Unquestionably, 2020 presented a unique set of challenges to overcome. Skydiving has historically fared economic recessions reasonably well (the 2008 recession had almost no effect on jumping activity), but the global pandemic was different and nearly stopped jumping its tracks starting in March and through most of April. The sport saw a 15.2% drop in jumping activity for the year, the most significant drop since USPA began keeping records.
When shutdowns began, the USPA Safety & Training Committee immediately started looking at worst-case scenarios and began developing plans in case the stay-at-home orders lasted 60, 90 or even 180 days. Luckily, most of those plans were not needed and now sit buried in files awaiting the next pandemic. Hopefully, they remain there indefinitely.
As people emerged from stay-at-home orders in May and June, many drop zones reported higher-than-usual jumping activity. This presented a situation that our sport had never before encountered: high volume but a near-universal lack of currency. We can easily see the effects of this by looking at the 2020 Fatality Summary (“Another Record Low” by Jim Crouch, March Parachutist), which showed that eight of the 11 U.S. skydiving fatalities last year happened in a 60-day window between mid-May and mid-July. In more than half of those, currency was a contributing factor. As we returned to jumping, it was apparent that jumpers undervalued the importance of currency.
In all, USPA received 136 incident reports in 2020; 11 of those for fatal incidents. Consequently, this article analyzes the information gained from the 125 non-fatal incidents reported in 2020. Since the number of jumps made went down 15% from 2019, it is no surprise that incident reports were also down 15%. This article breaks the non-fatal incidents into categories that indicate the primary cause, followed by the percentage of overall incidents the category represents. In the absence of adequate historical data on non-fatal incidents, this report compares 2020’s percentages only to 2019’s (rather than a span of years).
Landing Problems—61% (2019—59%)
Three subcategories of landing problems—each requiring different areas of training to avoid or respond to—comprise the overarching category. These subcategories of landing problems are:
Unintentional low turns: Unplanned low turns, usually to avoid other parachutes in the air or obstacles on the ground.
Intentional low turns: Intentional high-performance maneuvers for landing. These usually involve a jumper who initiated a high-performance turn at an altitude that was too low for the parachute to return to straight-and-level flight before reaching the ground.
Non-turn-related incidents: Improper landing techniques, landing on obstacles or encountering other hazards (such as deep water) while under a properly functioning parachute.
Intentional Low Turns—12.8% (2019—11%)
D-licensed skydivers were involved in the majority of intentional-low-turn incidents, but the problem starts rearing its ugly head at the B-license level. When making high-performance maneuvers close to the ground, the tolerances are very unforgiving and the consequences of mistakes are severe. In 12 of the 16 reported instances of intentional-low-turn incidents, the jumper broke bones.
One D-licensed jumper’s automatic activation device activated his reserve during a turn while training over a pond, but he managed to cut away his main canopy and land safely under his reserve. The rest of the incidents involved jumpers who were too low to recover from a turn safely. Good swoopers know at what altitude to start their turn; those who live to be great swoopers know when it is wise to bail out of a turn and have the good sense to do so.
Unintentional Low Turn—12% (2019—2%)
Four jumpers died making unintentional low turns in 2020, and the jumpers who survived unintentional-low-turn incidents reported breaking at least one bone. Of all incidents reported by B-license holders, 33.3% were in the unintentional-low-turn category. (For comparison, 17.6% of A-license injuries fell in this category.) Clearly, B-license holders are prone to unintentionally making low turns and injuring themselves. This is likely due to these jumpers’ lack of experience combined with recently downsizing. It’s also possible that they stopped rehearsing their emergency procedures after becoming licensed, and it’s finally catching up to them. Instructors can help mitigate these problems by emphasizing low-altitude emergencies during student training and reminding their graduates to continue rehearsing for them throughout their skydiving careers. Because of the information gleaned from incident reports, USPA is considering adding a low-altitude-emergency section to the B-License Canopy Card.
Lack of currency was an issue in 2020, and uncurrent jumpers tend to make rash decisions that lead to inappropriate low turns. The 2020 fatality summary shows that the 2020 fatality summary shows that unintentional low turns constituted a whopping 36.4% of all fatalities last year, well over the 20-year average of 8.8%., well over the 20-year average of 8.8 percent. For non-fatal incidents, unintentional-low-turn incidents were up 10%. These statistics show that instructors may want to spend extra time on low-altitude emergencies when providing currency training. The ability to fly and turn in half brakes is a life-saving skill. Repeated mental and physical practice (at higher altitudes and during emergency reviews) is the only way to get comfortable with this flight mode. Encountering an obstacle at a low altitude is dangerous and stressful. Being well versed with the flight characteristics of a canopy in half-brakes is the best way to overcome the urge to make an inappropriate low turn.
