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Skydiving FAQ
About skydiving safety

Parachuting photos and FAQs (click on an image)

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altitude, speed

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Flying the Jolly Roger Flag over the Mojave desert.

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 to open.

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 & hardware. 

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 human error.

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 parachute.

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 hook turns. 

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.