Marc has been skydiving for 10 years and now has over 3,000 jumps. He's a tandem instructor and first jump instructor, living by his passion
Will you die?
It's normal to wrongly appraise the risks when we are inexperienced. After 10 years in the sport and over 3,000 skydives, I'll answer the most popular questions and address the most common fears through facts, empirical evidence and statistics. I'll also develop around common psychological biases that form our first impression of the sport.
Cognitive biases that form our perception
I'll begin by saying that skydiving CAN be dangerous and fatalities have a somewhat sensational character, which makes them stand out.
We tend to extrapolate a sensational event to a general concept. A skydiver whose parachute did not open is more sensational than a car accident, therefore can affect our perception of the whole sport.
In episode 114: How to think about guns? from the Freakonomics podcast, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt explore the fact that parents would never let their child go to a friend's house who's parents have a gun. However, there is no problem when it comes to a child going to a friend's house where there's a pool... even if pools are 100 times more dangerous than a gun for a child. An accident by gun violence is more sensational, therefore makes a bigger impact.
Many cognitive biases can happen in a person's mind that can affect his perception, experience, and attitude towards skydiving. For example, we unconsciously look for evidence that confirms our opinion. This is called:
This powerful bias happens when we make a judgment about someone or something. We want to be right, therefore we cherry-pick the facts that confirm our initial assessment. This is a natural and instinctive response to any new experience.
Instead of actively and openly look for the truth, we take the shortest route that confirms our opinion.
The Dunning-Kruger study has lead researchers to conclude that a person is particularly incompetent at realizing his incompetence or lack of knowledge. This bias, combined with the confirmation bias, is a powerful cocktail that fuels ignorant and radical beliefs.
Before saying that skydiving is dangerous and you might die, let's actively look for evidence that this statement is true.
What is the skydiving equipment?
The equipment is comprised of 3 parts.
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This is what straps you to the canopy. It's like a super-sophisticated climbing harness. Tandem passengers have their own, which is clipped directly to the canopy. The webbing of the harness is tested to support several thousand pounds of force. I have never seen nor have I ever known someone to have seen a harness default. They just don't break. Harnesses are also inspected every 180 days by a certified parachute rigger for any premature or prejudicial wear.
Tandem harnesses are a continuous single piece of webbing, comprised of two (2) leg straps, with one (1) chest strap and one (1) back strap. The passenger is secured with four (4) hooks to the instructor's equipment, all tested to support more than 2,000 pounds.
You won't get out.
This assembly includes the non-load-bearing panels containing the canopy and computer, sewn to the harness.
All tandem containers have an Automated Activation Device(AAD) that reads altitude and speed during the jump. If the tandem speed is greater than 78 mph at 2,300 ft, the AAD will fire to deploy the reserve canopy. This is extremely unusual, as it requires that the instructor forgets to deploy the main canopy or passes out in mid-air. Although not required everywhere for regular jumpers, the tandem equipment must have one.
Standard parachutes are around 340 square feet, which the load limit is 500 pounds (minus the 50-pound equipment, that's 450 pounds for both jumpers). Reserve parachutes are the same, although they are made in a lighter material.
The main canopy is packed in 10 minutes by the jumper or professional packers, supervised by a certified rigger. The reserve canopy is packed by a certified rigger, every 180 days, and takes 3 hours to inspect and pack. Every line, fabric, and components of the equipment are inspected.
The reserve canopy can be activated in three ways:
- The emergency red handle, located on the left shoulder of the instructor;
- The RSL or Skyhook system, which deploys the reserve upon liberating the main canopy;
- The AAD if the tandem goes too fast at 2,300 ft.
This should alleviate your fear of a parachute not opening. Whatever happens, you will be under a canopy eventually.
What accident can happen?
I once had a wind gust collapsing my canopy at 200 ft above the ground, as I was going for my final approach. The left and right extremities of the canopy touched underneath and sprung open in the opposite direction, leaving me with a line twist at 180 degrees. I was going backward as I was about to land with my passenger. Luckily I kicked myself out of the twist and was able to avoid the trees behind.
