A version of this commentary first appeared on the aviation website avweb.com.
Robert Crandall, the longtime CEO of American Airlines, once said the industry is always in the grip of its dumbest competitor. A corollary for general aviation—if there is one—is that the perception of safety is always set by the latest horrific accident.
And it occurred in Hawaii on June 21, when a King Air carrying 10 skydivers and a pilot crashed after takeoff, killing everyone aboard and shutting down busy Dillingham Airport for four days. It was the worst loss of life in a single general aviation crash in the U.S. since 2011. Predictably, the National Transportation Safety Board has already called on the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate skydiving operations more closely. It made a similar demand on the air tour industry in May 2019 after a series of air tour accidents in Alaska and Hawaii this year killed, coincidently, 11.
“There is an inherent risk to parachuting and there are measures you take to mitigate that risk, but paying passengers should be able to count on an airworthy plane, an adequately trained pilot, a safe operator and adequate federal oversight of those operations,” the NTSB’s Jennifer Homendy said at a press conference in Hawaii. She noted that after a special investigation, the board made a specific list of recommendations in 2008 to improve aircraft safety in skydiving. “Accidents continue to happen. There have been fatalities since that time,” Homendy said.
All of these things are true, but Homendy’s comment is significantly misleading because it fails to recognize that fatal accidents in skydiving have been trending gracefully downward for the last decade. Because I am a skydiver and an accident data nerd, I follow the trends out of personal interest. For a sharper pencil on the accident data, I contacted USPA Executive Director Ed Scott and Chris Schindler, a veteran jump pilot who maintains his own complete accident database.
USPA’s data shows that for the decade between 1989 and 1998, there were 15 fatal jump-aircraft accidents; there were 16 the following decade and 10 between 2009 and 2018. An asterisk: USPA’s official data lists 10 fatal accidents for the last decade, but two were inadvertent deployments of parachutes inside the airplane. These can be nasty, but I don’t link them to aircraft airworthiness or the pilot’s skill or qualifications. It would be just as logical to blame the airplane for jump fatalities. Schindler’s data shows more spikey trends because he casts a wider net on what constitutes a skydiving-aircraft-related accident. But the directionality is the same no matter whose data you use.
Using my numbers for the last decade, the fatal accident rate in skydiving was 0.76 per 100,000 flight hours, the overall rate (fatals and non-fatals) 5.9. That fatal rate is comparable to—actually a little lower than—general aviation’s 0.89 rate, or a little higher (about 1.0) if you count those two accidents I dismissed. The overall rate in skydiving is about the same as general aviation, too, all in a market that continues to grow with more annual operations.
Why are these trends so? It’s not just luck. In general aviation as a whole, Darwinism has killed off a lot of the stupid people who used to fly, some of them after a few drinks. Advances in training, safety programs, avionics and the same kind of enlightened attitude that has reduced drunken driving has infected aviation. So, too, has skydiving benefitted from education and training efforts and some FAA oversight. If the wild west hasn’t been tamed, it’s at least a little less wild.
In 2008, the NTSB issued a list of recommendations meant to reduce the skydiving accident rate. These included developing an effective two-point seatbelt harness, a maintenance and inspection programs for airplanes, initial and recurrent training for pilots and more FAA surveillance of skydiving operations. In varying degrees, these have been addressed, although perhaps not to the degree the NTSB would prefer.
As you can imagine, skydiving exists in a world quite apart from aviation as a whole. While Federal Aviation Regulations Part 105 provides a skeletal regulatory framework, the airplane part of the sport is driven by Part 91, and the FAA leaves the nitty gritty up to USPA in the form of the Basic Safety Requirements. It’s sort of like if the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association oversaw the Aeronautical Information Manual for pilots. The post-2008 push for more FAA oversight of skydiving revealed what everyone operating skydiving airplanes knows: The FAA simply lacks the knowledge, expertise and resources—not to mention the bureaucratic desire—to usefully regulate the sport.
Just in maintenance alone, a USPA survey found that some operators were being advised by their FAA Flight Standards District Offices that an annual inspection was sufficient for skydiving aircraft and that private pilots could fly the operations. Neither is correct. These aircraft are fly-for-hire and require 100-hour inspections or progressive maintenance programs at minimum and commercial ratings for the pilots who fly them. That’s a reasonable step up from an annual inspection and potentially a safety enhancer.
There’s inconsistency in the way skydiving pilots are trained, especially at the bottom of the food chain where Cessna 182s are the favorite beast of burden. At the turbine level, the airplanes are more expensive and insurance companies are more likely to force the issue, but even then, training may be spotty. To address that, USPA adopted training guidelines Chris Schindler developed and also published a pilot flight training manual prepared by Ray Ferrell, a longtime California drop zone operator and aircraft owner. This material is available to everyone, including USPA Group Member drop zones, of which there are 220. Some 45 U.S. drop zones aren’t Group Members.
