A recent article on a death in the world of skydiving (though rare, it does happen unfortunately) has the media up in arms over an industry that has “almost no regulation.”
Hello USPA, I hope you’re all over this reporter like white on rice!
Okay, so tact and sharing the facts in a calm, straight-forward manner is probably best, but needless to say when I read this I was slightly more than pissed.
There are so many myths out there about our sport just like this (thanks to my Facebook and Twitter followers for sending me additions for the list), so I thought it would be a great idea to take a few moments to review the top myths about the skydiving industry and provide you with the simple facts. The more the public knows, the better reputation our sport will have, so please feel free to point anyone who is speaking any of the following statements in the direction of this post.
Given recent media backlash against us skyjumpers, let’s start here:
Skydiving has little to no regulation
Skydiving is regulated by a group called the United States Parachute Association (other countries have similar regulating bodies). The USPA works very closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine all kinds of safety protocol that must be followed by dropzones, skydivers, instructors and jump pilots at USPA-affiliated dropzones. We all have certain requirements we have to meet and tests we have to pass in order to receive our USPA license(s) and there’s even more hoops to jump through in order to coach and instruct.
Each year there are new regulations added as the sport changes, to include requirements and safety protocol for things like camera flying and wingsuiting. The FAA even does regular, drop-in spot checks and ride-alongs on jump planes to ensure that rules are being followed and that the dropzone operation is safe. If the protocol that is set in place by these regulating bodies is not followed, it is not uncommon to see jumpers and pilots stripped of their ratings.
Skydiving is inherently dangerous
You regularly hear instructors at dropzones telling their students after a skydive to, “drive safe, it’s the most dangerous thing you’ll do today.” Now that my friends, is a fact.
Are there risks in skydiving? Yes, of course! But there are risks in most things you do in life, especially activities like driving. Skydiving comes with a whole host of safety features that the rest of life doesn’t provide. For starters, you have TWO parachutes. Heaven forbid something goes wrong with your first canopy deployment, you can cut it away and use your reserve which is packed and inspected every 180 days by a certified, professional rigger. Not only that, you’re surrounded by other skydivers who have gone through rigorous training to receive their licenses and ratings, so everyone is looking out for everyone else – in the air and on the ground. We all perform safety checks on our gear and we regularly get second and third checks from our fellow jumpers prior to exiting the aircraft. Dropzones designate landing patterns so that there’s limited risk of incident on landing. I could go on and on about all the safety elements involved in skydiving, but it’d just bore you.
Skydiving’s safety record only continues to improve as equipment and training advances. Don’t believe me? Check out the facts in these charts from the USPA.
The problem is, the media sits around and waits to report on and (to take a word out of my buddy Chris’ mouth) sensationalizes accidents, as if it’s something that occurs regularly. Most incidents that occur in the sport are not due to equipment failure but happen under perfectly functioning canopies. These accidents can be due to jumpers performing high-performance moves that either they are not prepared for due to lack of experience, or simply because of a miscalculation in their maneuver. So yes, accidents happen, just as in every other real-world experience, but that’s the risk you take simply by living people!
There’s a high risk of your parachute not opening
It’s not uncommon to hear the media talk about incidents, whether they ended in minor injury or even death, as the result of a parachute “not opening,” which then leads people to believe that will likely happen if they skydive. Of course, this isn’t how it went down, but getting the facts and understanding the physics behind how equipment works will clear things up a bit.
Without getting all science-y here (there is a lot of science involved in the sport, so the more you understand how everything works, like how planes stay up in the air and why parachutes want to fly, the more equip you’ll be to handle issues and to control your fear for the unknown). Parachutes want to open. They are designed to open. So, if your parachute is packed properly, it will come out of the rig and out of the bag it’s housed in smoothly, and open. There are malfunctions that can cause your parachute to malfunction once it’s open – most of which are quickly correctable – and there are some issues that could cause your rig to not open properly, requiring the jumper to use their reserve, but again, these are very infrequent.
The truth is, when you hear someone say “their parachute didn’t open,” what they mean to say is “they had a malfunction and had to use their reserve” but they didn’t do their research to find out what the actual problem was or they simply want to make the issue sound worse to make their story more compelling.
Whatever the reason, it leads people to believe that a parachute not opening is something that frequently happens in our sport and leads to death or serious injury. Though issues are infrequent, all jumpers, whether instructors, camera fliers or fun jumpers, are all prepared to deal with malfunctions and sticky situations as they happen, leading to the continued improvement of our sport’s safety record year after year.
