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A Diving Rate

The United States Parachute Association has released the good news that 2009 marked the lowest skydiving fatality rate for one year in almost half a century: 16 deaths in nearly three million jumps by over 32,000 USPA members at 220 drop zones across the U.S. Of those three million, 400,000 were by...

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The United States Parachute Association has released the good news that 2009 marked the lowest skydiving fatality rate for one year in almost half a century: 16 deaths in nearly three million jumps by over 32,000 USPA members at 220 drop zones across the U.S. Of those three million, 400,000 were by people making their first jump. Not since 1961 has an annual fatality total been lower, at 14. But there were only 3,353 members then. Total jumps that year weren't tallied, but suffice to say there were far fewer. So the death rate was surely much higher.

The 1970s averaged 42.5 fatalities per year, but that 10-year average has steadily dropped: The 1980s saw a 34.1 average; the 1990s, 32.3; and the 2000s 25.8. The USPA attributes the decline to safer equipment, better training, and the personal commitment of each skydiver, instructor, rigger, and drop zone manager.

Sixteen in three million is about one death for every 62,500 jumps. Not quite as good as the 2008 rate of one airline passenger death for every eight million airplane passengers who flew that year. But we'd all agree that skydiving may always be a little riskier than simply flying on an airplane. They're better than the odds that you'll die accidentally from a fall due to snow or ice: 1 in 1,270, something people in the mid-Atlantic are thinking about, maybe, right now after getting three feet of snow this week. They're also better than the odds that you'll become employed as a fashion designer: 1 in 7,990.

Frankly, I've never understood odds, and struggled with the probability and statistics class I took in college. That professor would probably tell me that just because you can divide three million by 16 and get one death for every 62,500 jumps doesn't actually mean the odds are one in 62,500. That just happened to be the rate last year.

Niklas Daniel swoops across a pond during the fast-paced canopy piloting competition at the 2009 U.S. Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships at Skydive Spaceland outside Houston. Photo: Craig O'Brien/USPA

I've never skydived. I did bungee jump once, 20 years ago, and was somehow comforted by the fact that I was attached to the bridge the whole time. Didn't have to rely on the mysterious function of a rip cord, or the proper unfurling of the chute. To this day I can't seem to find firm numbers on fatalities per million bungee jumps, or whatever. I'm oddly comforted by that too. There are numbers all over the place on the web. Helen, a student in Mr. Varsava's Grade 11 Physics class back in 2004, somehow dug up information that the odds of death by bungee jumping are one in 500,000. I'm going with that, even though I'm done bungee jumping.

Jessica Edgeington swoop-2009 USPA Nationals-450-By the way, the folks shown here aren't skydiving over water for safety reasons. They're  swooping, which is a popular event at skydiving meets. Swooping is part of canopy piloting competitions, the most extreme discipline in the sport of skydiving. Competitors are judged on speed, distance, and zone accuracy. The swooping part, which obviously comes last, also provides some giddy fun, particularly when an overambitious swooper touches down on the water too far from shore and sinks before getting to dry land. That's called "chowing."

Sorry, no data available on the odds of chowing.

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