Survival Guide

Allan Hewitt AFF Instructor & Master Rigger

How safe is sport parachuting / skydiving?

This is a question that many people ask themselves before deciding whether to enroll on a parachute course. Others may ask: Is it totally safe?, Can I be sure I won’t be injured?

There is no such thing as a ‘totally safe parachute jump’. The risk is very low for students as long as you attend a recognised training course, but there is always some risk. As with any action sport, sport parachuting can never be entirely risk-free.

All those who choose to participate in the sport, therefore voluntarily accept an element of risk. Here, our purpose is to provide you with the information to reduce the risks and help you to make an informed choice.

The safety and enjoyment of students should be a priority; however this is not the case with all skydiving clubs and schools. The Rule really is “Buyer Beware”

After searching many skydiving website’s, it has become apparent that some companies have been tempted to mislead potential customers with good sales and marketing tricks, instead of truthful facts.

Words mean nothing unless backed up with proof; follow this check list to ensure you’re getting a safe skydiving course.

When you start skydiving it’s important that you choose your drop zone, club and instructors carefully, and learn how to stay safe. And that’s the reason behind this survival guide.

Instructors

Are your instructors well qualified and experienced?

The only way to check whether instructors are as qualified and experienced as they say, is to check the certificates issued by the parachute association from that country, BPA, USPA, KNVvL etc. Also check that the drop zone has also been approved by the parachute association.

Each country has very different systems, in the UK you need a minimum of 1,000 jumps and 10 hours in freefall, before trying to qualify as an AFF Instructor. The course itself is extremely hard to pass and has a high failure rate, so the quality of instructors that do qualify is extremely high.

The following mainly refers to instructors who teach outside of the country who have issued their qualifications. Although there are some excellent instructors and schools who do this, be aware of the following.

There are a growing number of website’s that state “Learn to skydive with British instructors” Although they are British and Instructors they may not be British qualified instructors. This should be a red flag to anyone as it means they are trying to gain respect by associating themselves with a reputable organisation that they are not qualified through.

Some similar quotes used to gain credibility are as follows:
• Skydiving company run by Brit’s and owned by Brit’s
• Our syllabus has been approved by British Chief Instructors from UK drop zones
• One of Europe’s leading skydiving schools
• We have trained thousands of Students
• We follow the BPA guide lines
• Chief Instructor has 4,000 skydives

They will even have a link to the British Parachute Association website to help gain credibility, all these quotes are ones that are currently being used on website’s and they sound very good, unless like me, you get to know who they really are, and what each statement really means.

Skydiving Company run by Brit’s and owned by Brit’s just means that they are from Britain; it does not mean that they are British qualified; it does not even mean they have a legitimate company. It’s up to you to check and confirm the facts.

Our syllabus has been approved by British Chief Instructors from UK drop zones. It’s a nice statement but they don’t say who these so called chief instructors are and why they are qualified to approve a skydiving syllabus. Only parachute associations can approve drop zones and systems.

One of Europe’s leading skydiving schools. What a classic statement, the only ones that I have found who say this are the newest schools on the market with very little experience, ask your self; how can they justify a statement like this. Check the history and track record.

We have trained thousands of students. Again the only ones that I have found that state this are the new schools who have not been qualified long enough to have taught more than a small handful of students. One so called instructor only completed his AFF course as a student 2 years earlier, now he is claiming to be an experienced AFF Instructor having taught thousands of students. Sorry, but this is not physically possible.

We follow the BPA guide lines; anyone can say this but the truth is very simple, they don’t and they don’t have to unless they are regulated by the BPA as an approved drop zone.

Chief Instructor has 4,000 skydives. The last time I read this the Instructor in question only had 900 jumps and had just recently qualified as an Instructor so what an exaggerated statement this was. The only proof is a BPA certified certificate, all those I found that were not true had less than 1,000 jumps. Other statements like our Instructors have on average over 5,000 jumps. A bold statement but it’s probably not true unless you can see for yourself.

Other methods of showing credibility are statements like British Gold medal holders, sounds great but in reality all it means is that they have entered a competition that requires no more than 100 jumps and that they have beaten others with the same jump numbers. This really does not mean they are of a high standard unless they have won a senior skydiving competition at national level or world level.

Other statements such as “specialists in skydiving stunts for the TV & film industry” are used to show credibility, once again a nice statement but most of those I have found are not true. Ask for proof. I found one website with this statement, yet the person who was supposed to be the skydiving stuntman only spent a day on a film set, and all he did was a standard parachute jump that a student can do.

The best credibility statement I have seen is “USPA safety and training advisor” what a great statement but the reality is that a new instructor with 400 jumps can ask the USPA for this title and if they don’t have any one in that region with this title they will issue it to the instructor. Basically in the USA this title means quite a lot but outside of the USA it means nothing more than an administration qualification that is extremely easy to get. Unfortunately in most cases outside of the USA this is being used to gain credibility that is not deserved.

Some companies don’t even use AFF Instructors to do the ground school; this would never be allowed in the UK and therefore is something that is a big concern to British qualified instructors.

To summarise; you have to check each statement that a company makes, read all about your instructors qualification, then ask for proof, don’t accept general quotes.

