How dangerous is skydiving?
The sport of skydiving has continued to improve its safety record every year. Skydiving accidents are most often caused not by random equipment failure but mainly by human errors in judgement and mistakes in procedure. While skydiving poses a very real risk of injury and even fatalities, those who undergo good training, keeping their knowledge of the sport up-to-date and who know their own limits are unlikely to suffer any injuries or be involved in any accidents while skydiving. There will always be an element of risk and danger but this is something to be weighed against the enjoyment that many people get from the sport. Most skydiving centres will require participants to sign a risk agreement that is legally binding to show that the jumper is prepared to willingly take on an element of risk. If you are completely risk-adverse, this is not the sport for you.
What types of jumps are there?
There are different ways to perform a parachute jump.
* Tandem Jumps
Rather than go it alone, a first time participant may like to begin with a tandem jump, where the experienced instructor controls the jump, meaning the jumper needs to undergo a minimal amount of training. The beginner will be fitted with a harness which is attached to the instructor’s parachute system. They share an extra large square parachute. Together they will freefall for up to around 45 seconds before the parachute is deployed and the pair will land after about five minutes. A tandem jump is an ideal way to begin the sport with a lower risk and less training required. * Static Line Training (also known as Category System or ‘RAPS’)
Static Line Training is a method often used by the army and a training course for this kind of jump can last from four to six hours. Jumpers fall from 3000 feet above ground level and the parachute is opened using a line which is joined from the aircraft to the parachute. The ride itself lasts about 3 minutes, and the jumper will be guided to the ground using radio contact or by someone on the ground. Static Line Training requires significant training and has a higher rate of injury than a tandem jump. It is ideal for those who want to become skydivers as it requires self-confidence and self-discipline. It is not the right method for those who want to perform only a single, one-off jump.
* Accelerated Free Fall Training
Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) Training is used by those who are serious about becoming a trained skydiver. Requiring a full day of training before undergoing a jump, two instructors will hold you as you fall from 10,000 feet for about 40 seconds before the beginner opens their own parachute at about 4500 feet. The ride lasts about 4 minutes in total. This method provides accelerated learning, and so fewer jumps are needed to get to a competent level. It is more expensive to train using this method and better suited to those who wish to become skydivers.
What does it feel like to fall?
It is not the “heart in mouth” sensation that many people expect. Rather than a sensation like a rollercoaster, it is more of a comfortable feeling of floating with support, and is really the closest a person can come to human flight. It’s possible to move around in the sky while falling as there is a constant air flow which makes manoeuvring possible. On opening the parachute jumpers experience a sensation not unlike jumping feet first into water for a few seconds. Parachutes are usually easy to move and steer by using simple hand controls. Modern parachutes make landing as easy as stepping off the pavement.
Assessing the risks
The British Parachute Association is the National Governing Body for the sport of skydiving and can provide information to help you assess your own personal risk. Depending on which method of skydiving you choose and on your own personal profile (gender, age, fitness level and weight) the risks can vary greatly. Rates of injuries rise in line with an increase in age, weight and a decrease in physical fitness. Risk is calculated in terms of injuries per thousand jumps and deaths in every 100,000 jumps. An injury can range from a minor cut or bruise through to a more serious fracture. Deaths are few and far between. In a tandem jump, the injury rate is about 1 injury in every 800 jumps, with a slightly higher risk for women. Only about 1 in 380,000 tandem jumps results in a fatality. Static Line jumps have an injury rate of 1 per 170 jumps. The fatality rate is about 1 in 40,000.
Accelerated free-fall jumps have a novice injury rate of 1 in 170 jumps with women again having a higher injury rate than men. There is not enough data to produce a reliable fatality rate for this type of skydiving.
Risks for experienced skydivers
When fully trained, the risk of injury falls to around 0.4 injuries per 1000 jumps. The risk increases at public displays and events to about 2 in 1000 jumps and 8 deaths in every 100,000 jumps.
What sort of jump is best for me?
If you are a novice who is prepared to accept an injury rate of up to 1 in 900 (male) or 1 in 700 (female), and are not very fit or self confident, and do not want to commit to regular skydiving, you would probably be best with a tandem jump. If you are fit, have lots of self-confidence and are willing to commit time to training you may prefer the challenge of a solo jump. For this you would accept an injury rate of up to 1 in 200 (male) or up to 1 in 100 (female).
David R Noble