Four hundred and forty-nine. That’s a small number by some standards and a large one by others. To me, it is a much larger number than it should be. This is the number of civilian skydiving fatalities recorded in the United States during the 18 years and three months that I was the director of safety and training for USPA. Each one was a tragedy, with friends and family left in shock as they picked up the pieces in the aftermath of suddenly losing a loved one. With so many of the fatalities preventable, it was hard not to take each death personally, wondering if I could have done more. However, the fatality rate slowly improved in those 18 years, even as the activity level of skydiving increased, which seems to show that skydivers are learning how to reduce risks and the industry is headed in the right direction.
In the early 2000s, the fatality rate was in the low 30s each year, and nearly half of the fatal accidents stemmed from bad landings under fully open and functioning main parachutes. Some were poorly performed intentional high-performance landing attempts; some were unintentional low turns that jumpers who were trying to avoid obstacles or other parachutes initiated; some were canopy collisions; others were jumpers who made fatal mistakes while trying to land in unfamiliar spots off the drop zone.
A lot of USPA’s safety efforts in the last 18 years focused on reducing parachute-related accidents, both fatal and non-fatal. Introducing the Integrated Student Program and requiring specific canopy training before jumpers could receive a USPA B license helped improve the canopy skills of newer jumpers and reduced the number of parachute-related fatalities. Separating high-performance landings from standard canopy traffic also lowered the number of fatal canopy collisions. Of course, not all fatalities are canopy related: Many jumpers still make fatal mistakes when they don’t perform emergency procedures correctly. Jumpers can lower their risk of this by spending more time practicing basic emergency procedures in a training harness.
So far, 2018 looks to be a record year in a good way, with just 13 fatalities by mid-November. And while I am glad that my final year at USPA will likely end with such a low number, it still stings that I lost my oldest friend in skydiving, Carolyn “The Queen” Clay, and just days later, a young woman making her fourth jump, who will never get the chance to be the next Queen. For me, student fatalities are a sad reminder that there is still more work to do.
So, as I leave USPA to start flying airplanes full time, my final wishes are simple: I wish that skydivers will continue to focus on safety. I wish that the USPA Board and staff will continue to implement new and updated programs to help reduce the number of fatal and non-fatal skydiving accidents. And I wish that the new director of safety and training will enjoy the job as much as I did. It’s the best job in skydiving.
Jim Crouch | D-16979
former USPA Director of Safety and Training
USPA Coach and Tandem Instructor Examiner;
AFF, IAD and Static-Line Instructor; PRO