Skydiving Safety—Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going
By Director of Safety and Training Ron Bell
Safety has always been a priority for the United States Parachute Association and its predecessor organizations, National Parachute Jumpers-Riggers Inc. (1946-1957) and the Parachute Club of America (1957-1967). From the beginning, NPJR expected its members to adhere to the rules established for parachuting by the Civil Aviation Authority (now the Federal Aviation Administration) and published them at the front of its official Parachutist’s Log. In 1958, shortly after NPJR changed its name to PCA, it began a formal safety system by appointing volunteer Club Safety Officers (CSOs) and Area Safety Officers (ASOs)—the near equivalent to today’s Safety and Training Advisors. However, there was not a paid employee specifically dedicated to compiling and disseminating safety information until 1982.
Of course, USPA was a small organization in the beginning, with few members (there were only 807 on January 1, 1960) and a scant handful of staff, and everyone wore a lot of hats. When PCA became USPA in 1967, the only staff members to appear on Parachutist’s masthead were the executive director, his assistant and the director of the National Collegiate Parachuting League! As parachuting gained in popularity in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the increase in membership meant a need for more USPA staff. Nowhere was this need more apparent than in the area of safety and training; in some years, the sport was averaging one fatality a week! This had to stop.
So, in 1982, USPA hired Mike Johnston for a new position—Director of Training. Johnston was a respected instructor, examiner and FAA Master Rigger who had long been involved in parachute design, testing and manufacturing. His hiring allowed USPA to build on the excellent work of the ASOs and CSOs by gathering information from diverse locations, researching issues and disseminating the information far and wide. This became such an important part of the position that when Jack Gregory joined the team in 1994, the title changed to Director of Safety and Training. The addition of staff dedicated to safety began to pay off in a slow and steady decrease in the average annual fatality numbers. Could you now imagine a year in which 52 skydivers died? Neither can we.
The first Parachute Jumpers' Log—produced by the NPJR—contains what Istel calls the "interestingly archaic" CAA regulations.
Rules and Recommendations
When sport parachuting was in its infancy, the logbook contained everything—Basic Safety Requirements, Skydiver’s Information Manual and a personal skydiving history rolled into one. But parachuting was such a new sport activity when NPJR published its Parachute Jumper’s Log in 1950 that the five CAA regulations contained in it are titled “Civil Air Regulations for Exhibition Parachute Jumps.” These regulations reflect that the CAA recognized only two types of jumping at the time: military and demonstration (meaning daredevil-type stunts at airshows and barnstorming events), and that jumping for fun or sport was inconceivable. Nevertheless, these were the rules that sport parachutists abided by. Four of the rules—the requirement to wear a reserve, a deployment-altitude minimum, and wind and water regulations—still exist in some form today. Thankfully, the one stating that “No person shall delay opening his parachute more than is necessary to properly and safely clear the aircraft,” disappeared once the CAA realized that controlled freefall was possible.
It was the second iteration of the 4-inch-by-6-inch Parachutist’s Log (1957)—which Jacques-André Istel, D-2, wrote and sold through his business, Parachutes Incorporated—that contained information specifically geared toward sport parachuting as a hobby. Adopted by the PCA, the two-page Procedures and Safety Regulations now numbered 10. Gone are the prohibitions against freefall; in fact, much of the included information related to freefall. This first sport logbook contained sections on how to calculate jump altitude for delayed-deployment jumps, a table that shows the distance fallen in a freefall stable position, 13 maneuver codes with examples (SD=stable delay face to earth, Y=uncontrolled spin, Z=out of control, etc.) This logbook contained space for 150 jumps—a huge number in that day.
The third Parachutist’s Log (1958) contained the same 10 regulations, but by the fourth iteration (1960), those had increased to 18 and the title Basic Safety Regulations to describe them first appeared. In 1963, for the fifth Parachutist’s Log, Istel also added a section on recommendations (recommendations in addition to BSRs … sound familiar?), as well as a two-page section titled “Minimum Qualifications for International Parachuting Licenses issued by the Parachute Club of America.”
