Skydiving is one of the world’s most extreme sports. But despite the apparent danger, there's an estimated 3.2 million jumps from airplanes every year. While most skydives end safely, there's always the risk a parachute will fail. For those looking to make their first leap, reducing the risk isn't always about the equipment but sometimes about choosing the right drop zone.
First-time nerves are a feeling skydiving instructor Greg Foster sees often.
"They're worried about getting sick, they're worried about the gear not working, the parachute not opening," Foster said.
Foster is the Safety and Training Adviser and Chief Instructor at Skydance Sky Diving in Davis.
Last year he was the recipient of the United States Parachute Association, or USPA, safety award. Foster said jumping out of an airplane will always come with risks.
"I would say yes, you have a reason to be nervous," Foster said.
Most first-time jumpers go tandem, where they are attached with a harness to an instructor.
Tandem jumps put more responsibility on the instructor, a reason Foster said it’s important to make sure you pick the right teacher and the right drop zone.
"I recommend that you pick a USPA drop zone, that way you know your instructors have gone through the training that the USPA and FAA have put forth that this is what you need to do to be a tandem instructor," Foster said.
Not all drop zones are USPA certified and they don't have to be. Skydiving is a self-regulated sport which means the skydiving community sets its own safety standards, under the leadership of the nonprofit USPA.
The Federal Aviation Administration does regulate some aspects of the sport. But these rules focus mostly on the pilot, the plane, and parachute packing. The USPA issues licenses, which skydivers must have. In addition to setting safety standards for jumping.
But there's no law that requires drop zones to follow those safety rules.
"It is not illegal to have a drop zone that does not belong to the USPA membership, there's plenty of those around the planet," Foster said.
One of those is in Northern California, the Lodi Parachute Center. In August, Tyler Turner, a first-time tandem skydiver died, along with his instructor, Yong Kwon. The USPA said Kwon had no certification to teach tandem jumps and was never a member of the USPA. Ed Scott, executive director of the USPA, said Kwon and Turner's deaths have kicked off an investigation into the Lodi Parachute Center.
"I really still don't know what their standards are," Scott told FOX40.
The Lodi Parachute Center owner, Bill Dause declined to answer FOX40's questions, but issued this statement:
"All the instructors at the parachute center meet the federal requirements provided by the Federal Aviation Administration."
So, if you're ready to take the leap, how do you know if your drop zone takes safety seriously?
Here's some things you should look for.
1) Pre-jump instruction
Your tandem instructor should explain to you in detail what your gear does, how to use it, and how to land. You may be asked to take a class, or even practice jumping from a plane.
Compare the cost of prices at several skydiving facilities. Be wary of prices that seem too low.
"Just like a pair of shoes, you know, the cheapest option is not normally the best," Foster said.
Each instructor must be licensed by the USPA and should be able to show you a ratings card to prove it. If they don't have one, Scott recommends you don't jump.
"That we provide or that a tandem manufacture provides that shows that that individual is rated and certified as a tandem instructor," Scott said.
"We have them all printed in the room on the board," Foster said.
Instruction may be moving fast, but you shouldn't feel rushed. You should already be wearing your gear and received your pre-jump instruction before you get on the plane.
"I personally don't enjoy watching people run to the aircraft that don't have their rigs on yet," Foster said.
5) USPA group membership
If you want to jump at a drop zone that meets the USPA's safety standards, ask staff members if the facility is a USPA group member.
There is a risk, but skydiving fatalities are rare, only about one person per 200,000 jumps in a year, according to the USPA.
Foster and Scott agree, the sport is getting safer every day.
"I believe for sure that it's safer than driving on the highway by a long stretch," Foster said.
The USPA and FAA are still investigating the Lodi Parachute Center for August's fatal accident. The mother of the victim, Tyler Turner, told FOX40 she does have legal representation.
Gallery: Tandem Skydiving Safety Checklist