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Jun 2017

Gearing Up

In "Five Minute Call," you'll read of the Oklahoma DZ owner whom a court ordered to pay a substantial sum to a 16-year-old injured in 2014 during a static-line first jump. Coincidentally, during that period, USPA's board of directors was once again debating what the Basic Safety Requirements should state as the minimum age to skydive.

USPA’s BSRs have set a minimum age since at least 1967, when it was 21. In 1970, it became the particular state’s age of legal majority, which ranged from 17 to 21. In 2003, it went to 18. However, through all those years, the age BSR allowed kids 16 and older to jump with parental or guardian consent. Why 18, 21 or the age of majority? Clearly, the board was trying to peg the age to when a person is considered an adult and legally able to sign a binding hold-harmless agreement.

But why 16 with parental consent? Why not 15? Or 14? This probably had to do with the rigors of skydiving when the rule originated and static line was the only first-jump method. Jumpers had to have the strength to climb out onto a Cessna step wearing 50 pounds of gear, deal with hard-to-pull ripcords, activate riser releases and endure hard openings and landings. They also had to have the maturity to quickly assess and enact lifesaving emergency procedures. Common agreement seemed to be that 16 was the minimum age at which someone could handle all that.

In 2011, at the urging of U.S. tandem equipment manufacturers, the board added a BSR stating that tandem jumps must comply with the minimum age set by the tandem manufacturer. For all U.S. tandem makers, that minimum age is 18. Then, in 2014, USPA removed the parental- or guardian-consent provision for 16- and 17-year-olds, making 18 strictly the minimum age. The Oklahoma accident no doubt influenced this move, but so did the requests of other parachute manufacturers who wanted the liability protection afforded the tandem manufacturers.

All along, the board considered waivers to the age rules based on special circumstances such as those involving skydivers’ kids or the Make-a-Wish Foundation. But even that became contentious when the board approved some waiver requests and not others that were seemingly similar. Now the board is wrestling with the issue again. At its last meeting, a motion to reinstate jumps at age 16 with parental or guardian consent failed by just one vote. It is sure to come up again.

Meanwhile there is a new factor: One DZ that is not a USPA Group Member has announced that it will take minors as young as seven on tandems. (Can a 7-year-old even comprehend the risks of skydiving?) Going for the under-age market is short-sighted. While state regulators and legislators may not feel the need to act if a 16-year-old is injured (or worse), you can be sure of governmental reaction if a 7- or 10- or 12-year-old is involved. And since governmental action is almost always overreaction, you can be sure new state laws will encroach on other areas of skydiving, too.

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Jen Sharp

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