Have Skydiving Accidents Become More Common?
Each year, the United States Parachute Association, the organization that works with the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate skydiving, holds one of the largest skydiving events in the world, the USPA National Skydiving Championships. Spanning two weeks and covering several skydiving disciplines, the competition has been held in places throughout the country, including Perris Valley Skydiving in Southern California, the location of three fatalities and one serious personal injury in recent months, according to a local lawyer. As skydiving has evolved from a wartime escape mechanism to an extreme sport, have accidents become more common?
While parachutes have been in use for hundreds of years, one of their earliest modern roles was as a rescue device for airmen in World War I and World War II. During World War I, observation balloon pilots used them to escape; throughout World War II, pilots and crewmembers would rely on them for the same purpose when their planes were shot down. In the postwar years, people took up parachuting for sport, and schools and centers opened in the 1950s, according to the U.S. Parachute Association.
However, as the popularity of skydiving waned over the years, some in the sport sought ways to make it more exciting. Enter swooping, a variation of skydiving in which divers jump from as low as 5,000 feet above the ground-half the distance of most sky dives-and deploy their parachutes immediately. Moreover, divers use smaller, more agile parachutes. The goal is to gain more speed while still controlling one’s movements enough to execute tricks low enough to the ground that spectators can see them. Many of the “disciplines” of skydiving exhibited at the USPA National Skydiving Championships incorporate elements of swooping.
Were the skydivers who died and suffered serious personal injury at Perris Valley Skydiving in Southern California swooping or engaging in some variation of it? While news reports did not indicate the altitude at which they were released or the type of parachute they were using, they did indicate that in both cases two divers collided midair, according to a local lawyer. Last March, two divers died after colliding in the air, and then another two divers collided when their parachutes became entangled last April, killing one and injuring the other.
Despite the increasing popularity of the dangerous sport of swooping, the U.S. Parachute Association claims that the safety of skydiving continues to improve. In 2010, the USPA recorded 21 fatal skydiving accidents, a decrease from the 1970s when the sport averaged 42.5 fatalities a year. While the USPA attributes most accidents to human error and asserts that the risk of an accident can be minimized with proper preparation and good judgment, the two recent fatal and injury accidents in Perris have many throughout Southern California questioning the safety of the sport.