I stood at the deep end of the indoor heated pool while wearing a jumpsuit, helmet, goggles and a training harness connected to a 300-square-foot main canopy and jumped into the water. As I came up for air, the gigantic parachute was already over my head, and the suspension lines were all around me. I found a seam on the bottom skin of the parachute and pulled it in one direction to move all of the nylon behind me and out of the way. In just the short amount of time it took to do this, the suspension lines began to wrap around my head and body. I treaded water as I fought to unthread the chest strap, but the suspension lines tightened around my legs, making it harder and harder to keep my head above water. After a few minutes of fumbling, I freed the chest strap and loosened my leg straps but was unable to remove the harness completely with the lines wrapped so tightly around me.
I thrashed my way to the side of the pool, knowing that if this were an actual water landing far from a shoreline or boat, it’s likely I would have drowned. Once I was out of the pool, I had to take off my tennis shoes to slide the tightly wrapped lines off of my legs. It was an eye-opening introduction to the challenges of landing in water, and now, almost 30 years later, it remains a vivid memory.
USPA has always addressed water landings in its license requirements. Currently, all first-jump courses include the basics of dealing with water landings, and the USPA B license requires additional ground training and a simulated water landing in a pool or other body of water. In the early years of USPA, the requirements were much different.
Interestingly, from at least 1963 until 1986, receiving a D license required making an actual water jump after exiting an aircraft in flight. Until 1971—when the Basic Safety Requirements began mandating classroom water training for the A license—there were no requirements for ground training for water landings at any license level! Those who made water jumps for their D licenses learned how to handle them from their buddies who had already made one. D-licensed skydivers continued to have to make at least one actual water jump until 1986, when USPA completely overhauled the water-training requirements. USPA removed the water jump requirement at this time for two primary reasons: Steerable ram-air canopies had made unintentional water landings far less common than they had been under round canopies, and the cost of custom-made gear made jumpers less inclined to use their own rigs for water jumps. The 1986 overhaul also mandated water training in first-jump courses and added a simulated water jump as a requirement for the B license.
Understanding the Dangers
USPA has always addressed water landings because unintentional water landings are dangerous, especially if there is no assistance available and the jumper is unprepared. The most tragic water-landing accident occurred on August 28, 1967, when 17 skydivers drowned in Lake Erie after a series of mistakes led to the group exiting a North American B-25 Mitchell (a converted bomber aircraft) over a solid overcast five miles from the shoreline. A passing boat rescued two of the jumpers, but the others quickly drowned in the cold and choppy water. The heavy and bulky gear of the day, as well as the frigid water temperatures, certainly didn’t help.
Since the Lake Erie event, most drowning fatalities have involved just one or two jumpers who unintentionally landed in a lake or ocean. In the U.S., at least nine jumpers in the last 19 years have drowned during a skydive. Cold water was a factor in many of these accidents. (The colder the water, the faster a body loses heat, which slows the body’s ability to function and makes movement such as treading more difficult.) In most of the accidents, drowning occurred rapidly and before anyone could offer assistance. Incredibly, two of these fatalities occurred on intentional water landings during poorly planned and executed demo jumps.
Two tandem jumps resulted in three of the water-landing fatalities. In one, the tandem instructor became incapacitated while flying the main parachute. The pair drifted toward the ocean and landed in rough surf. Both the instructor and student drowned. In the second tandem incident, strong winds ahead of an approaching storm pushed the tandem pair backward over a lake. The pair landed about 100 yards from the shore. The instructor disconnected the student, who swam to shore. Although the instructor was able to free himself from the harness-and-container system, he drowned.
One fatality highlights just how quickly a drowning can occur. In this incident, a jumper who opened low under his reserve parachute landed in a pond. The jumpers under canopy above him observed him as he landed in the water. He surfaced briefly, then disappeared beneath the water. The jumpers landed just a few minutes later and pulled him out of the water, but they could not revive him. He was wearing a full-face helmet, which may have played a part in how quickly the drowning occurred.
In 2010, after several wingsuit jumpers unintentionally landed in water, longtime wingsuit flyer Douglas Spotted Eagle conducted a series of tests in a pool equipped with a wave machine to see what survival strategies worked best. He found that a packed reserve container is fairly buoyant. He also discovered that the leg wings of a wingsuit, whether zipped or unzipped, tend to drag jumpers down as they attempt to tread water. Consequently, a wingsuit jumper should unzip as much of the suit as possible before entering the water and then float face up (the reserve on their back helps with buoyancy) while working to get completely free from the suit and container. The full article on this study is available here: parachutistonline.com/p/article/safety-check-wings-in-water.
Just for the Fun of It
Thanks mostly to maneuverable parachutes with long glides and the use of GPS for accurate spotting, accidental water landings are an increasingly rare occurrence. Consequently, the vast majority of water landings today are performed intentionally, just for the fun of it. They can be an exciting change of pace, and by planning and using proper procedures, much of the risk is mitigated. Skydiver’s Information Manual Sections 5-1 and 6-5 include guidelines regarding intentional and unintentional water landings and training procedures.
Longtime skydiver and exotic-boogie organizer Rich Grimm probably has more experience with intentional water jumps than anyone else, at least on the civilian side of skydiving. For the last 15 years, he has organized a boogie that includes a chance for participants to make a jump into the Great Blue Hole, a large submarine sinkhole located in the Carribean Sea off the coast of Belize. Over the years he has facilitated more than 500 jumps there, including 12 of his own. Naturally, he provides a thorough training session for all of the participants.
Grimm ensures that there are several boats located in various locations around the edge of the hole, each equipped with scuba divers ready to assist if needed. He instructs jumpers to land near the side or back of the boats but not in front, in case a boat needs to move quickly to retrieve someone. He also stresses that any jumper who decides to release the main parachute for landing should pull the cutaway handle only when their feet have touched the water. Judging height above water is difficult, and cutting away too high can cause serious injury or even death. All the jumpers also wear floatation devices, but because they land near boats, they usually don’t need to use them.
The water training and jumping requirements have changed over the years, but the additional challenges and danger of water landings have not. The training provided for the B-license requirement should be as realistic as possible. This includes time in the classroom to cover the information included in the Skydiver’s Information Manual and immersion in a pool while wearing a harness and container (or a training harness) with a parachute and all suspension lines attached. The experience gained in a controlled environment can make all of the difference necessary when it comes to surviving an actual water landing.
About the Author
Jim Crouch, D-16979, was USPA Director of Safety and Training from 2000 to 2018. He currently lives in Tampa, Florida.