Eventually, the rules and recommendations for parachuting became too long to include in a small logbook, and the Skydiver’s Information Manual was born. At one time, the SIM also included information for rating holders, but in 2000, with the proliferation of various training methods and the introduction of the Integrated Student Program, the Instructional Rating Manual split off into its own document.
Istel, in what he calls his “immodest retrospective opinion,” writes, “Writing and publishing this then-all-new information, while some also amusingly archaic today, was probably one of my most important contributions to the development of parachuting (skydiving) as a sport.” This is undoubtedly true, and skydivers today owe Istel a huge debt of gratitude for developing these rules and committing them to paper. Showing the federal government that parachutists were members of an active professional organization that took safety seriously has allowed the sport to remain essentially self-regulated to this very day. Without the nationwide acceptance of a set of standards, skydiving would be regulated by government agencies and local legislators, most of whom know nothing about the sport. USPA’s doctrines and principles have worked so well that some countries have actually adopted them as law!
The BSRs—notwithstanding updates to meet the changing environment, particularly in equipment and training methods—have remained remarkably consistent over the years. In them, skydivers benefit from the collective experience of all skydivers over history. As each new aspect of skydiving has emerged, the world has looked to USPA for sensible, non-restrictive guidelines. The Safety and Training Committee of the USPA Board is responsible for the continuous development of the BSRs, but changing them requires a vote of the entire board. Change does not come easily—the board considers requirements only when they have been proven to have serious safety implications. The BSRs, as the old saying goes, “are written in blood.”
Many of the 18 BSrs written by Istel in 1960 are still, with some additions and modifications, serving USPA well today.
USPA’s recommendations are less compelling than the BSRs, but they provide sensible guidelines for specific activities. For example, the BSRs require student jumps to take place between sunrise and sunset, but the Skydiver’s Information Manual recommends that jumpers have a B license before jumping outside of those hours. In effect, this tells A-licensed jumpers that making a night jump is not wise and tells B-licensed jumpers to proceed with caution.
When USPA wants to propose or amend recommendations for activities, it consults with those who have the most experience. Before instituting the newest section of the SIM, Section 6-12—Movement Jumps, USPA invited individuals who are proficient in the discipline to meet with the Safety and Training Committee, provide their input and propose participation standards and rules of engagement.
From at least the late ‘50s, USPA has encouraged its members—particularly those appointed to safety roles—to report incidents both fatal and non-fatal. By collecting this data and publishing details of incidents in Parachutist, USPA has been able to spot deficiencies in training methods, address those deficiencies by educating its membership, add recommendations and—as a last resort—modify or institute BSRs.
Today, whenever a fatal civilian skydiving accident occurs in the U.S., USPA Headquarters hears about it and begins an investigation. (The military investigates fatalities that occur when a jumper is under military orders and does not make those investigations available to USPA or any other non-governmental agency.) Reports of incidents to USPA are kept confidential. The appropriate parties receive the reports for study and conclusions, the facts of each incident (with identifying details stripped) are entered into a database and then all copies of the report are destroyed. In this way, USPA collects information about each serious accident so jumpers may learn from the mistakes of others while protecting the anonymity of the reporters and other parties.
Parachutist has always published reports on fatal incidents so that its members could learn from the mistakes of others and avoid making similar errors. In the October 1960 issue, a column titled “Safety Warning”—equivalent to today’s “Incident Reports”—began with the line, “Since last issue, five deaths!” Then, as now, seeing the tragic results of carelessness, inattention or lack of training in print served as a strong wake-up call.
Parachutist printed its first annual look at fatalities In July 1969—“The 1968 Fatality Study” by Dan Poynter—which analyzed the 24 U.S. fatalities and one in Germany that year and placed each in a category by cause. It’s the same basic framework that continues today. Reflecting the lack of automatic activation devices and reserve static lines, it’s unsurprising that the majority of the deaths in 1968—13—occurred due to low- or no-pulls, and it’s reasonable to surmise that seeing these numbers laid out in stark detail motivated the innovators in our sport to devise solutions. This is the same dynamic that in 2005 motivated USPA to begin requiring DZs to separate high-performance landings from standard landings after an alarming annual rise in fatal collisions.