The high incident rate and low fatality rate in this category reinforce that it is safest to land using a standard, straight-in approach. There were 46 reports of non-turn-related incidents in 2020, and only one of those was fatal, which indicates that even if you encounter a problem during a straight-in approach, 98 percent of the time, you will survive it. Ten percent of incidents shifted from this category to the unintentional-low-turn category in 2020, and the low-turn incidents were much more serious.
The vast majority of the jumpers had low experience levels, with just a handful having very high experience. (The jumpers had an average of 827 jumps each but a median of only 50.) To find out the most common causes of landing injuries to lower-experienced jumpers, we broke down the non-turn-related incidents into further subcategories. These are:
- Obstacle: Hit an obstacle
- Pattern: Performed a poor landing pattern
- Turbulence: Encountered turbulence, and it was the primary cause of the injury
- Flare/PLF: Flared and/or performed a parachute landing fall poorly or not at all
- Other: report did not include enough information to properly categorize
For the second year, the flare/PLF category accounted for the majority of the non-turn-related incidents. In most cases, the failure to flare or PLF—not the poor performance of either—was the cause of injury. Jumpers often failed to flare after being distracted by turbulence, obstacles or other landing jumpers. Jumpers who attempted to run out fast landings or slide them in rather than perform a PLF typically broke an ankle or wrist in the process. Presumably, jumpers who chose to PLF during a bad landing fared better and therefore did not file a report.
The Skydivers Information Manual Section 4-A says, “You should be prepared to perform a parachute landing fall every time you land,” and follows that up with, “A stand-up landing should only be attempted if you touch down softly and are confident that you can comfortably remain on your feet.” Further down the section, it says, “Any time you must land in an alternate area off of the airport property, perform a parachute landing fall.” The PLF is a necessary tool that every skydiver should rehearse periodically to stay proficient.
Before boarding the aircraft, every jumper should take the time to plan their canopy flight from opening to landing. This planning should include planning for emergencies, including those that might occur during the pattern’s final leg. The reality is that eventually a jump will not go according to plan–just as it did not for the jumpers in these reports—and you will want to have mentally and physically rehearsed your response to overcome the panic that comes with these situations and respond appropriately.
Low or No Deployment—9.6% (2019—13%)
Although no jumpers in the U.S. have died from a low- or no-pull since 2015, the 2020 non-fatal-incident reports show that failure to deploy a canopy in time is still a problem. Of the 12 reported incidents in 2020, nine of the jumpers were students and three held D licenses. In 2019 the numbers were similar, and we hypothesized that the causes of no- and low-pull incidents are at two extremes: inexperience and overconfidence. That hypothesis seems to be holding true.
All of the nine student incidents were rooted in stability issues. Six occurred when the student became unstable and then lost altitude awareness; the other three occurred when the student became unstable and had difficulty finding the handle when reaching to pull. The incidents involving D-license holders were more varied. In one case, the jumper pulled low enough that the AAD activated his reserve during the deployment of his main canopy, but the reserve did not deploy fully, and the jumper landed trailing his reserve pilot chute.
Each of the 12 low- or no-pull incidents resulted in an AAD activation, three that were saves (the jumper never pulled, but the AAD deployed the reserve in time to save the jumper’s life) and nine that resulted in other scenarios such as having two canopies out or the AAD firing but deploying the reserve fully. Only one incident resulted in a severe injury, where the jumper pulled his main canopy so low that the AAD activated the reserve and the canopies settled into a side-by-side configuration before turning into a downplane just before landing.
All jumpers must deploy their parachutes above their predetermined altitudes, regardless of stability. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-1 recommends that jumpers make no more than two attempts (altitude permitting) at locating the main deployment handle before initiating emergency procedures to deploy the reserve parachute.
Although we had zero non-fatal incident reports of hard openings in 2019, it’s likely that many occurred but were not reported, since there were three fatalities due to hard openings that year. Jumpers reported nine non-fatal hard openings in 2020 and no fatal hard openings. Although it is hard to come to any broad conclusions from these few cases, the Parachute Industry Association is compiling reports of hard openings from various sources to help them research this issue thoroughly. USPA passes its data on hard openings to PIA, so any reports that our members provide helps two organizations and has the potential to help jumpers worldwide.