Rigging

Riggers are skydivers who are qualified to do the repair and maintenance on your parachute equipment; in the UK there are different levels of this qualification as follows:

Advanced Packer
Basic Rigger
Parachute Rigger
Advanced Rigger
Rigger Examiner

I found one website stating that one of the instructors is also the chief rigger; the person in question had no riggers ratings at all but was taking on that responsibility. This statement is a total fabrication of the truth.

One statement that I found is as follows: Our parachute equipment is maintained to UK standards by our in house manager, this means nothing apart from saying that they don’t have a qualified BPA rigger maintaining there equipment.

Your equipment maintenance is vital. Once again check with the parachute association for verification, or ask to see proof of their qualifications.

Credibility

Other ways of website’s trying to gain credibility are by trying to show that the company is in fact bigger than it really is, most AFF schools are one man organisation’s that travel around drop zones, and when things go wrong they will just vanish with no trace and start again in a new location.

Make sure you get proof of how long they have been established, and how long they have been in the location that they work from.

The way that one man organisation’s gain credibility is by listing lots of staff members on their website, the reality is that the extra staff they list do not work for them, but are available and work for the drop zone that they are temporarily associated with.

One of the biggest ways to gain credibility is to have a list of students who give a testimonial of how good the course was, this is great and any good company will have this available. However, they will not show the bad reviews so always be wary.

What I have noticed, is that those companies that are dodgy, seem to have more testimonials than anyone could possibly get without having pressure being put on them. For example, one school will not give students their documentation until they have filled out a customer response form. This means the student has to be nice and is not doing it willingly, and once the company has the statement they have nothing more to do with the student and after care is no longer a concern.

My experience of teaching AFF students since 1994 is that only a small handful of students write in with lengthy testimonial, the majority stay friends, keep in touch and come back, others move on and settle in a local drop zone, but the majority don’t write detailed testimonials like some you see in website’s. Ask yourself one question; would you have done the same. I get lots of e-mails saying thanks and hope to see you again which is very genuine and the normal response and those skydivers stay in touch and become good friends.

Another way to gain credibility is to list all the available skydiving courses even if they can’t teach them. They then book you in with a qualified instructor and take a commission so make sure you know who your instructor really is.

Qualifications and licenses

When you qualify on a skydiving course you will be issued a qualification, this qualification can only be issued by qualified instructors. Additionally to qualify for an official qualification you have to be a parachute association member so make sure that’s included in the course fee or at least make sure you know what it’s going to cost.

You will read statements like “after your course we will guide you through the British system by giving you the forms to apply for a license” Don’t accept this offer, it means that the course in outside of the BPA system and secondly that they can not give you the qualification that you are paying for or expect to get, but they can tell you how to get qualified, by finding you a qualified instructor who will want to test you and generally charge you before he signs you off.

Facilities

Will you have a large and safe landing area free from hazards?

Today’s skydiving student rarely gets injured, however, when they do it’s always when landing and making last minute decisions trying to avoid a tree, fence or even buildings. The best way to prevent this is not to be put in this situation in the first place, so a large safe landing area is important.

As a student you will not know what is safe or unsafe so compare drop zones and consider ones that have no obstacles in that area, it should also be surrounded by large open fields that you can safely land in if you miss the planned landing area.

It should be clear of power lines, water hazards, main roads, towns etc. Believe me, when you get it wrong you will be glad you chose a drop zone with these safety margins.

Weather

This one is always going to be open to argument as there is no real proof; the problem here is that students are only allowed to jump in a maximum of 15knots of wind to stay safe. A parachute centre on the coast has very windy conditions more than one inland, however one drop zone in central Spain has hundreds of small windmills all around it, and they only build them in windy areas.

Check the real weather conditions for the area and the dates you are choosing from a reputable weather site.

Operating Procedure

Does the school or club have a good safety based operations manual that they follow?

The rules of sport have often been designed or adapted with safety in mind; parachute associations investigate every incident to educate skydivers, instructors and riggers to prevent the same mistake from recurring.

Some countries are a great deal stricter than others; in Britain we have the BPA (British Parachute Association) which is arguably one of the strictest and most safety conscious associations in the world. The BPA have an excellent track record for safety brought about by years of knowledge, used to establish rules and regulations for the benefits of all skydivers.

Accidents happen, but most skydiving accidents are avoidable if simple precautions are taken.

If the drop zone is not a BPA member then the chances are that they don’t work to the same high standards, each jumper is responsible for looking after them selves, good instructors will look after you while you’re on student status and the best will continue to do so after you have qualified.

Survival Skills

The main issue that you have to remember is, don’t trust anyone until they have proven trust worthy.

The internet is a great source of information, unfortunately it also makes it easy for dodgy characters to tell lies and influence potential customers with good marketing website’s. Make sure you check them out before booking your skydiving course.

We have tried to show you how to prevent yourself being fooled by unscrupulous instructors and drop zones who are very good at marketing but if you have any doubts or questions on any school or instructor don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.If we provide you with information on another company we will only do so when it’s backed up with the evidence that you can check out for yourself, in other words we will put you in touch with the governing authority who have no hidden agenda.

The website has over 1,570 parachutes centre’s advertising for business, but there are only 684 approved parachute centre’s around the world.

The risks associated with learning to skydive are very low if you choose a good drop zone and your instructors carefully. Read the Risk Assessment article for more information on the perceived risks.