The passenger had fun! At least his jump was successful.
Although they are rare, malfunctions happen.
Although instructors are having fun with you, they are always waiting and ready for something bad to happen.
Parachute not opening
This would require faulty equipment. As aforementioned, the AAD is armed to deploy the reserve canopy in case of high speed at low altitude. I don't know about any tandem accidents involving a crash at terminal freefall speed. Considering the instructor's gear check before putting on the equipment and the mandatory bi-annual inspections by the rigger, this is highly improbable.
In 3,000 skydives, I have never had to use my reserve canopy (knock on wood). However, during the main canopy deployment, the most common malfunctions are:
- Line twists: where the lines can be twisted 3-4 turns. This is resolved by kicking yourself out of the twists. If the attempts are unsuccessful, the instructor will deploy the reserve canopy.
- Hard opening: where the deployment sequence is disturbed and the canopy opens faster than normal. If hard enough, the opening can injure the jumpers and knock them out, although this is improbable due to many systems slowing down the opening on the tandem equipment.
Among other malfunctions, less common ones can be:
- Line-over: where a line goes around the top of the canopy and chokes it, forming a bow-tie shape. This is usually due to an error in packing. This can rarely be resolved and requires the reserve parachute deployment.
- Hesitation: where the deployment sequence hesitates and takes more time than usual. During this time, the jumpers are falling at high speed. This usually resolves itself after a couple of seconds. If nothing happens after 5 seconds, the instructor will deploy the reserve canopy.
- Sidespin: Due to improper body position at the exit, the tandem pair can enter an uncontrollable spin on their side. The instructor can regain stability early in the spin. As the spin accelerates, he has less control. This is resolved either by throwing the drogue (slowing down the free fall) or deploying the reserve canopy.
Deploying the reserve in tandem is unlikely, but it solves most malfunctions. Usually, the passenger doesn't even notice.
Injuries on landing
Injuries commonly happen in high winds, when the instructor's ability to pilot is hindered. The instructor usually gets injured before the passenger. I've seen broken legs and ankles and only once a passenger getting injured due to a combination of very tricky winds, and an unusual landing area.
Remember that instructors are very experienced jumpers and do not take any chances with a passenger.
In high wind conditions, instructors refuse to jump. This is usually frustrating for clients, but as we say... it's better to be frustrated because you're grounded, than frustrated because you jumped.
If the harness is poorly fitted or the passenger has cardiac difficulties, we can see people pass out. This happens once the canopy is open and when the passenger is suspended. In 10 years, I've seen twice instructors land with unconscious passengers. They are rarely injured when unconscious. Since the passenger's body is relaxed and the instructors braces for the landing, the landing impact has minimal effects for the passenger. People wake up as they touch the ground and the blood starts circulating properly.
In this case, you just hope that it was videotaped!
What are the chances that you die?
According to the United States Parachute Association (USPA), there are 3,3 million skydives per year. Once per year, they publish the list of fatalities recorded in their organization. On average, there have been less than 20 fatalities per year for the past 10 years. These numbers are decreasing each year (13 fatalities in 2018) and involve solo jumpers for the vast majority.
This is an unlikely chance of 1 in 250,000 (slim to none if you are jumping in tandem). This is as close as the chances of getting a lightning strike.
- Dying from bees is 2 times more likely;
- A plane crash is 15 times more likely;
- Choking on your food is 50 times more likely
- Death from falling (not from a plane) is 1,300 times more likely
I believe that people still have a greater fear of dying from a skydive since they don't have control over their experience. However, if you look at the statistics, it's one of the safest sports.
I hope I have helped you understand how this beautiful sport works and that you will abandon yourself completely to the experience when you jump.
I wish you blue skies.
Sources of information
Episode 114: How to think about guns? from the Freakonomics radio show;
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.