canopy collision or striking the ground at an accelerated descent rate. Planning the descent and landing pattern ahead of time can help to keep the parachute descent progress safe. Thinking ahead during the descent can provide valuable time and altitude to adjust for any conflicts such as additional parachute traffic or an obstacle in the landing area. If there is a sudden conflict when near the ground, it is critical to avoid making a hard, fast toggle turn in a panic. Braked turns can be a lifesaver, since they slow the parachute’s forward speed and descent rate during a direction change. Braked turns conserve valuable altitude, and jumpers should practice them regularly.
On one hand, it is a phenomenal achievement to see 2020 end in a new, record-low number of skydiving fatalities. The new low is the result of a strong collective effort by the entire skydiving industry to make the sport as safe as possible. Drop zone owners, managers, Safety and Training Advisors, instructors, coaches, packers, equipment manufacturers, skydivers and USPA have all worked together to continue reducing fatalities and lowering the fatality rate.
On the other hand, it is frustrating to see jumpers repeat many of the same tragic mistakes that result in needless deaths each year. Almost every fatality now stems from human error, most of which could be eliminated by sticking with the basics, such as remaining altitude aware and maintaining situational awareness throughout the entire freefall and descent under parachute.
The fatalities last year involved skydivers who had made betwen one jump and 9,000 jumps. Regardless of our experience level, skydiving can be an unforgiving sport, and we must always be aware of our environment and our abilities and take whatever action is necessary to stay safe on every skydive. Hopefully, skydivers will continue to learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid the common errors that are repeated each year.
About the Author
Jim Crouch, D-16979, was USPA Director of Safety and Training from 2000-2018. He is a Federal Aviation Administration Airline Transport Pilot based in Tampa, Florida, who is happily flying other people’s airplanes.