Robert Crandall, the long-time CEO of American Airlines, once said the industry is always in the grip of its dumbest competitor. A corollary for GA—if there is one—is that the perception of safety is always set by the latest horrific accident.
And it occurred in Hawaii last Friday when a King Air carrying 10 skydivers and a pilot crashed after takeoff, killing everyone aboard and shutting down busy Dillingham Airport for four days. It was the worst loss of life in a single GA crash since 2011. Predictably, the NTSB has already called on the FAA to regulate skydiving operations more closely. It made the same demand last month after a series of air tour accidents in Alaska and Hawaii this year that killed, coincidently, 11.
“There is an inherent risk to parachuting and there are measures you take to mitigate that risk, but paying passengers should be able to count on an airworthy plane, an adequately trained pilot, a safe operator and adequate federal oversight of those operations,” the NTSB’s Jennifer Homendy said at a press conference in Hawaii. She noted that after a special investigation, the board made a specific list of recommendations in 2008 to improve safety in skydiving. “Accidents continue to happen. There have been fatalities since that time,” Homendy said.
All of these things are true, but Homendy’s comment is significantly misleading because it fails to recognize that fatal accidents in skydiving have been trending sharply downward for the last three decades. Because I am a skydiver and an accident data nerd, I follow the trends out of personal interest. I contacted my friend Ed Scott at the United States Parachute Association for a sharper pencil on the numbers.
USPA’s data shows that for the decade between 1989 and 1998, there were 15 fatal jump aircraft accidents; there were 16 the following decade and 10 between 2009 and 2018. An asterisk: USPA’s official data list 10 fatals for the last decade, but two were inadvertent deployment of parachutes inside the airplane. These can be nasty, but I don’t link them to aircraft airworthiness or the pilot’s skill or qualifications. It would be just as logical to blame the airplane for jump fatalities.
So using my numbers for the last decade, the fatal accident rate in skydiving has been 0.76/100,000 hours, the overall rate 5.9. That fatal rate is comparable—actually a little lower—than GA’s 0.89 rate or a little higher if you count those two accidents I dismissed. The overall rate in skydiving is the same as GA, too, all in a market that continues to grow with more annual operations. (Just for my pilot friends who think skydiving is crazy dangerous, the accident rate last year was 0.4 fatals per 100,000 jumps. The lowest in the sport’s modern history.)
Why are these trends so? It’s not just luck. In GA as a whole, Darwinism has killed off a lot of the stupid people who used to fly, some of them after a few drinks. Advances in training, safety programs, avionics and the same kind of enlightened attitude that has reduced drunken driven has infected aviation. So, too, has skydiving benefited from education and training efforts and some FAA oversight. If the wild west hasn’t been tamed, it’s at least a little less wild.
In 2008, the NTSB issued a list of recommendations meant to reduce the skydiving accident rate. These included developing an effective two-point seatbelt harness, maintenance and inspection programs for airplanes, initial and recurrent training for pilots and more FAA surveillance of skydiving operations. In varying degrees, these have been addressed, although not perhaps to the degree the NTSB would prefer.
As you can imagine, skydiving exists in a world quite apart from aviation as a whole. While Part 105 provides a skeletal regulatory framework, the airplane part of the sport is driven by Part 91 and the FAA leaves the nitty-gritty up to USPA in the form of a set of Basic Safety Requirements. It’s sort of like AOPA overseeing the AIM.
The post-2008 push for more FAA oversight of skydiving revealed what everyone in the industry suspected. The FAA simply lacks the knowledge, expertise and resources—not to mention the bureaucratic desire—to usefully regulate the sport.
Just in maintenance alone, a USPA survey found that some operators were being advised by their FSDOs that an aircraft annual was sufficient for skydiving aircraft and that private pilots could fly the operations. Neither is correct. These aircraft are fly-for-hire and require 100-hour inspections or progressive maintenance programs at minimum and commercial ratings for the pilots who fly them. That’s a reasonable step up from an annual.
There’s inconsistency in the way skydiving pilots are trained, especially at the bottom of the food chain where 182s are the favorite beast of burden. At the turbine level, the airplanes are more expensive and insurance companies are more likely to force the issue, but even then, training may be spotty. To address that, USPA published a pilot flight training manual prepared by Ray Ferrell, a longtime California drop zone operator and aircraft owner. It’s available to USPA Group Member drop zones, of which there are 220. Some 45 U.S. drop zones aren’t group members.
