By Bryan Burke, S&TA; at Skydive Arizona
I’ve been taking notes on incidents related to the risks of horizontal freefall activity. Browsing the Incidents Forum on Dropzone.com leads to some interesting information. I went through the first six pages of the Incidents Forum to mine the following data. There are eight instances in the past year where an AAD fired after a freefall collision or related incident incapacitated a jumper, and a ninth in which the victim’s fellow jumpers pulled for him. The reference date is that of the first post, not date of accident.
1: July 31, 2013. 9-way tracing (angle flying) jump, reportedly very experienced jumpers. Collision at break-off due to back tracking blind into another jumper. AAD fired. Collision injuries followed by landing injuries, including skull fractures. 113 reserve, wing loading not stated. He jumps a Velocity 90 for a main, which suggests a fairly high experience level. If we assume a typical Velocity wing loading is 1.8, that would put the reserve wing loading at 1.6. PD recommends that expert skydivers limit wing loading on the PD113R to 1.4.
2: July 15, 2013. On a tracking dive, a jumper with 1,000 jumps was hit by one with 300, hard enough to lose awareness and probably unconscious for a few seconds. Two skydivers docked AFF-style and one opened his main for him. Fortunately the main, a Crossfire 2 119, opened without incident and the jumper recovered high enough to take control and land it safely. This was a 12-way dive according to the Youtube post, but you can never see more than ten people and they are at multiple levels. The collision occurs during the early stages of the dive, as the trackers are forming up, which gave two expert jumpers the opportunity to dock on him and pull for him. Had the collision happened lower, or had the jumper not recovered to land his parachute it could have been much worse. If he is jumping a Crossfire 2 119, he probably has a pretty small reserve, too, so an AAD deployment of the reserve might not have ended well.
3: July 10, 2013. 12-way tracking dive at a boogie results in a freefall collision that knocked out one jumper. His AAD deployed the reserve (estimated at a conservative 1.1:1 wing loading). The jumper had some teeth knocked out and fractured three vertebrae, C1, C5, and T5. His reserve was reportedly distorted by line twists or perhaps a knot or line over which might have been the result of deployment on his back. He was fortunate to land in an open field. The jumper later posted that he would recover. His profile says he has 325 jumps in two years. There is no explanation of who or what caused the collision.
4: May 27, 2013. On a 3-way RW dive, an experienced jumper with 3,000 plus jumps was laying base while two other jumpers, one with about 150 jumps and one with about 100, dove out after him. The one with 150 jumps dove too aggressively (a very common mistake when learning to dive out) and collided with the experienced jumper, hitting him in the head with his legs. The experienced jumper was knocked out and stayed that way through the freefall, the AAD activation, the reserve ride, and the landing in a tree, under a reportedly conservative wing loading. The experienced jumper died, although it is not clear if from the trauma from the collision or the landing.
5: May 20, 2013. A fairly experienced jumper, last out on a tracking dive and diving hard to the formation, hit the foot of another jumper and was knocked out. The AAD deployed the reserve as designed, which was followed by a safe, unconscious landing on a PD 160R which was loaded at 1.25. A later post by the jumper himself says it was an 18-way tracking dive. His profile says 700 jumps in six years. He apparently overtook, horizontally, a jumper who was above and ahead of him and never saw the jumper he collided with. The other jumper would not have seen him coming, either, with all of their focus ahead.
6: February 17, 2013. A skydiver was knocked out on a 10-way tracking dive. Their AAD activated but they were injured from striking a fence on landing. The injured jumper had 180 jumps and it was her first tracking dive. The injuries include a neck fracture but no paralysis. Her full-face helmet showed some damage. The reserve was lightly loaded, an Optimum 193 but no exit weight reported.
7: February 14, 2013. A skydiver with 60 jumps had a shoulder dislocated while participating in a 12-way Formation Skydiving jump. Apparently this was the result of a hard dock from another jumper docking on the injured jumper. There is very little detail, but apparently the jumper could not open a parachute and the AAD did the job. No report of landing injuries.
8: December 7, 2012. On a 17-way wingsuit jump, a participant with 250 jumps struck another participant in freefall and was knocked out. His AAD worked but he remained unconscious under canopy, crashed into an obstacle, and died from that or a combination of the landing and freefall injuries. The other jumper had unspecified back injuries.
