Beginner skydiver's death puzzles experts

Rhys Saunders

A Glenarm man’s skydiving death during his first jump July 4 was something of an anomaly, parachuting experts say.

Tony David Vieira, 54, died of injuries caused by the accident, which occurred near the Taylorville Municipal Airport.

The Christian County Coroner’s office last week was still waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to complete its investigation into Vieira’s death.

Yet Vieira’s death is puzzling to skydiving experts. United States Parachute Association executive director Ed Scott said almost all fatal jumps happen to experienced skydivers.

“It is rare for a novice or a student skydiver to experience a fatality,” he said. “The student or novice skydiver is always under supervision of an instructor, and they are also probably using rental or student-oriented equipment.”

Beginner equipment typically is safer because the chute is “larger, docile and more forgiving,” he added. Experienced divers, on the other hand, use smaller parachutes that allow them to reach higher speeds during their descent.

Those chutes are “far less forgiving of mistakes,” Scott said.

“In fact, most skydiving fatalities involve an experienced skydiver who maneuvers the parachute too closely to the ground and hits the ground in an uncontrolled manner,” Scott said. “Invariably he’s got a good open parachute, but he’s maneuvering swiftly and too closely to the ground.”

Most fatal landings occur when the experienced diver builds speed and turns radically 100 or 200 feet above the ground, he added. At such speeds, this doesn’t allow the jumper enough room to pull out of the turn, and in many cases the jumper slams into the ground.

“We’re teaching student skydivers to minimize turns below 1000 feet, which gives them plenty of margin,” Scott said.

Roughly 2.5 million jumps occur every year in the United States. Of those, about 300,000 involve first-timers. With only 18 reported fatalities last year, that’s less than 1 fatality per 100,000 jumps.

Increased safety precautions in recent years have helped decrease the number of people who die after jumping out of a plane, Scott added.

“More and more often now, many of us use a reserve (parachute) packed with automatic activation devices that sense altitude and air speed,” he said. “It can deploy the reserve parachute if you’re below a pre-set altitude and have not deployed your main parachute.”

Apart from Vieira, two other parachutists have died in accidents at the Taylorville airport since 1997. Both men were experienced jumpers.

Bill Jensen, 38, of Springfield was killed in October 2004 on his 80th jump after his chute deployed prematurely and became tangled in the plane’s rudder and wing. Michael Ayers, 42, of rural Taylorville and the president of the Mid America Sport Parachute Club, was killed in September 1997, after making about 3,800 dives when both chutes failed to deploy.

Rhys Saunders can be reached at (217) 788-1521