The call went out this past week for better government oversight of commercial skydiving operations. As risky as skydiving is, not to mention the risk that is associated with the simple fact of climbing into an aircraft that will suspend you tens of thousands of feet above the ground—those risks are multiplied when recurring safety problems with the skydiving aircraft and the pilots are factored in.
It shouldn't happen, but it does—and it did on July 29th, 2006, when the crash of a skydiving plane in Sullivan, MO killed six people including the pilot and injured two other passengers. That was the crash that provided the motivation for the NTSB to look into skydiving crashes. The agency studied 32 airplane crashes, which involved parachute jumpers, since 1980.
In all, 172 people perished, and the NTSB concluded that the crashes were precipitated by inadequate inspection and maintenance, pilot error, or insufficient oversight by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors.
In the Missouri crash, the NTSB determined that a contributing factor to the crash was pilot error, after the pilot failed to maintain airspeed after losing power in the right engine. Another factor in the crash was a lack of effective passenger restraints in the cabin. Proper restraints, the NTSB suggested, may have resulted in more survivors.
But the NTSB wasn't done yet. It found maintenance deficiencies with the DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter that was being operated that day by Quantum Leap Skydiving Inc. of Sullivan. It was determined that the engine that failed on that fateful day had been overhauled—but the work was not done to manufacturers' specifications. As well, the propeller system was found to have been defective, and had been for about two months prior to the crash in a residential neighborhood near St. Louis. The right engine was seen to have burst into flames moments after takeoff.
It has been reported that the NTSB has expressed concern with the status quo that allows parachute jump operators to advertise to the public and carry literally millions of passengers under FAA regulations, which require little oversight and surveillance.
This isn't the first time that the NTSB has brought the hammer down over skydiving accidents. In 1994 the NTSB expressed similar concerns. In response the FAA decided to beef up its ramp inspections of aircraft used in skydiving jumps. However, NTSB officials expressed disappointment that FAA inspections were not always taking place.
"You expect to be gotten to your destination," says NTSB member Steven Chealander, in comments obtained by the Associated Press. "The biggest safety problem that the jumper faces is getting in that airplane, it seems to me."
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"There were a number of accidents in the report that if adequate surveillance would have been performed," said Deborah Hersman of the NTSB, "those maintenance discrepancies would have been detected."
The FAA said through a spokesperson that it was looking at the recommendations and would respond to the NTSB in due course.
In the meantime, skydivers could be forgiven for the sense that simply going up in the plane, and not jumping out of it, represents the true leap of faith…