- Originally printed in issue #21 (June 2011) of Blue Skies Magazine.
- Buy a reprint of this issue.
With the current rash of fatalities, isn’t it about time we took a step back and started asking ourselves, “What the fuck is going on?”
In my fifteen years in the sport, I’ve had a chance to see some of the fatality trends in our sport. Not only have I read about them in one of the few remaining worthwhile parts of Parachutist, the incident reports, but I’ve been able to witness them firsthand in the loss of friends and acquaintances over those years. It’s not a pleasant way to learn lessons, but it’s a hell of a lot better than learning them firsthand.
The first real big trend I remember being told about, although it was quite a bit before my time, was what they used to call the “low pull” contest back in the ‘70s. I’m sure you’ve heard some version of it, and it’s not exactly a hard one to figure out. Two jumpers face off in freefall and continue on until one of them chickens out and pulls. The last one to pull is the winner. The problem was that there were a few too many jumpers hell bent on taking first prize, and they ended up receiving their awards posthumously (for our non-English-speaking readers, that means dead).
The first trend I was around for came shortly after the high-performance canopies of the time came out. When the Stiletto from Performance Designs hit the market, it was billed as the most hardcore canopy ever made. Square-1 in Perris, and every other gear store that carried it, would only sell it to those jumpers who could show 500 jumps or more logged. This of course was a bit of a joke, considering the canopy could be ordered straight from PD, Para-Gear or any other online or mail order company without showing anyone any logbook at all, let alone a set number of jumps. Canopies like the Batwing and a few others did their fair share of damage as well.
This trend of course is one that still plagues the sport today, and it’s that of the low-altitude hook turn. I don’t know the exact numbers, and am quite frankly too lazy to look them up, but dying under a perfectly good, flying canopy became the number one way to meet our infamous Black Death. Front risers weren’t used much for hook turns back then, and the now-old-timer toggle whippers started slamming themselves into the ground at an alarming rate. The trend has thankfully slowed down dramatically now, as knowledge of our canopies grows, and courses like Brian Germain’s canopy skills help not only those up-and-coming young canopy pilots to keep from making it into the wrong record books, but also keeps the seasoned up on the little nuances that save lives. Yet as our confidence in our canopy skills grows, our basic safety skills, learned all the way back in AFF, seem to go right out the window.
Why is it that with all our skill and knowledge, canopy collisions are claiming so damn many lives? It’s not as if staying out of someone else’s canopy while it’s in flight is a new fucking concept. This is the shit we learned back when we were wearing Pro-tec helmets, worn-out student jumpsuits and cracked Kroops goggles. It’s understood that while flying under the new generations of high-performance canopies, things happen pretty damn fast. It’s something that prompted rules, ranging from what degree turn can be made when swooping to complete separation of high-performance from regular landing areas, yet people continue to die yet again at an alarming rate.
I personally lost someone quite close to me in a canopy collision; in 2005, my good friend Sara turned her Velocity on final, right into the path of her boyfriend Ron while he performed a high-performance turn above her, putting him through her lines at 300’. It’s not much different than the situation that just took Pat McGowan and his fellow staff member from us in Perris last month and then two more Perris jumpers only two weeks later! Six years and many many deaths in between these incidents says something pretty terrible to me. It says we aren’t figuring this shit out! Is it management’s fault? Fuck no! There isn’t a person in the world who is going to believe that someone sitting in manifest at Perris could have done anything to save those lives, or that any “rule” they institute isn’t going to simply be ignored by someone who tells themselves “never gonna happen to me.”
Do I have an answer? I’m afraid not. I, like everyone else, only have a few suggestions and ideas that may help out. Do we banish high-performance turns? How about we just go back to using rounds—that way if you fly into someone else’s canopy, you just bounce off. Do we just stop jumping altogether? These sound more like jokes to me than ideas, but I’ve heard many people say those exact things. The truth is, those actions would drop the number of dead in our sport, but would also take away a lot of what our sport is about.
How about WE, each jumper, each drop zone, each separate community of skydivers figure out what works to keep our jumpers safe. Safe from low hook turns, safe from canopy collisions, safe from the avoidable bullshit that’s taking people from us. That’ll be the new skydiver contest. No low pull crap, but … Whoever figures out how to stop needlessly killing skydivers not only WINS, but gets to be around to receive the prize.
[team_member image_url=”123875″ name=”The Fuckin’ Pilot” role=”Monthly Columnist”]About the author: The Fuckin’ Pilot has more than 8,500 hours of flight time; 5,000 of those have been piloting jump ships for skydiving. [/team_member] [products_mixed layout=”listing” orderby=”ID” order=”asc” ids=”26630,121868″ title=”Get more like this!”]