In all honesty, the sport of skydiving is relatively safe. According to most sources, skydiving fatalities (on average) amount to about 30 out of every 100,000 jumps. An individual is more likely to die in a car accident than face death as the result of skydiving. Or for a more comparative analogy: scuba diving averages more deaths – about 47 out of 100,000 dives.
That said, the chances of me diving from jumping out of a perfectly functioning aircraft are about as great as catching me swimming in shark-infested waters – it just ain’t gonna happen. Nevertheless, my personal opinion aside, hundreds of thousands of folks jump out of planes every year – recreationally, competitively, and occupationally – with the vast majority of these people reaching the ground safely. The thing about skydiving, though, is that when something goes terribly wrong – parachutes not opening or some similar catastrophic failure/mishap – then your options become very limited. Hurtling toward the earth at speeds in excess of 100 mph…well, one can imagine what the end result is, more often than not.
Surprisingly, however, not every skydiving accident ends with a horrific and bloody pile of smashed body parts. In fact, a fairly high number of folks (relatively speaking) have actually survived harrowing skydiving plunges (and impacts) that should have resulted in death. Here are the ones that lived to tell the tale – the Top 10 Skydiving Accident Survivors.
10. Daniel Pharr
I’m on record with my personal feelings about skydiving. Imagine actually deciding to go through with the experience and during your first tandem jump (where you parachute attached to another person, usually an experienced skydiver) the instructor dies in mid-air. Welcome to Daniel Pharr’s brief world. Pharr’s a soldier in the U.S. Army who specializes in military intelligence. His girlfriend presented him with the skydiving trip as a Christmas present. Pharr’s tandem partner was a gentleman by the name of George “Chip” Steele, a very experienced skydiver with well over 8,000 jumps to his credit. The two jumped out of the plane and did a brief freefall and Chip deployed the chute as expected.
Everything was seemingly going well, until everything suddenly went to Hell in a handbasket. Pharr realized that Chip was unresponsive, both to his questions and any actions (actually the lack of any actions) regarding the approaching ground. While the military had not given young Pharr any parachute training, it did teach him to remain calm under extreme conditions. Pharr accessed the situation, and took control of the parachute toggles – just like he had seen on TV (of course) – and managed to maneuver well enough to avoid approaching trees, ultimately landing safely, not too far away from the designated drop zone. Pharr then unsuccessfully performed CPR on Chip, with coroners later stating that Chip had suffered a heart attack.
The harrowing experience, however, was not one to discourage Mr. Pharr. He expressed a desire to jump again, despite his parents’ warning to the contrary.
9. Dave Hodgman (and a guy named Frank)
This incident was captured on film, and was a noteworthy news item when it happened in 1985 in Victoria, Australia. Mr. Hodgman was jumping at an elevation of about 12,000 feet as one member of a skydiving formation. Things didn’t go according to plan, as Hodgman inadvertently opened his chute while he was directly under another skydiver (this would be the guy named Frank). Frank didn’t see Hodgman either, and was opening his own chute at about the same moment as Hodgman. Two skydivers trying to share the same space, at the same time, is ripe for disaster, and Dave crashed immediately into Frank.
The violent impact knocked Frank unconscious, and tangled the lines of both deployed chutes. Frank’s chute remained deployed and inflated, while Hodgman’s chute would inflate and deflate randomly – the entire situation causing both men to be violently flailed about. Additionally, with one chute essentially trying to support the weight of two men, they were falling faster than one desires in these situations, finally crashing into a crowded parking lot – amazingly, between some parked cars. And they lived.
Hodgeman had pretty extensive injuries, while Frank came away relatively unhurt. To his credit, Hodgman was back to jumping out of perfectly working planes as soon as his injuries healed.
8. James Boole
I suppose that, when you jump out of airplanes for fun, then you have to accept the possibility of something terrible going wrong. On the other hand, with extreme sports types, it’s that possibility that adds that extra level of excitement to the activity. Such could be the case with Mr. Boole. Boole is a cameraman who specializes in filming (and participating in) skydiving and BASE jumping. BASE jumping, for those not familiar with the term, is the sport of jumping off stationary objects like mountains and bridges, and waiting until the last possible second to deploy a parachute. Dangerous stuff.
It was during one such filming excursion that Mr. Boole ran into a spot of trouble. Filming a documentary in Russia, Boole and a partner were performing a jump. Boole, concentrating on filming, was relying on his partner to radio him when they were close to the ground and needed to pull his chute. A communication problem prevented this and, instead, Boole and the snow covered ground ran into each other. Falling 6000 feet, and moving at well over 100 mph, would usually spell a grisly end. The Briton, however, apparently crashed into a deep snow drift amidst the rocky terrain that was below him. Boole suffered a rather nasty broken back and rib, but otherwise wasn’t any worse for wear. This particular incident, ironically, was captured on film.
