How safe is skydiving? Very safe? Somewhat safe? Not safe at all? Safety experts will say that the question really is, “What is skydiving’s level of safety?” or in other words, “What is the level of risk?” Even then, we must focus the question more to ask, “Risk of what? Death? Injury?”
So, what is the risk of a fatal skydive? Since 1961, USPA has compiled information on every skydiving fatality in the U.S. except those that occurred under military orders. In 1961, there were 14. That year, there were 3,353 USPA (then called Parachute Club of America) members who made an estimated annual total of about 126,000 jumps. As the sport grew, both in the number of skydivers and the number of annual jumps, annual fatalities climbed, cresting in 1981 when 56 skydivers lost their lives. Then, beginning in the 1980s, we began to bring the numbers down, even as more people took up the sport via tandem skydives and made more jumps annually. Fatalities declined from an average of 42.5 in the 1970s to an average 34.1 in the 1980s, 32.3 in the 1990s, 25.8 in the 2000s and 21.3 thus far in the 2010s.
And now, with the close of 2018, we continue the downward trend with 13 fatalities for the year, the lowest total since our records began in 1961. We don’t have estimated jump totals yet for 2018, but even if jump numbers remain the same as for 2017 (3.2 million), then the fatality rate for 2018 would drop to a historically low level of one fatality per 246,153 jumps. Praise goes all around: to the USPA staff and board; the board’s Safety & Training Committee; the appointed Safety and Training Advisors; DZ operators; individual USPA Examiners, Instructors and Coaches; parachute and component manufacturers; and riggers. Equally important were the actions of skydivers like yourself who made correct decisions while looking out for yourself and others throughout the year.
Skydiving’s risk is also measured by injuries, from the minor to the life-altering. Those numbers are much more tenuous. Since we receive so few non-fatal incident reports, we rely almost solely on an annual membership survey. We haven’t surveyed for 2018 data yet, but in 2017 an estimated 2,585 skydiving injuries required a medical care facility. That was about one injury per 1,240 skydives that year.
Unfortunately, we have almost no injury data from the nearly 600,000 first jumps made each year. This must change. We need to know when students are injured, how they are injured and how serious the injuries are in order to ensure that our training programs and our instructors are the best they can be. USPA’s board of directors has been working on this issue for some time, debating the best approach that will get the data.
Skydiving’s risk also includes the flight to jump altitude. USPA, helped by government crash investigations, compiles the numbers of injuries and deaths from jump plane accidents, too. There was one fatal jump plane accident in 2018, which took four lives. Fatal jump plane crashes that kill skydivers are becoming increasingly rare, though, thanks to pilots and DZ operators who take a professional approach. There have been only four since 2010.
When writing about fatalities, it is necessary to reference numbers. But it bears remembering that each number reflects a real person—a member of our skydiving family—whose loss is a tragedy still felt every day by their friends and family. It is in their memory that we dedicate our safety efforts and initiatives.