I was having coffee with a friend the other day when the subject of skydiving came up. I had been thinking about it for a while and was considering doing a tandem skydive for charity. I dropped this into the conversation and my friend almost choked with shock. She immediately started to laugh, proclaiming that (a) I was too fat, and (b) I was too old for such adventures. But, I had expected a response like this and had done some research.
The average weight limit for skydivers doing tandem jumps is 220 lbs. There is no upper limit on age. Most centres will ask anyone over 70 to contact them to discuss health and ability.
OK, the weight was close, I am 210 lbs. but I still have a few years before I reach 70. So, feeling smug I announced that I was not restricted by age or weight and that I would go ahead with my plan. My friend was still not convinced so I went on to explain all that I had learned.
Who Can Make a Tandem Skydive?
It is actually a bit more complex than asking age and weight. There are several factors that might make it impossible to make a jump.
The heavier the instructor the lower the weight limit for the passenger will be. weight does play a part. They have to check that the total weight is within the limits of the equipment. Something I did not know was that body shape mattered. If someone is pear-shaped, for example, the harness can become uncomfortable. It is even known to cut off circulation and cause the skydiver to feel sick or even lose consciousness.
I extreme cases, the body harness might not even fit. Then there is the ability of the individual. Pear-shaped people are sometimes not able to raise their legs easily and this could make the landing hard and potentially painful. Body shape night even mean that the student cannot reach the harness and deal with any emergency that occurs.
It is all about the safety of both the instructor and the student. I am positive that they would not discriminate if it was not for good safety reasons.
I finished up to be explaining that since I was not pear-shaped, I did not think I would have a problem. I sat back and took a sip of my coffee and thought that was the matter closed when suddenly my friend looked serious and said, “Are you sure it is safe?”
Is Skydiving Safe?
I suppose when we think about opening the door on a plane and then jumping, our natural instincts are going to assume it is both stupid and dangerous. Then of course, if you are planning on making a skydive, you are going to want to be sure that it is really quite safe. To be honest, I spent a lot of time researching this safety issue. Since I am no hero and wanted to ensure I didn’t end up dead.
We already discovered that pear-shaped people and those not mobile may have trouble lifting their legs, which can result in pain and possible injuries when landing, but I wanted to know a bit more about safety, so I asked around.
You can get injured with any kind of sport. And skydiving is no different. This is why the skydiving centre has all these rules about age and weight, so they can keep injuries to a minimum. Thousands of people go skydiving every year and the USPA (United States Parachute Association) has compiled a set of statistics on exactly how safe/or unsafe this pastime actually is.
The most recent USA Statistics I could find were for 2015. I don’t suppose much has changed since then, and they showed that hardly anyone dies.
1. 3.5 million jumps took place by both experienced and novice skydivers.
2. 21 fatalities, which is 0.006 fatalities for every 1,000 jumps.
3. With tandem skydives, fatalities come down to under 0.002 per thousand jumps.
What this means is that you have more chance of dying from a bee sting or being struck by lightning than dying while skydiving. It sounds less dangerous if you look at it that way.
In fact, most of the fatalities are experienced skydivers pushing the limits and trying new stuff, and not the kind of novice tandem jump I was contemplating.
My friends seemed determined to find a reason why I should not go ahead with a tandem skydive, and this time she asked me about injuries. “Yes, so not many people die, but what about injuries? You could end up paralyzed or break your leg.”
Injuries – including injuries for old fat people like me
I managed to find some statistics for the UK which were very similar for death rates, but they also recorded injuries back as far as 2016-2020. They also recorded tandem skydiving as a separate column.
2016 Tandem Jumps
Total: 58,907 / 48 injuries / 0.8 injuries per thousand
2017 Tandem Jumps
Total: 55,198 / 53 Injuries / 1.0 injuries per thousand
2018 Tandem Jumps
Total: 52,112 / 42 Injuries / 0.8 injuries per thousand
2019 Tandem Jumps
Total: 51,451 / 54 injuries / 1.0 injuries per thousand
2020 Tandem Jumps
Total: 20,214 / 10 injuries / 0.5 injuries per thousand
If we compare this with Aerobic Dance Injuries, we see that 11 injuries per thousand hours are the norm, which is the same for running injuries. This puts it in perspective, and it was something my friend could not really argue against.
Why would Overweight People Be More Likely to Injure themselves Skydiving?
Researching the matter some more I spoke to a tandem master examiner called Debbie. She said the biggest problem was the way that overweight people struggle with the harness and the way they sat in it. She frequently had overweight people complaining that the harness was hurting their legs. She would try to have them stand on her feet and attempt to push themselves up, easing the pressure. Other than that, she could do nothing, and the individuals would be in discomfort for the four minutes it took to land,
I wondered why they could not modify a harness so that people higher than the 220 lbs. could skydive. It seemed a bit like getting an extension fitted to a seatbelt. It was not so simple. To make alterations to a harness, the work has to be carried out by an FAA certified technician. It might be possible to have a manufacturer make a custom harness, but of course unless you plan to make multiple jumps that is not going to be very cost-effective.
She also reported that many overweight people did not have the core strength to lift their legs, which can result in injury to either the student or instructor. So, I imagine, even with a custom harness, it is perhaps not a good idea.
Fatter people Fall Quicker
Not every skydiver will fall at the same speed. Everyone falls at a rate that is impacted by their weight, body position, the position of their body, and the type of clothing they are wearing. If someone is wearing baggy clothing, they will descend much slower than someone wearing a skin-tight suit. The average terminal speed if you are in a belly downwards position is going to be 120 mph. Thrill-seekers wanting to descend faster can take up head down or “sit fly” positions that have been clocked at over 200 mph.
The Bones of Older People Break Easier
When it comes to older folk skydiving, there is also the issue that as people age the bones change and lose tissue. This low bone mass can weaken the bones and result in them breaking easier from a sudden knock, which is precisely what can happen with skydiving.
Dr Anton Westman a trauma surgeon, who has written widely on the subject said that Skydiving can often involve the dislocation of limbs, together with bone fractures when there are high impact landings. There have also been cases of injuries to the spinal cord and brain injuries. He did stress, however, that injuries were comparable with other active sports.
I think I ended up reassuring my friend that there were far more dangerous activities I could undertake than skydiving and that despite being so old and fat (her description which I will not forget) I can still undertake a skydive should I want.
Skydiving does involve a small amount of risk, as can many other activities. The difference is that in Skydiving there is a huge emphasis placed on safety procedures and protocols that the reality of the situation is that statistically, it carries less risk than driving a car.
I think it is just the counter-intuitive nature of stepping out of a plane that makes it feel so much more dangerous than it actually is. Doing it the first time takes a huge amount of courage but once you have done it once, you will almost certainly want to repeat the experience again and again.