Tandem Skydiving: A Business Model Placing Profits Ahead of Safety Risks?

In all businesses, lucrative profits can feed excessive greed, causing business owners to cut corners, sometimes with fatal consequences. In skydiving, the big money-maker is ‘tandem jumps’, and the operator can easily pocket $100+ per jump, after paying other costs. Here is the formula being used by typical skydiving companies, to maximize profits:

  1. set up a facility/operation at a quiet exurban airport, typically 20-40 miles from a large urban center.
  2. promote with garish advertising in the urban core, such as ads on busses and at transit shelters. Appeal to a sense of adventure and life-energy (offering a moment of relief from the dull repetition common to modern urban living). Try to convince consumers that they ‘need’ to skydive to check off their life ‘bucket list’.
  3. encourage as many consumers as possible to spend ~$200 for the biggest money-maker in skydiving: tandem rides (sold as ‘instructional lessons’ but let’s be honest and recognize, these are just rides). Even better for profits, get the consumers to memorialize their ride with a cheesy high-priced video, shot by another jumper using a head-camera.
  4. take advantage of aviation regulations that require pilots to build hours, and so-called ‘instructors’ to build their jump numbers. These requirements enable skydiving operators to pay at low rates, with only a tiny fraction of revenues applied to labor costs.
  5. maximize the number of trips made each hour and day. This is done by altering the propeller and using power settings that are much louder but will allow for faster climbs. Of course, the net result is higher profits for the operator, but with added costs (increased noise & stress, reduced peace & quiet) shifted onto homeowners and others on the ground below.
  6. if and when you get complaints for your abusive repetitive-noise ruining entire sunny days, just blow it off; tell the complainants you are fully compliant with FAA regulations, so they should talk to FAA instead. Be careful to NOT tell them how great it is to you, that you have FAA providing cover for your impacts, framing even a discretionary activity such as skydiving as worthy of federal protection.

Video: Tandem Skydiving, Cameraman Fatality

The video below shows what happens when a commercial skydiving operation puts profit margins ahead of safety margins. Profits in the skydiving business are maximized by making as many commercial flights as possible per day. A part of this strategy is for the pilot to maneuver to immediately land, minimizing time before the next batch of jumpers has been loaded. Obviously, it is critical that the jump plane pilot turn away from the skydivers and avoid flying through them.

20120709scp.. frame showing C208 wing at impact during skydiving accident (time 0113 of 0230 video)

Frame showing the left wing of the C208 passing through at the moment of impact.

In this case, which happened at a skydiving center near Sao Paulo, Brazil on 7/9/2012, skydiving school director Alex Adelman jumped simultaneously with the last tandem duo. Alex’s job was to record a video for the tandem rider, by simply watching them with his helmet camera activated. Alex climbs out and waits under the wing at video time 0:54. The tandem duo jumps at time 1:03. For the next ten seconds, Alex keeps the camera on the jump, but the individual frames at time 1:13 show the left wing of the jump plane passing through.

Alex was hit and almost certainly rendered unconscious; the final minute of video shows that he was spinning out-of-control to an eventual ground impact. While in this uncontrolled descent, Alex reportedly collided with the tandem duo, breaking legs on both the tandem ‘instructor’ and the rider.

The jump plane was a Cessna 208, a very common skydiving plane in the U.S. The pilot of the jump plane did what skydive pilots routinely do: he entered an aggressive, diving descent immediately after all jumpers had cleared. Evidently, he failed to ensure he was clear of the jumpers. This is what happens in skydiving when safety margins are cut too thin … and it will happen again because of the arms-length regulatory failures of agencies like the FAA.