USPA Executive Director Ed Scott used his “Gearing Up” editorial in the October 2010 Parachutist magazine to discuss the high percentage of skydiving fatalities in the US in 2010 attributed to canopy issues of one sort or another. He noted that of the 16 fatalities through August, 12 were “canopy-related”.
Ed went on to say that canopy-related deaths as a percentage of all fatal skydiving accidents has increased (might I add skyrocketed) despite the organization’s ongoing campaign to improve that statistic, citing 40% of 2008 fatalities were from canopy problems, 45% in 2009, and a whopping 75% this year – so far.
Next, Ed detailed the things USPA has done to combat the problem. In 2000, canopy training was introduced as part of the Integrated Student Program. In 2005, the head shed distributed a video – called “Fly to Survive” – and an accompanying poster to group member DZ’s. By 2006, USPA updated the Skydiver’s Information Manual with more information on canopy flight. In 2008 a new provision was added to the group member pledge requiring DZ’s to “establish and disseminate landing procedures that include separation of high-speed landings and normal landings”. He also mentioned numerous e-newsletters and repeated “Parachutist” magazine content on the subject.
Lastly, Ed mentioned the organization’s latest effort, the issuance of not one, but two safety advisories on the subject. One went to individual members via e-mail and the other went to rating holders, S&TA’s, and DZ’s, reminding them of the addition of canopy safety management to the group member pledge issued in 2008.
The one thing made very clear by Ed’s editorial is that USPA’s efforts to curtail canopy fatalities haven’t worked. That of course begs the question “why”?
I submit that the problem persists is because no one at USPA, or anyone else that I know of, is investigating the root cause of these accidents. It’s easy to spew rhetoric about insuring adequate separation after group skydives, but has anyone asked if adequate separation was achieved by others in the group in these post-deployment collision accidents? USPA mentions making sure break-offs are high enough to leave time to get that separation. Has anyone at USPA actually inquired about the break-off altitudes on these skydives? Has anyone asked if there were other factors that led to inadequate separation? Was it poor tracking skills? Could one of the jumpers have experienced a vision problem from the loss of a contact lens or tearing up during tracking? Were more of these collisions after freefly jumps rather than belly jumps? We don’t know because no one is asking. A few pointed questions of witnesses and survivors could prove to be very revealing – and might tell us we are chasing the wrong demons.
What if we found a pattern of post-deployment collisions after short tracking times? What if we found a link between these collisions and the group size vs. experience level of the people involved? If so, we might discover that while poor separation resulted in the collision, it was not the core problem.
The advisory is – unfortunately – nothing but a repeat of the same things USPA has preached for a decade or more, and none of those have worked.
The advisory recommends taking a canopy course. Did they bother to ask how many of this year’s canopy-related accident victims had taken one? If not, how can they come to the conclusion that a canopy course by itself would have helped any of these people – or you?
The advisory says DZ's should separate high-speed landing areas from slow-speed landing areas. Has anyone asked how many of 2010's accidents actually had anything to do with landing area seperation?
The advisory suggests planning canopy descent and alternate plans for when things don’t go as planned. It cites that three of the four fatal canopy collisions in 2010 happened at pattern altitude, seeming to indicate one or both of the jumpers involved failed to fly a good pattern or simply failed to see each other. Has anyone inquired if a failure to do so was actually the cause of any of these accidents or if any of the victims had a habit of hot-dogging or poor canopy control in general? Has anyone asked how many of these accidents involved one jumper turning into the other from above vs. how many involved jumpers with level, converging flight paths? Probably not, but knowing that information could help us discover what’s really happening up there.
The advisory suggests downsizing in accordance with USPA recommendations. Has anyone compiled wing loading statistics vs. jumper experience and currency in any of 2010’s accidents? My guess is no.
You get the picture.
If we are going to get a handle on canopy accidents, we need to ask the right questions. I suggest USPA do more than publish a few facts from an accident report with a follow up message that sounds like a broken record. I believe USPA should perform an exhaustive investigation into every canopy-related accident – fatal and non-fatal – to trace the root cause of each one, rather than just the basic, incomplete, facts.