7. Ivan Chisov
Mr. Chisnov deserves a spot on this list based on the bravery that was required that led to his survival situation. Ivan Chisov was a Lieutenant in the Soviet airforce during World War II. During a combat sortie, Chisov’s bomber was attacked and heavily damaged by German fighter planes. At the time, Chisov’s bomber was flying at an altitude of 22,000+ feet. The extent of the damage to the bomber necessitated the crew members to exit the plane in a prompt fashion.
The problem, however (besides the fact that he was jumping out a disintegrating plane), was that there was still quite a bit of aerial combat going on about the time Chisov really needed to leave the plane. As German pilots were known to shoot at tempting targets (such as helpless airman dangling in the air beneath a floating parachute), Chisov jumped from the plane with the thought in mind of not deploying his chute until he fell past most of the ongoing fighting. Not a bad idea.
Unfortunately for Chisov, he blacked out as he was free-falling. Plummeting at speeds around 150 mph, Chisov’s unconscious body hit a snow-covered gorge and rolled, flipped and crashed its way to the bottom. Despite suffering a broken pelvis, as well as injuries, to his spinal cord, Chisov recovered quickly and was reportedly back in the seat flying within a few months. That’s dedication.
6. Lareece Butler
Parachutes that fail to operate can happen anywhere. Lareece Butler, a young lady from South Africa, discovered this personally on what she thought was a routine skydiving trip in 2010. The set up sounds very much like every other similar incident – a normal exit from the plane, followed by an uneventful freefall (if falling to the Earth like a rock can be described as uneventful).
What happened next, however, had Ms. Butler resorting to prayer as her last option. First, she attempted to deploy her primary chute. It didn’t open. After several tries, she then attempted to deploy her reserve chute. It did not open either. One can only imagine the blood-curdling fear that must occur in such a circumstance. Ms. Butler said that her only course of action left was prayer. She recalls thinking, “God save me please.” God, it is said, hears and answers the prayers of believers. Hurling toward the ground from 3,000 feet, the impact left Ms. Butler injured with a broken leg and a concussion, but alive.
What makes this particular story even more compelling is that Ms. Butler claims that she had changed her mind about jumping while still in the door of the plane, and that her instructor literally pushed her out of the plane despite her protest. Butler describes holding on to the plane’s door frame and the instructor pushing her several times, resulting in her falling out of the plane. I don’t know, but isn’t that, like, against the law or something?
5. Hans Lange
We have already mentioned the sport of BASE jumping earlier. Waiting until the absolute last second to pull the chute results (I suppose) in a more exhilarating experience. Mr. Lange, however, got a bit more than feelings of euphoria on a BASE jump that went wrong in 2008. Lange, leaping from the top of the Bjoerketind in Norway, found out what happens when poor planning, cockiness, and a lack of wings come together. Simply put, it spells trouble for folks jumping off mountains.
The peak of the Bjoerketind has an elevation on the low side of 5,000+ feet. Lange hurled himself off of this peak and was falling upwards of 100 mph – next to a mountain wall. What couldn’t go wrong? Realizing that he and the mountain were in too-close proximity to one another, Lange tried to maneuver away from the wall by deploying his chute. Unfortunately, in this battle of man v. mountain, the mountain won. Lange was battered repeatedly into the rocks protruding from the side of the mountain, all the while the lines of his chute becoming entangled, which didn’t allow for a slower decent. The whole ordeal came to crashing end (pun intended) when Lange impacted with a tree at the base of the mountain.
Not many folks can say they survived a fall off the top of a mountain, but Lange can. Not only did he live, he only suffered a broken leg for his troubles. Not bad, all things considered. It certainly didn’t deter Lange, who has promised to get right back in the swing of BASE jumping when he recovers from his injuries. Oh yeah, this was all caught on tape – naturally!
4. Gareth Griffiths
Mr. Griffiths is an individual who is very familiar with the physical nature of sports, as a result of being a professional rugby player in his native Great Britain. This did nothing to prepare him for the tragedy that he would experience with his foray into tandem skydiving. Paired with experienced instructor Michael Costello (who also happened to be a state representative for Massachusetts), the two were prepared to make the same jump that thousands before them have safely performed.