Skydiving is for crazy, suicidal thrill seekers
Skydivers are just like everyone else. We are passionate about what we do. Sometimes to the extreme (read: jumpers who quit their lives, move to the dropzone and pack parachutes to keep food on the table) but those jumpers are credited for following their dreams and pursuing their passions more than anything. Given that we are driven by our passion for the sport, we are far from suicidal – we love life too much to want it to end. We crave that next moment in freefall, we want nothing more than to spend as much time as we can with our fellow jumpers in our big, blue playground.
Some of us aren’t even thrill seekers. Sure, a number of skydivers are – they’re BASE jumpers, snowboarders, ground launchers, you name it – but some of us are in the sport not for the thrill – the adrenaline, but for the peace, the serenity, the stress relief that each jump provides. The challenges are never ending and the personal growth that’s possible is amazing. We love being in a community of people who get why we do what we do and the overwhelming support that comes along with that. And as far as the “crazy” part goes – aren’t we all, in our own right, a little bit crazy?
You can have full-on conversations in freefall
Imagine being on a motorcycle, driving 120 mph down the highway and trying to have a conversation with the person on the motorcycle next to you. Now, remove the sound of the motorcycle from this scenario and what do you have left? A shit ton of wind, that’s what. There is no way that anyone would be able to carry on a conversation as they move through the air at these speeds. And why would you? The gestures, the docking, the playing is so much fun in and of itself, there’s no need for words.
Freefall lasts for minutes at a time
This myth, along with the one above is perpetuated by movies like Point Break, where skydives seem to last for minutes. This is for dramatic effect only. The average freefall portion of a skydive lasts between 45 and 60 seconds, depending on your exit altitude and which type of discipline you’re practicing. Of course, you can add an extra 30-60 seconds for wingsuit jumps, and none of this time includes your canopy ride, but the point here is that you can’t talk in freefall and you’re only there for a minute, max.
Now that I have done a tandem, I can start wingsuiting
I debated whether or not to include this in the list, but truth be told, some of the dumbest things come out of the mouths of some of the most intelligent people when it comes to skydiving, so I thought it best to address.
So you’ve done a tandem, or even your first AFF jump. Good for you! You’ve experienced something less than 1% of the population has or ever will experience. That said, you’re no expert. In fact, you have no concept of what it means to fly a wingsuit. I know, you’ve seen videos on YouTube of proximity flying and it doesn’t look all that hard, right?
Again, I say, false. The USPA requires that you have at least 200 skydives to start wingsuiting. You need to understand skydiving before adding a discipline of this magnitude to your repertoire. Most dropzones now have wingsuit schools to ensure these regulations are followed and to provide jumpers with a first flight course that gives them adequate instruction on how to fly your body and what to do in an emergency situation. It takes time, experience, and understanding of the sport to fly a wingsuit. Worry about getting your A-license first, then we can talk disciplines.
When a parachute opens after freefall, you shoot up into the sky
This is an illusion. When a jumper is being filmed, whether it’s a tandem skydive or a solo jump, and they deploy their parachute, the camera man who is shooting the video is not deploying their parachute at the same time. So, assuming you’re both falling at 120 mph in freefall, the camera man continues falling at that speed while your parachute slows you down, making it appear on video that you’re shooting back up into the sky.
People who are afraid of heights can’t skydive
If you’ve flown in an airplane you know what the ground looks like from thousands of feet up. Little squares of land and tiny specs that are houses, cars, etc. The truth is, the average person cannot tell a difference in altitude until they are less than 1,500 feet above the ground, at which point you should be under a well functioning canopy and traveling at a much slower rate toward the ground.
What does this mean? No ground rush!
Why is that important? Because when you think of fear of heights you picture standing at the edge of a cliff, or off a bridge or something similar where the ground is close enough that if you fall, you’ll see the ground coming toward you.
With skydiving, you don’t get that. In skydiving, there is no sensation of falling, no jumpy stomach feeling like you get on a roller coaster or when bungee jumping. You won’t lose your stomach – that too, is a myth.
I know plenty of jumpers who are petrified of standing on a ladder but are more than thrilled to be jumping from an airplane – so long as it’s thousands of feet up!
Skydivers jump out of “perfectly good airplanes”
There is no such thing as a perfectly good airplane. In that same breath, there’s no such thing as a perfectly good instructor, a perfectly good pilot, or a perfectly good student. This is why there is a risk in skydiving. No situation is perfect, but if you’re properly trained and prepared to make the skydive (read: you have your fear in check and your adrenaline is working for you instead of against you) then it’s an incredibly safe sport.
The only way to understand what skydiving is like is to experience it yourself
I wanted to throw a true statement in here for you. To take a page out of the book of fellow skydiver, DZO and all-around amazing person Rook Nelson, if you want to have an opinion on the sport of skydiving, you have to try it. You may only want to do it once, but at least then you’re not being hypocritical when you speak of something you’ve never actually experienced.
Anything you think you know about skydiving but want to find the truth? Just ask.