It is no surprise that the distribution of non-fatal incidents in 2020 mirrors that of the fatal incidents. Both sets of reports spotlight how important it is to stay current and, if that’s impossible, to slowly build skills back up after a layoff. It is counterintuitive that an A-licensed jumper will often regain currency after one jump but that a D-licensed jumper will take several jumps to reach a previous performance level, but that’s the case. The higher the skill level, the longer it takes for a jumper to work back to peak performance. Every individual skydiver is responsible for keeping their particular skills sharp. When a lack of currency has dulled them, take the time to sharpen them again before making that 450-degree turn for landing or participating in a complicated 8-way movement jump.
Our analysis also shows that fatality rates increase in step with incident rates, and that USPA can positively affect both by responding rapidly to trends. This can happen only if the membership continues to support USPA’s efforts by reporting non-fatal incidents and by providing complete information. (Nearly 10% of 2020’s reports did not contain enough information for USPA to classify them correctly.) We are currently working on an abbreviated incident reporting form that should make the process even faster and easier. Take advantage of the resources available to you and report any unusual event. Together we can continue to push forward as we strive for a year with zero fatalities.
Any USPA member can file an incident report. You can find more information in Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-8. An easy-to-fill-out, mobile-friendly, online reporting form is available at uspa.org/ir.
Ask any highly experienced USPA member about the main safety issue in our sport, and you’ll find that most will say, “rapid downsizing.” This is partly true, but the data USPA has gathered from incident reports and other sources gives us further insight. As a whole, it turns out that the vast majority of USPA’s members are flying canopies appropriate for their license or experience level. However, if you look at the incident reports, you’ll see that on average, jumpers involved in incidents are exceeding the recommended wing loading. Clearly, this indicates that those who load their canopies more than recommended are at an increased risk of injuring themselves. USPA has always suspected this, but now we have the numbers to prove it.
Spotting Safety Trends
Spotting a skydiving safety trend, finding a solution and taking the necessary steps to modify training and paperwork to implement that solution has previously taken years. But USPA has recently taken several steps to accelerate this process, and the positive effects were apparent in 2020.
First, USPA developed a quick, easy, and mobile-friendly way to report incidents online. At the same time, USPA started a campaign to educate members about the importance of filing incident reports. These two steps resulted in a 550% increase in non-fatal reports filed in 2019 compared to 2018. The online reporting system also allowed the gathered data, now stored digitally in a spreadsheet, to be analyzed almost instantly. Trends were much easier to see in real time.
The final step—disseminating the information quickly—soon followed. Through USPA’s social media outlets and the newly revitalized Parachutist.com, educational information was available to our membership almost immediately. No more waiting months for the printed Parachutist to arrive! Little did we know when these pieces came together that a pandemic was only months away, and the consequences of the mandatory shutdowns would put this new system to the test.
When the shutdowns began, USPA suspected that currency would become a problem and started addressing the issue. Safety & Training Committee Chair Michael Wadkins produced a video warning the community of the dangers we would be facing, and President Chuck Akers hosted a Facebook Live event. USPA began connecting to the membership like never before.
As drop zones reopened and began reporting incidents and fatalities, USPA began addressing the emerging trends through educational campaigns for the membership, in Safety and Training Advisor meetings and by coordinating with regional directors. We can look back now and see the difference our efforts made. Rises in reported incidents predictably followed USPA campaigns encouraging members to report. In those reports, many remarked, “I hope someone can learn from my mistake.” We are proud to say that they are; it is making a difference! Drops in reported incidents can be explained by the mandatory shutdowns (of course) but also by USPA’s educational media campaigns. We’re fairly certain that August and September’s incidents fell due to several social media campaigns that USPA ran starting in June.
By comparing the number of fatalities to the reported non-fatal incidents, we can see just how important it is to catch these trends early. Eight of 2020’s fatalities happened in a 60-day window as we emerged from the shutdowns. That means 72.7% of the year’s fatalities occurred in 60 days. We are the most vulnerable to fatalities as incident rates increase. The sooner we can recognize what is causing incidents in the field, the sooner we can start addressing the issue through training and education. In 2020, once USPA started its education campaigns and the incident rate started to diminish, fatalities dropped off to zero. This shows just how powerful incident reporting by the membership is when combined with the speed of getting that information out.