A high-level review of the last 10 years of accidents reveals two notable patterns. One is that turbine aircraft are underrepresented in the accident totals. Using USPA data from the member drop zones, 58% of the U.S. skydiving fleet is composed of pistons, 42% are turbines. Yet the pistons account for nearly 90% of the accidents—all accidents, not just fatals. That’s skewed a little because we don’t have data from the non-member operations, but I suspect the directionality is, nonetheless, accurate.
Second, the piston accidents—nearly uniformly 182s with a few 185s and 206s—are an unsurprising mix of fuel exhaustion, carb icing, stall/spins, engine failures, mechanical issues and the occasional crosswind loss of control. In short, the usual suspects for GA wrecks. The last decade of data show a pattern of stalls and stall/spins after takeoff, sometimes following engine failure.
One thing the NTSB asked both USPA and the FAA to look into was better seatbelts, specifically two-point harnesses of some kind. The typical skydiving belt is just a single piece of webbing looped through the main lift web or a leg strap on the rig. Better than nothing, but not a lot better. Scott says some testing was done on improved seatbelts, but it’s not clear that anyone developed a new design. In any case, it’s a two-bladed axe. All those extra belts provide more means to snag a reserve handle or main pilot chute, leading to a premature deployment inside the airplane. I’ll take my chances with the status quo, thanks.
In her press conference, NTSB’s Homendy said the agency was putting the industry “on notice,” a phrase bound to make everyone nervous. So what’s to be done? I could see an industry effort focused on training for stall/spin and engine-out responses for both piston and turbine aircraft. It doesn’t speak well of the industry that so many trained commercial pilots haven’t been able to avoid a stall before it becomes a spin. If they had, some of those engine-out fatals might have been survivable crashes.
The smart way to do this would be an FAA/USPA cooperative, volunteer effort rather than ham-fisted regulation involving more inspections and surveillance. FSDOs typically know so little about parachute operations that they think checking reserve packing cards, airworthiness certificates and POHs drive safety. What’s needed is clear-eyed acceptance of what’s causing accidents followed by a narrow focus to address those shortcomings. The accident history, even though relatively good, provides a road map.
Another idea I’ve heard is an endorsement for jump pilots, such as a banner-towing or tailwheel endorsement. Chris Schindler, a longtime jump pilot and maintainer of a comprehensive list of jump aircraft accidents, favors this. Schindler’s training and guidance has also been adopted by USPA. He also thinks it might be time to consider something like a Part 105 operating certificate to give the FAA more leverage against operators who whiff on safety issues.
The most difficult challenge might be understanding how the economics of older airplanes apply to skydiving safety. Perhaps that’s too many words to say that some fraction of airplanes used in skydiving teeter on the edge of economic viability and airworthiness. In other words, they’re junk. As this accident shows, even newer airplanes are vulnerable if not properly maintained and the King Air that crashed in Hawaii was hardly new.
When Skylanes crash, they don’t make much of a crater, physically or in the news cycle. But a turbine twin or a Caravan can take a dozen or more victims at once and the tragedy can stay above the fold for several days, as the Hawaii crash did. Above all, we owe it to humanity not to make any more victims and in the self-interest of both general aviation and skydiving, perhaps we can find a way to ferret out the marginally airworthy airplanes or minimally trained pilots most likely to bore the next crater. Most skydiving operators that I’ve dealt with would actively be on board with such an idea, but they’ve never been the problem. It’s the outliers who are.
When I commented on the air tour accidents, I expressed some skepticism about NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt’s sentiment that customers of air tour operators should expect the same level of safety as airline passengers do. I’d apply the same raised eyebrow to thinking a Twin Otter with nine people hanging off the tail and one clinging to the camera step is One Level of Safety with a 767. It’s just not realistic.
We sidestep this through informed consent which, in skydiving, is in the form of a signed waiver. The excited tandem passenger signs this without thinking through the implications or the risk, which turns out to be remarkably low, but never zero. I wonder if it would make any difference if they saw a poster that said chances of dying in a crash are 0.76 in 100,000, but lower in a turbine and chances of dying on the jump are 0.4 in 100,000 but less on a tandem.
Probably not. But when we use the phrase calculated risk, that’s what we’re talking about.