It's a dreadful situation. Imagine being more than a half-mile above the earth, rushing toward the ground at the deafening speed of a roller coaster — say, 120 miles per hour (193 kilometres per hour).
Your parachute ripcord is pulled, but something is awry. The chute isn't working. So, what exactly do you do?
Don't be alarmed, advises Ron Bell of the US Parachute Association (USPA). The majority of parachute failures do not result in death. They don't have to be, at least. But why do failures occur – and how do they occur? And, maybe most crucially, what can you do if your parachute fails?
But first, let's go through the fundamentals. What are the chances that your parachute may ever malfunction?
What Are Your Chances?
Ron Bell has jumped over 13,000 times in his 21-year career. "On average, roughly one out of every thousand jumps," he explains, a major parachute malfunction occurs. That's practically identical to his own track record, as he claims to have had 14 malfunctions to date.
Human mistake, such as incorrect packing or a crooked body position during free fall, is to blame for the vast majority of parachute catastrophes. These cause a "partial malfunction," in which the main chute deploys but is obstructed in some way.
The Safety Net
A reserve chute is carried by every skydiver. A reserve chute can only be packed by an FAA-certified operator, unlike the main chute, which can be packed by any experienced diver. This extra precaution guarantees that the parachute is positioned correctly. Reserves fail seldom, but when they do, it's nearly always due to a manufacturing error or a natural disaster.
While a complete failure may appear to be more frightening than a partial failure, it can actually be great news. The reserve parachute can become tangled with a partially deployed main parachute; no primary deployment implies the reserve can open freely.
The reserve chute is there for a reason, as Bell likes to remind new skydivers. Don't be scared to pull the ripcord if you feel unsafe. "When in doubt, pull it out," Bell advises.
The Last Line of Defense
Even if you're knocked unconscious, you have a good chance of surviving a parachuting mishap. Automatic activation devices, or AADs, are commonly used on modern rigs to monitor the diver's speed and altitude using digital sensors. The AAD will automatically deploy the backup parachute if the parachutist reaches 1,000 feet (304 metres) above land at a speed of 78 mph (125 kilometres).
These devices, according to Bell, make skydiving much safer today than it was even 20 years ago. In the year 2000, 32 people died while skydiving in the United States, out of 2.7 million jumps. In 2020, there were just 11 jumps out of 2.8 million. Tandem skydiving adds an added element of safety by tethering an inexperienced skydiver to an instructor.
So, if you're looking for a thrill, get in touch with a local skydiving instructor. It's likely that you'll have a terrific time.