On this day, however, events went horribly wrong. After exiting the plane and enjoying a short freefall, the instructor attempted to deploy the chute. For reasons unknown, the chute failed to inflate properly, and the instructor was unable to recover as the two rocketed to the ground. A last-ditch effort by Costello is credited with saving Griffiths’s life, as he twisted seconds prior to impact and placed his own body between his charge and the ground. Griffiths lived, but suffered a severe injury to his back. Doctors, in fact, were shocked that Griffins was able to survive the impact of hitting the ground at such extreme velocity – even taking into account of Costello’s effort to lessen the impact of the collision with his own body. Yet survive he did, and the selfless sacrifice of Michael Costello certainly played a part.
3. Laverne Everett
At 80 years of age, Ms. Everett had one unfulfilled desire – she really wanted to jump out of a plane. With the popularity and availability of tandem jumping, Ms. Everett decided to…take the plunge! Remember how the last one we talked about went? Well, To her dismay, the experience almost turned out to be her last one. Everett was a bit hesitant to even leave the plane, as she looked out the door to open sky and her knees buckled. Her jump partner, to whom she was strapped to, gave her a slight prod towards the opening and a bit of encouragement, and out they went.
Unfortunately, is seems that Everett wasn’t as securely attached to her partner as they thought. Almost immediately, Everett begins to slip out her harness. Remember, Everett was basically along for the ride, and the instructor was the only one with a parachute. If she loses your partner, she loses her safe ride to the ground. Everett’s partner had to physically hold on to her, to prevent her from plummeting to the ground. Even the cameraman, who jumped to film the experience, attempted to maneuver in close to assist, to no avail. Everett was left dangling thousands of feet in the air, as her partner struggled desperately to hold on to her.
Amazingly, Everett, who apparently has nerves of steel, didn’t even scream while clinging desperately to her jump partner. She later stated during an interview that she wasn’t even really scared. Everett’s partner managed to hold on long enough to get them both to the ground safely, and Everett only suffered a few scrapes and bruises from the landing. And, of course, a great story to tell her grandchildren. And yes, all of this was caught on camera.
2. Nicholas Alkemade
I admit a certain affinity for all things military. The men and women who put on the uniform – for whatever nation – are folks who exhibit a high degree of bravery and dedication that has to be respected and admired. Such is the case of Mr. Alkemede. This particular incident is not, technically, a skydiving accident – but damn if it isn’t compelling as hell. Ironically, this is another chap who was serving in the Air Force of his nation during World War II. A First Sergeant in the Royal Air Force, Alkemade was a crew member of a British bomber, that was attacked by German fighters on a bombing run. Alkemade’s bomber was heavily damaged, on fire, and spinning out of control. Alkemade was left with very few options. He was either going burn to death with the approach of the raging fire, or die when the plane hit the fast-approaching ground.
Deciding that he didn’t like either of those options, Alkemade decided to jump out of the plane – without a parachute (it had burned up in the fire)! He was about 18,000 feet in air when he made this…momentous decision. And so he fell. The brave crewman crashed through snow-covered pine trees that broke his fall, and landed in cushioning snow below. According to the reports, he only suffered a sprained ankle, and was a bit dazed. He supposedly looked around and lit a cigarette. Even his Germans captors were amazed by the harrowing tale of Alkemade’s experience, and awarded him a certificate indicating as such. Wow.
1. Shayna Richardson/West
Shayna Richardson (West since her marriage) experienced what no one should, especially on their first (solo) skydiving jump, while pregnant. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to this young lady from Joplin, Missouri. The story became a media buzz not only because of the incredible fact that Shayna survived her ordeal, but that she learned she was several weeks pregnant, while being treated for her injuries at the hospital.
Shayna’s story begins almost immediately into her jump. Once she pulled her chute and it deployed, she went into an uncontrollable spin. Realizing that there was a problem (whether it was her equipment, or her inexperience, is still debated amongst fellow skydivers), Shayna cut away her main chute and deployed her reserve chute. This didn’t help either, as the reserve chute didn’t function properly either (again, either because of equipment failure or inexperience). Instead of slowing Shayna’s decent – she continued to spin uncontrollably and plummeted towards the ground at over 50 mph, smacking face first into a parking lot.
Shayna’s leg was broken, as well as her pelvis in two places (and she lost a few teeth). Most importantly, her unborn child, whom she was completely unaware of, was completely fine (Shayna gave birth to a healthy baby boy in June the following year). This survival incident was caught completely on film. Shayna reportedly went skydiving only one more time after the accident, stating that she wanted to prove that she could before giving the sport up. Finally, someone with a bit of common sense!