In February, I survived a low-altitude canopy collision with another parachutist while skydiving at a busy drop zone in Southern California. We wrapped and came spinning down to crash land on an RV supply parts warehouse. I punched a hole through the roof and was knocked unconscious, yet miraculously, the worst injury I suffered was a badly broken wrist. The other jumper hit a second or two after me and broke two ribs.
I’ll come right out and say it: The majority of the responsibility for the accident lies with me. I have slightly fewer than 1,000 jumps, and he had 70. I was the higher canopy pilot, and I made the turn. I could have killed the other jumper. I could have been killed myself. We were both extremely fortunate.
Contributing factors: It was my first jump of the day and my first jump ever at that DZ. (I received a thorough DZ briefing before going up, of course.) The landing was crosswind, and there were some gusts, so not ideal conditions for the first jump at a new location. I was a bit fatigued, but I really wanted to make a jump with friends who were also visiting from the East Coast, so I pushed myself. I lost track of where the first group was in the sky (my group, a 5-way, was second out). And finally, I executed a turn from my downwind leg onto base without looking all around beforehand to clear my turn. That’s when I flew in front of the other canopy pilot, and although I buried my right toggle in an attempt to get out of his way, we collided.
It was humbling to realize that this accident was predominantly my fault. At first, I couldn’t believe I’d been the one to screw up; I was certain it was him. But coming to terms with this has taught me some lessons or perhaps just reminded me of what we’ve all heard and read about, over and over.
The takeaways are nothing new: No matter your experience, be especially conservative when it’s your first time at a new DZ. Don’t jump if you’re tired. Learn to be aware of the whereabouts of everyone else in the sky. Don’t get complacent, even for a second. Just because you don’t expect anyone to be flying through the middle of your pattern doesn’t mean they won’t be there.
Despite USPA’s excellent statistics for 2018—a record-low 13 fatalities—people do get hurt. I’m describing my accident to impart some necessarily repeated lessons (and to further humble myself), but also to bring something up that might not be so obvious: If someone has an accident at your DZ, and especially if they’re laid up for a while, make an effort to actually go hang out with them. Don’t just message them on social media. Perhaps a dozen folks at my home drop zone have been significantly injured over the years, including several of my close friends. It wasn’t until I myself pounded in that I realized how negligent I’d been at checking in on my fellow jumpers. It’s boring waiting for bones to heal, and recovery can be really isolating. When friends come over to visit, even if it’s just for an hour, it makes things less bad. So take the time to go stop by, bring them some snacks, ask to see their x-rays. If they’re able, go on a walk or a drive. If they want, bring them to the DZ and be ready to take them home when they’re ready to go.
As I’ve recently told friends, strangers and medical professionals alike: This sport isn’t table tennis. The old quote from Captain A. G. Lamplugh comes to mind: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”
I love how skydiving has allowed me to meet and become friends with folks I never would have known otherwise, and I can’t believe the incredibly fun things we get to do together in the sky. But the corollary is that we must take care of each other, not only by being unceasingly safety conscious, but also by being supportive in the event that something goes wrong.
OK, I’ve said my piece. I sincerely hope no one at your drop zone gets hurt this season, but if it happens, think back to that lonely-sounding guy in the magazine (my friends have actually been really good through all of this) and go hang out with them.
Oh, and look before you turn.
Dan Gingold | D-36410
Brooklyn, New York