Flying the Jolly Roger Flag over the
There's no doubt about it; the Jolly Roger Pirate Flag
is the flag most popular with parachutists. Its popularity
dates back to the 1960s, a time when "skydiving was dangerous
and sex was safe" as the bumper sticker says.
So how safe is skydiving?
Skydiving safety has increased dramatically over the years.
One fact that surprises many non-skydivers is that most skydiving
fatalities are attributed to jumper errors. Sometimes such
errors are made while dealing with an otherwise minor mid-air
emergency, and even sometimes while flying beneath a fully-inflated
parachute. Rarely ever is it really and truly a case of
a properly maintained, packed & deployed parachute failing
So why does the media almost always say "...parachute
failed to open" when reporting skydiving fatalities?
Because they really don't know what else to say.
Unfortunately, the "parachute failed to open"
cliche is a simplistic, widely-held view in the media & public.
It stems mostly from a misunderstanding of skydiving procedures
The problem with the media's stock "parachute failed
to open" explanation is that it tends to misdirect blame
for the accident -- faulting the equipment only. Remember;
it takes two to tango.
If a skydiver experiences a malfunction of his main parachute,
then foolishly waits too long before initiating his reserve deployment
sequence, his perfectly good reserve parachute may never have
time to fully inflate before impact. If this happens, it
certainly can be said that his parachute failed to open.
But who's fault was that?
This is not to suggest that properly operated
modern parachute equipment never independently fails. It
most certainly can, and sometimes does. However, seldom
are such failures the random & comprehensive equipment failures
the "parachute failed to open" lines suggests.
In fact, most skydiving mishaps could have been
easily prevented, and few cannot be traced back to some critical
The Automatic Activation Device
One key safety innovation was the "AAD" or automatic
activation device -- which can automatically activate a jumper's
reserve parachute in the event the jumper is disabled or disoriented
or has otherwise lost track of altitude. AADs have been
around for years, but until the early 1990s they were notoriously
inaccurate, having overly broad margins for altitude errors.
In 1990, a German innovator named Helmut Cloth introduced
a much improved AAD known as the "CYPRES", or Cybernetic
Parachute Release System.
Cloth's computerized AAD (about the size of a pack of
cigarettes) revolutionized the AAD, and turned what was once a
bulky, students-only device into a compact, very reliable, readily
available (for $1,200) life-saving device for all skydivers of
all experience levels.
During free-fall and canopy descent, the CYPRES uses computer-interpreted
barometric metering to constantly assess a skydiver's altitude
and rate of descent. If a skydiver is descending faster
than a certain speed, beyond a pre-set altitude (750 feet
AGL), this device will instantly activate the skydivers reserve
In the years since it's introduction, the AAD device has
saved many lives.
Avoidable accidents involving perfectly good parachutes
In recent years, advanced canopy designs have led to many
fatalities associated with daring maneuvers known as "hook
turns" and "swoops".
Inducing a parachute into a steep, sometimes 180 degree,
diving, hook-like turn just prior to landing can make for a very
exciting "swoop"; a long, high speed (horizontal) landing
flare inches from the ground. When properly handled, these
"swoops" are an extremely thrilling way to land, and
an impressive sight to behold. A skilled canopy pilot can
cruise inches above the ground at over 20 or 30mph, slowly bleeding
off airspeed to make a soft, tippy-toe landing.
To put it in fighter pilot lingo, this is a skydivers
way of "flat-hatting" or "hot-dogging".
As with flying high performance aircraft, the risks associated
with these kinds of crowd-pleasing, show-off maneuvers are great.
If a jumper misjudges the altitude at which the final
diving turn is initiated, or begins leveling-off for their landing
too late, the jumper may impact the ground while the canopy is
still diving at a very high rate of speed. This is often
fatal, and has left the skydiving community often bemoaning the
ironies of a skydiver dying under a perfectly good parachute.
Many skydive centers have wisely banned the practice of low
This type of fatality can also occur when a jumper mistakenly
turns his or her canopy too sharply, too low to the ground --
as when maneuvering to avoid an impending collision with another
canopy* or ground structure. (*another avoidable scenario
is mid-air collisions between skydivers flying under canopy)
In an effort to reduce these kinds of avoidable accidents,
many student training centers have re-written their training syllabus
to include more intensive canopy piloting techniques.