Actions have consequences. So do accidents, especially fatal accidents. Not only is the world deprived of future joys and contributions from those who died, but surviving family members and friends are left with a loss that endures forever. Fatal accidents have other consequences, too. The local governing body or airport management may scrutinize associated businesses such as the DZ or aircraft operator. Or legislators may feel that new laws, which could have serious ramifications, are needed to address perceived laxity or loopholes in current regulations.
In the U.S. in 2019, we lost 26 individuals who were engaged in the pursuit of skydiving. Fifteen were in the act of skydiving itself, making it the third-lowest year for skydiving fatalities in nearly 60 years. (There were 14 fatalities in 1961 and 13 fatalities in 2018.) Another 11 individuals were aboard a King Air that never made it to jump run—not even close. It crashed on takeoff. That crash was not only the worst fatal jump plane crash in the U.S. since 1995, it was also the worst U.S. civil aviation crash since 2011.
The consequences of the crash were immediate and are still ongoing, even though the National Transportation Safety Board is at least a year away from completing its investigation of the crash and issuing a finding of probable cause. One U.S. congressman has proposed a bill that would allow localities to regulate the routes and altitudes of planes flown by air-tour operators, with skydiving included in the definition of an air tour. Because that bill would preempt the regulatory power of the Federal Aviation Administration, it has a steep hill to climb.
Separately, there is draft legislation specifically aimed at DZs and jump plane operators that would require jump planes to be subject to the same inspection and maintenance requirements as planes flown by airlines. The bill would also require the FAA to mandate jump-pilot training and perform check rides for all jump pilots, despite current requirements that all jump pilots hold a commercial pilot certificate or better. USPA is fully engaged, reminding legislators that since jump planes are in commercial operation, they are already required to meet the higher inspection standards in Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, essentially getting a full inspection every 100 hours of flight time. USPA is also reminding them of the vastly improved jump-plane safety record over the past 20 years, including the current fatal accident rate of 0.76 per 100,000 hours that is lower than general aviation’s fatal accident rate of 0.86 per 100,000 hours.
Turning back to skydiving fatalities, three trends are clear. Six of the 15 fatalities involved low turns; three were intentional and three were unintentional. (Fatalities due to intentional low turns were absent in 2018 but returned in 2019.) Turning low can be a fatal decision. Four of the 15 fatalities involved either incorrect emergency procedures or a cutaway with a too-low reserve deployment. Setting a decision hard deck and practicing emergency procedures save lives. And three of the 15 were the result of hard openings. Packing matters.
Participating in Safety Day at a nearby DZ this month will give skydivers and pilots alike a chance to focus on learning and relearning the information and skills that will keep us from being among that fateful number this year.