Things can go horribly wrong sometimes, but veteran paratroopers of the Indian Air Force, and adventure sport operators assure that if proper safety procedures are adhered to, parachuting is safe
A young woman undergoing a course in ‘Sky Diving’ did her first jump from 3000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) successfully, as per the newspaper reports. Her second, and fatal, jump at Salem on Thursday was from 10,000 feet AGL when her main parachute failed to open. Why the reserve parachute was not operated, remains unclear.
Having spent nearly two decades as a Parachute Jump Instructor (PJI) with the Indian Air Force, there are some general observations, I am inclined to make on this very unfortunate incident. At the outset I wish to make two things very clear. Firstly, the entire information available is from the newspaper reports and not from any other source. Secondly, my parachuting has essentially been with the military.
Having said this, I need to state unequivocally that parachuting is as safe, and as thrilling, as any other activities IF training, equipment, supervision and safety standards are strictly observed.
Leonardo da Vinci, that unparalleled genius, was the first to visualise a parachute as his drawings reveal. But it was a Frenchman, Andre Jacques Garnerin, who did the first recorded parachuting descent in 1797 from a balloon. Millions of military and sport parachutists since have made many, many million safe jumps with parachutes.
The parachute is a fairly simple device and the modern version is indeed far cry from the WW-II British X-type parachutes. I did my first jump over six decade ago. To think we jumped without reserve parachutes till they were introduced in 1962, is unthinkable in today’s para scenario. I am stressing this point because till a proper investigation is done by a competent authority, the cause of this accident can only be conjectured.
The parachutes and parachuting, in my experience, that come closest to ‘free falling’ are of Russian origin. When jumping with these parachutes, an altimeter and a stop-watch were mounted on the reserve parachute strapped in the front. The main parachute had a barostatic device that opened it at a pre-set altitude automatically. If the device failed, the altimeter and the stop-watch would indicate when the reserve parachute was to be manually operated. I do not know if the parachutes in use during the Salem drops had these features.
In the Armed Forces, there is a separate trade of Safety Equipment Workers (SEW) who packed the parachutes and ensured safety and reliability of all safety equipment connected with parachutes. Parachutists lives literally depends on the SEW when they jumped. The PJI played an equally important role in training para-troopers before they jumped and the skill of the pilot flying the aircraft determined a safe and accurate drop. I am aware that today you can pay, train and experience the thrill of the para-jump – all within a day! As a ‘one-off’ this may be acceptable but never as a regular practice. There are no short-cuts in the game of parachuting because the price you pay for the mistake is unimaginable.
I will end by repeating that there is no substitute for training. And equipment, supervision and safety have to be of the highest standards.
Retired Air Warrior Minoo Vania, Shaurya Chakra and Vayu Sena Medal
Adventure programmes have inherent risks. Participants must understand the risks before taking part in such activities. Having said this, this does not eliminate the responsibility of the organisation to ensure that the trainers are qualified and the equipment is safe. The adventure tourism industry should be regulated. Operators should seek the Government of India approval and meet its benchmarks so that risks are minimised. There are thousands of adventure sports organisations are there, but only 20 to 25 are approved in the country.
Veteran Seshadri Venkatesan, Director NALS Outdoor India Private Limited
In any adventure sport, safety equipment and operating conditions are to be in order. In parachuting, the equipment has a main parachute and a reserve one. And the opening sequence of the parachute is a very clear procedure. In case the main parachute malfunctions, there’s a cutaway handle to delink the malfunctioning one and deploy the reserve parachute. In Tamil Nadu, 100s of jumps happen every year and accidents are very rare. In the Salem accident, what needs to be assessed is what led to an out-of-sequence event. Currently, the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) and Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) along with National Adventure Foundation are working out a list of Standard Operating Procedures and safety guidelines for adventure sports. These will be updated on various government websites. It will be a checklist for the conductor of any adventure activity and also help in investigations in the case of an accident.
Every State has to work out safety guidelines based on its terrain and weather conditions. Adventure sport is as safe as you make it.
Retired Air Warrior Jayashankar, National Adventure Awardee in aerosports, Advisor to National Adventure Foundation (Tamil Nadu & Puducherry chapters) and Adventure Unlimited