Every year, the United States Parachuting Association says about 3.1 million people strap on a parachute and jump out of an airplane. In 2012, 19 of those people died in the process.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reports there are 40,000 car accidents a year that result in fatalities.
So which is safer? Driving to work or falling from the sky?
That’s the question, and the analogy, many skydiving drop zone owners point to when a skydiving accident makes worldwide headlines. Like what happened to Makenzie Wethington. I wrote a follow-up piece to her story for Monday’s Oklahoman concerning skydiving age limits.
While there might be dissension among drop zone owners on those limits, there is one unifying theme that connects their skydiving ideology — a commitment to safety through self regulation.
“Skydiving is very misunderstood by the general public,” said Dale Settle, owner of Skydive Tulsa. “Their only reference on it is the bad movies that are made about skydiving. They assume we’re all crazy adrenaline junkies. No, we’re very calculating professional folks.”
Andy Beck, owner of Oklahoma Skydiving Center, said the Federal Aviation Association requires airplane inspections for every 100 operating hours. Parachutes are unpacked and inspected every 180 days by a certified and licensed outside party. Instructors must undergo doctor’s physicals. Beck said gear is double and triple checked by fellow jumpers before anyone leaves the airplane, creating a culture of safety.
“It’s not just one person who is looking at what’s going on,” Beck said. “There’s multiple organizations involved in that process. I think that’s great. There’s nothing to hide. To have other organizations looking into what’s going on, it provides accountability.”
First-time skydivers are put through an extensive training course, where worst-case scenarios are simulated on the ground with the same equipment that will be used in the air. When it comes to minors in these classes, it can be difficult to predict how they’ll handle that first jump. If an instructor believes a student isn’t physically or mentally prepared, the student won’t be allowed to board the airplane.
“There’s no way to know what someone is going to do until that last second,” Beck said. “Everybody is different. That’s a really hard thing for anyone to know. You can’t second judge what someone did or didn’t do because you weren’t there, you weren’t them. You don’t know what was going through their mind.”
When an skydiving accident is reported, the FAA investigates the cause.
Lynn Lunsford is the public affairs manager for the mid-states region of the FAA. I asked him a few questions about the role the FAA plays in accident’s like Makenzie’s. Here’s what he said:
Q. Is the FAA or NTSB currently investigating the cause of a skydiving accident that took place at Pegasus Air Sports on Jan. 25? And when will the findings be available?
A. The FAA is investigating the accident. We don’t have an estimate on when it will be completed.
Q. When a skydiving accident takes place, who is responsible for alerting the FAA? What is the investigation process that takes places following a skydiving related accident?
A. The FAA is alerted in a variety of ways, depending on the accident. Most often, law enforcement or emergency personnel provide the first notification. The FAA’s primary concern in skydiving accidents is the condition of the equipment used. We are particularly interested in whether the parachute was packed properly by a person with proper training, and whether the parachute and associated hardware were in good repair. In commercial operations, we also verify that the aircraft was maintained according to FAA standards and that the pilot had the proper certifications. Our investigators inspect the hardware and interview anybody who might have participated in or witnessed the event.
Q. What are possible sanctions/outcomes resulting from an investigation if the parachuting company is found at fault?
A. We don’t speculate about possible sanctions. Federal Code allows for a variety of civil penalties for violations of Federal Aviation Regulations, ranging from warning letters to monetary sanctions or suspension of airmen or other certificates. Each case is handled on its own merits.
Q. Does the FAA keep records of received complaints concerning skydiving operations in Oklahoma?
A. The FAA investigates complaints alleging safety violations. We do not keep a publicly available database of unsubstantiated complaints. In this case, or records show no previous accidents, incidents or closed enforcement investigations for this skydiving operator.