9: October 22, 2012. On a wingsuit rodeo jump, witnesses reported that the jump tumbled unstable from exit. At some point fairly high, reportedly around 10,000 feet, the rodeo rider left. The wingsuiter never deployed a canopy. Their AAD fired but the reserve did not deploy. With no witness to the lower part of the jump it is impossible to say if the wingsuit jumper was struck by the rider, or had a stability issue such as a flat spin.
Of nine incidents in ten months where a jumper was incapacitated in freefall and their AAD fired (or in one case, was deployed for by another jumper), seven out of nine involved trackers, tracing, or wingsuits. That’s 77%.
Eight of nine, or 88% were definitely due to collisions. The final one is uncertain but possible, if it was also due to a collision, that brings us to 100% of the incapacitations being due to collisions.
Almost all of the incidents involve some degree of inexperience. Just how much experience is required to participate in this type of jump is relative. For example, is 300 jumps enough to be on a 12-way tracking dive? Is 250 enough to be on a 17-way wingsuit dive? Is 180 enough to be on a 10-way tracking dive, with no previous tracking experience? Is 700 jumps over six years (117/year average) enough to be on an 18-way tracking dive? Is 325 jumps in two years enough to be on a 12-way tracking dive?
If your jump numbers are low (say, below 500 jumps) you may have answered “yes.” The correct answer is “no.”
In every case except 9 and 1, it’s pretty safe to say these dives were too big and too poorly planned for the experience levels involved. In the case of the wingsuiter with 250 jumps, for example, if he was in compliance with his national club’s policy, he could not take up wingsuiting until he had 200 jumps. Even if all 50 of his next jumps were wingsuit jumps, did he have had the experience and skill to be on a 17-way flocking dive? What if only ten or twenty of those 50 jumps were with a wing suit?
Go to Youtube and search “skydive tracking dive.” Here is a glaring example of the issue:
This took place at a big US drop zone with plenty of experienced skydivers. Pause this dive every couple of seconds. At various points you can see that up to fifteen (maybe more) people are on the dive, but throughout the dive you’ll see people flailing unstable, going low, unable to close on the formation, way above it… and at break-off time, it’s really down to a six-way with a couple other skydivers in the distant rear.
For some reason – and here, logic completely fails me for an explanation - some people seem to think it is cool to go on a skydive on which at least half the participants lack the skill to manage the simplest goals such as approaching in control, staying in proximity with the leaders, and breaking off in a controlled fashion. Now with all those bodies scattered around the sky, many of them without the experience to have developed good air awareness, what do we expect would happen? Of course there are going to be collisions, although apparently there were none on the dive used as an example. The experienced jumpers at that drop zone, and every other one, need to change the tune. These jumps should be hard to get on, not easy. Participants should prove themselves on small dives before they go up on big ones, just as in any other freefall discipline.
We don’t have a very big data set to go on, but let’s say that tracking, wingsuit, and angle dives are 10% of all skydives made. That would probably be pretty generous, my instincts would put the number at under 5%. Yet they account for about 75% of all AAD saves from incapacitation in the past year, and 50% over the past six years. (Half of all the saves due to incapacitation in freefall that show up on the CYPRES web site in the past six years occurred on tracking, angle, or wingsuit dives.) So if a subgroup making 10% of all skydives generates 50% of the AAD activations due to freefall injury, is that a problem?
Tracking dives have become the most dangerous form of freefall there is. Wing suits are in second place. Tracing/atmonauti/angle dives appear to be determined to compete for the distinction. I hate to load my staff and myself up with more work, but self-policing simply isn’t working in this situation. Skydive Arizona is going to start holding the horizontal element of skydiving to much higher standards. We expect to have minimum experience levels for participation at different levels of complexity established soon, and our web site already lists our expectations. See www.skydiveaz.com, click on “Experienced” and review the safety materials.
As a business, we need to protect ourselves and our customers from skydivers who don’t have the experience, training, or sense to stay out of trouble. As the variety of freefall and canopy choices expand, it appears the number of skydivers fitting that description is expanding too. Drop zone operators can’t simply turn a blind eye to the problem, especially since the poor planning combined with lack of experience and training expose all skydivers on the plane to a significant risk, not just the individual participant.
Related Reading: The Horizontal Flight Problem