Special Investigation Report

Special Investigation Report on the Safety of Parachute Jump Operations

NTSB Number SIR-08/01
NTIS Number PB2009-917001

Introduction: Parachute jump ("or skydiving") operations, which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines as the activities performed for the purpose of or in support of the descent parachutists (or "skydivers") who jump from aircraft, represent a segment of U.S. general aviation operations, which, according to data compiled by the United States Parachute Association (USPA),1 transports parachutists on 2.16 to 3 million jumps annually.2 Most parachute operations flights3 are operated under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91 and are typically revenue operations; parachute jump operators provide the flights as part of their services to parachutists who pay to go skydiving,4 or parachutists pay dues for membership in parachuting clubs. The risks of parachuting are generally perceived to involve the acts of jumping from the aircraft, deploying the parachute, and landing; parachutists are aware of and manage these risks. However, a review of accident reports reveals that traveling on parachute operations flights can also present risks.5 Since 1980, 32 accidents involving parachute operations aircraft have killed 172 people;6 most of whom were parachutists.

The National Transportation Safety Board's interest in performing this special investigation stemmed from its investigation of the July 29, 2006, accident involving a de Havilland DHC-6-100 that crashed after the right engine lost power during a 14 CFR Part 91 revenue parachute operation flight in Sullivan, Missouri.7 The pilot and five parachutists were killed, and two parachutists were seriously injured. The investigation identified maintenance discrepancies on the airplane and deficiencies with the pilot's performance of emergency procedures; these issues prompted the Safety Board to examine accident reports for parachute operations to determine if such safety issues may be widespread. The results, discussed in this investigation report, show that these issues were present in many accidents. The investigation of the Sullivan, Missouri, accident also addressed accident survivability and restraints for parachutists; the resulting recommendations are detailed in appendix A of this report.

This special investigation report is not intended to represent a comprehensive statistical analysis of parachute jump operations accidents. Because most parachute operators are not required to maintain flight activity data, such an analysis is not possible. The purpose of this report is to discuss the safety issues identified during the Safety Board's investigation and to provide recommendations for addressing those issues.

The Safety Board's review of parachute operations accidents since 1980 identified the following recurring safety issues:

Although parachutists, in general, may accept risks associated with their sport, these risks should not include exposure to the types of highly preventable hazards that were identified in these accidents and that the parachutists can do little or nothing to control. Passengers on parachute operations aircraft should be able to expect a reasonable level of safety that includes, at a minimum, an airworthy airplane, an adequately trained pilot, and adequate Federal oversight and surveillance to ensure the safety of the operation.

The Safety Board is concerned that parachute jump operators, many of which advertise to the public and transport parachutists for revenue, are allowed to maintain and service their aircraft under 14 CFR Part 91 regulatory provisions that require little FAA oversight and surveillance, despite passenger loads of millions of parachutists per year. The Board is also concerned that parachute operations pilots are not required to undergo operation-specific initial and recurrent training, including preflight, weight and balance, and emergency procedures training, or recurrent FAA examinations in the types of aircraft that they fly. As a result of this special investigation, the Board has issued six safety recommendations to the FAA and two to the USPA.