Some call it one of the ultimate thrills. Every year roughly a half million Americans skydive for the first time, but how safe is the sport? NBC Bay Area Investigative Reporter Elyce Kirchner breaks down the safety standards.
You may remember 81-year-old Laverne Everett’s jump. It went viral one year after she almost fell out of her harness midair.
“I was in more danger than I thought I was in,” admits Everett. She says the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the sport, only became aware and investigated the close call after seeing her video on the website YouTube.
Everett says that while she is grateful to be alive, it is evident that changes need to be made.
Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Piepho agrees that more can be done. She started pushing the FAA for tighter safety measures after a 54-year-old constituent named Robert Whitsitt’s parachute did not deploy.
It took more than 24 hours to find his body near the Byron Airport in Contra Costa County. Nobody was looking for him because Whitsitt was not required to check in with anyone once he landed. Piepho says the skydiving industry and the FAA have not been quick to react.
Two years after the accident, she says nothing has changed. “As far as I know, silence,” said Piepho.
One of the last people to see Whitsitt alive was Gareth Holder. Holder was on the plane with Whitsitt before he took his last jump at Bay Area Skydiving in Byron. He claims that policy did change after Whitsitt’s death. He says jumpers must sign in before skydiving, but adds it’s not a federal requirement.
Drop zones, which is where skydivers land, are also not required to report accidents even fatal ones to the FAA. Holder says “there’s no real reporting requirement.” The FAA found no regulatory violations in connection with Whitsitt’s death.
The National Transportation Safety Board has also criticized the FAA’s skydiving regulations.
In a 2008 report, the independent federal agency condemned how the FAA oversees the maintenance, training, and inspection of skydiving operations.
We requested an on camera interview with the FAA, but instead it released a statement:
"The FAA has extensive regulations and guidance to protect the safety of skydivers, pilots and passengers in other aircraft, and people on the ground during parachuting operations. Pilots and aircraft involved in parachuting operations are subject to the same certification and maintenance requirements as pilots and aircraft involved in sightseeing operations, except for the exit of the parachutists upon reaching a safe exit altitude. The FAA takes NTSB recommendations very seriously. We took into consideration recommendations from the NTSB, U.S. Parachuting Association and Parachuting Industry Association while revising our parachuting safety guidance in 2011."
Although the sport is technically regulated by the FAA, skydivers voluntarily follow a set of basic safety requirements established by the United States Parachute Association. Executive director Ed Scott says nearly all drop zones in the United States are members of the non-profit.
“We are depending on the skydiving community or even the public at large to let us know if they see problems, and it does work,” said Scott.
The NBC Bay Investigative Unit requested non-fatal injury statistics from all USPA drop-zones, but was told that it is confidential information.
According to the FAA, since 2000, 77 drop zones were cited for safety violations and at least 247 people have died during skydiving operations. FAA records also show that six people have died at the Lodi Parachute Center. Two were ruled suicides.
The Lodi Parachute Center is the same drop zone where Laverne Everett jumped when she almost fell out of her harness.
We were surprised when owner Bill Dause told us he doesn’t keep track of the number of people who have died at his facility. According to reports since the early 1980s, there were at least twelve deaths at the drop zone in Lodi.
Dause says he believes that all of these accidents can be attributed to jumper error and maintains that there was nothing his dropzone could have done differently to prevent any of these accidents.
“I do expect a level of safety, I make sure their parachutes are correct, their parachutes are up to date, they are wearing the right equipment, and that is all you can do,” said Dause
Meanwhile, Everett says she understands the risks of skydiving but doesn’t plan on taking the plunge anytime soon.
“I feel like I’m doing better just keeping my feet on the ground," she said.