A high-level review of the last 10 years of accidents reveals two notable patterns. One is that turbine aircraft are underrepresented in the accident totals. Using USPA data from the member drop zones, 58 percent of the U.S. skydiving fleet is composed of pistons, and 42 percent are turbines. Yet the pistons account for nearly 90 percent of the accidents—all accidents, not just fatals. That’s skewed a little because we don’t have data from the non-member operations, but I suspect the directionality is accurate.
Second, the piston accidents—nearly uniformly 182s with a few 185s and 206s—are an unsurprising mix of fuel exhaustion, carb icing, stall/spins, engine failures, mechanical issues and the occasional crosswind loss of control. In short, the usual suspects for general aviation wrecks. The last decade of data shows some stalls and stall/spins after takeoff, sometimes following engine failure.
One thing the NTSB asked both USPA and the FAA to look into was better seatbelts, specifically two-point harnesses of some kind. The typical skydiving belt is just a single piece of webbing looped through the main lift web or a leg strap on the rig. Better than nothing, but not a lot better. Scott says some testing was done on improved seatbelts, but it’s not clear that anyone developed a new design. In any case, it’s a two-bladed axe. All those extra belts provide more means to snag a reserve handle or main pilot chute, potentially leading to a premature deployment inside the airplane. I’ll take my chances with the status quo, thanks.
In her press conference, NTSB’s Homendy said the agency was putting the FAA and thus the industry “on notice,” a phrase bound to send shivers through the skydiving universe. So, what’s to be done? I could see an industry effort focused on training for stall/spins and engine-out responses for both piston and turbine aircraft. It doesn’t speak well of the sport (or aviation) that so many trained commercial pilots haven’t been able to avoid a stall before it becomes a spin. If they had, some of those engine-out fatal accidents might have been survivable crashes.
The smart way to do this, in my view, would be an FAA-USPA cooperative volunteer effort rather than ham-fisted regulation involving more inspections and surveillance. FSDOs typically know so little about parachute operations that they think checking reserve packing cards, airworthiness certificates and pilot operating handbooks drives safety. What’s needed is clear-eyed acceptance of what’s causing accidents followed by a narrow focus to address those shortcomings. The accident history, even though relatively good, provides a road map.
Another idea I’ve heard is an endorsement for jump pilots, such as a banner-towing or tailwheel endorsement that requires enumerated training. Schindler favors this. Even absent regulation, Group Member drop zones could implement it on an informal basis.
The most difficult challenge might be understanding how the economics of older airplanes apply to skydiving safety. Perhaps that’s too many words to say that some fraction of airplanes used in skydiving teeter on the edge of economic viability and airworthiness. In other words, they’re junk. Even some newer airplanes are vulnerable if not properly maintained. The King Air that crashed in Hawaii was hardly new.
When 182s crash, they don’t make much of a crater, physically or in the news cycle. But a turbine twin or a Caravan can take a dozen or more victims at once, and the tragedy can stay above the fold for several days as the Hawaii crash did. Another high-fatality crash of a turbine airplane is all but certain to ignite regulatory scrutiny that would make a loose cannon look like a good thing.
Above all, we owe it to humanity not to make any more victims, and in the self-interest of both general aviation and skydiving, perhaps we can find a way to ferret out the marginally airworthy airplanes or minimally trained pilots most likely to bore the next crater. Most skydiving operators that I’ve dealt with would actively be on board with such an idea, but they’ve never been the problem. It’s the outliers who are. Skydivers themselves have a role. If you’re patronizing a drop zone whose flight ops give you pause, you may be working against your own interests, assuming staying alive is in your interest.
In May, when NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that customers of air-tour operators should expect the same level of safety as airline passengers do, I was skeptical. I’d apply the same raised eyebrow to implying that a Twin Otter with nine people hanging out the door and one clinging to the camera step is “one level of safety” with an American Airlines 767. It’s just not realistic, and all the participants understand this even if the NTSB does not.
We sidestep this through informed consent that, in skydiving, is in the form of a signed waiver. The excited tandem passenger signs this without thinking through the implications or the risk, which turns out to be remarkably low but never zero. I wonder if it would make any difference if they saw a poster that said chances of dying in a crash are 0.76 in 100,000 but lower in a turbine, and the chances of dying on the jump are 0.4 in 100,000 but less on a tandem.
About the Author
Paul Bertorelli, D-24222, is a skydiver with more than 3,000 skydives. He holds Airline Transport Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor-Instrument certifications and is the editor at large for avweb.com.