In 2012, USPA presented Paul Sitter with its Lifetime Achievement Award. As the author of the Annual Fatality Summary for a remarkable 35 years (from 1983-2017), Sitter played a huge role in the reduction of skydiving injuries and deaths by pointing out the dangers of the sport in a data-driven manner.
DECREASE IN CANOPY-RELATED FATALITIES 2001-2020
Making it Happen
As valuable as it is, the motivator of change at USPA is not just data. Input from skydivers out in the field—those who are seeing issues first-hand—provide a major impetus for board action. Almost weekly, USPA’s Safety and Training Department receives suggestions for the board’s Safety & Training Committee and learns of problems that require committee attention. The USPA Director of Safety and Training’s job is to direct each matter through the process most efficiently, distributing proposed changes to the committee before the board’s biannual meeting and then arriving at the meeting armed with an entire collection of correspondence that needs to be addressed. The Safety & Training Committee’s agenda is always full.
Anyone can bring a suggestion to USPA. In 2019, a B-licensed member brought up concerns about the stand-up-landing requirement for passing Category D of the Integrated Student Program. When this jumper was a student, he was injured trying to meet the requirement. Later, reading a Reddit post from another jumper who had broken their ankle in a similar manner, the B-licensed jumper began feeling that the stand-up-landing requirement was causing safety problems. He brought it to the attention of the Director of Safety and Training, who then brought it to the next committee meeting. The committee agreed that the requirement put undue stress on students in Category D and decided that the focus of each landing should be safety and that students should try to stand up their landings only when they are proceeding perfectly. Eventually, they made their recommendation to the full board, who voted to remove the requirement from category D but to retain it as an overall requirement for receiving an A license.
Another way USPA worked to keep the fatality and injury rate low was the introduction of USPA Safety Day in 1997. The annual event—held on the second Saturday on March, right before the beginning of the season for many northern DZs—grew out of a suggestion by Patty Chernis, an avid USPA supporter. The day provides a great time for jumpers to shake off the winter rust, inspect their gear, practice emergency procedures and participate in the required annual Rating Renewal Seminar if they are instructors. Unfortunately, Chernis died before seeing the first Safety Day come to fruition, but she would undoubtedly be pleased at how the event has grown over the years.
On Safety Day in 2005, USPA debuted the Chesley H. Judy Safety Award, named for the USPA Director of Safety and Training who died in 1995 aboard a Queen Air that crashed in West Point, Virginia. Judy’s family provided a grant for USPA to start the award in his name, allowing drop zones to recognize those who contributed to safety locally.
What does the future bring as USPA continues the drive to bring fatalities to zero? Currently, USPA is continuing the fight to reduce canopy-related fatalities, which make up about half of the annual fatalities just like no-and low-pull fatalities did decades ago. Along with separating landings, requiring canopy education for B-licensed jumpers and encouraging it for all others has dropped the average number of annual canopy-related deaths from 13.4 in the early 2000s to 6.6 in recent years. But we still have a long way to go.
Another initiative is a campaign to increase the number of non-fatal incidents reported each year. The Safety and Training Department has been encouraging the submission of these reports, and is seeing some success. Just two years ago, the department had received enough reports for Parachutist to begin printing an Annual Non-Fatal Incidents Summary in the hopes of heading off alarming trends before they become fatal.
USPA is also planning on tackling the content of its instructor rating courses. These courses have had minor tweaks here and there but no significant changes in the last 20 years. This includes beefing up instructional materials on fundamental canopy flight, how to teach a two-stage flare, educating students on low-altitude emergencies and how to appropriately adjust a landing pattern for accuracy. For tandem courses, USPA is considering a hand-mounted-camera endorsement for instructors or even a hand-cam training course, with a possible lowering of the jump-number requirement for those who complete them.
Even as jumpers strive to push skydiving forward into new disciplines and push existing disciplines to new heights, the annual fatality rate continues to drop. USPA has done this by learning from the past while also keeping abreast of developments in our ever-changing skydiving community.