Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Skydive Carolina

[I publish this with a disclaimer of sorts. I wrote it early this morning, first thing after my perusal of the eight front pages I scan on a daily basis. But rather than publish it immediately, I sent it to the DZ manager of Skydive Carolina to fact check. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure he's gone to the Parachute Industry Association Symposium, so I may not hear from him for a while. If I've gotten any details wrong, I'll publish corrections. Meanwhile, I'm confident enough about the principles involved to go with what I've written.]

Some things are newsworthy only by proxy. If a man has a heart attack on the neighborhood basketball court and dies doing what he loved and among friends, it'll make the news. But if a man simply gets a bloody nose charging the lane during a game, it's hardly newsworthy, unless it happens on the same court the very next weekend.

This article from the Charlotte Observer this morning is like that, only worse--its sloppy use of language does the finest drop zone (DZ) in the Carolinas, and all the Observer's readers a disservice:

For the second time in slightly more than a week, a skydiver suffered a mishap while landing at the Chester County Airport. This time, the jump ended without tragedy. A skydiver suffered minor injuries Sunday afternoon after a hard landing at the end of a solo jump, said James LaBarrie, general manager of Skydive Carolina. The man might have suffered a sprained ankle, LaBarrie said.

Eight days ago, a first-time skydiver steered safely to the ground after his instructor suffered an apparent midair fatal heart attack. Both incidents involved Skydive Carolina, a skydiving company that operates out of the Chester County Airport.

First, the incident itself is analogous to that basketball game in that a new solo skydiver landing hard and spraining an ankle isn't something that happens every day, but when it does, it's hardly more newsworthy than a bloody nose or a twisted ankle on the neighborhood basketball court. It made the news today only because of the prior weekend's much more newsworthy event. Unfortunately, even that event is misrepresented here.

In addition to being a skydiving instructor with years of experience, I'm also an English professor. While skydiving is my love, teaching literature and writing pays the bills. I stress to my students, on a daily basis, that above all, they should be careful that the things they write are true. To say, "For the second time in slightly more than a week, a skydiver suffered a mishap while landing," is wrong, untrue, misrepresentative, and downright lazy. In the incident the previous weekend, the tandem instructor, after safely deploying the main canopy and even exchanging a few words with his student, suffered a heart attack before reaching the ground. The student, a young soldier with the kind of situational awareness and initiative that makes our armed forces the finest in the world, then steered the canopy to a safe landing and even attempted CPR on the instructor. That's not a "mishap while landing." That's not even really a skydiving mishap. It may be arguable that it's even a "mishap." Everyone is saddened by the loss of a good man and fine instructor, and yet most of us, at least most people I know, harbor a very real hope that when our time comes, we'll have the good fortune to go so peacefully in the middle of doing something we love, rather than wasting away in a hospital bed with some form of cancer or living long enough for dementia to set in and no longer being able to find our way to the DZ. Thus, even the word "tragedy" may be a misnomer. That same heart attack suffered on the road on the way home could have been a far worse tragedy. (And for those wondering, had it come earlier, before deployment of the canopy, yes, there is a backup system that would have deployed the main canopy at a set emergency altitude.)

But I'm allowing myself to become distracted. My point is this. A sprained ankle at a DZ is not news. Barring the previous weekend's events, it would never have reached the threshold of public awareness, and to report it as if it were a part of some ominous trend is sensationalism at its worst. I can only guess it was a slow news day in that corner of the Carolinas.

For what it's worth, I've skydived over much of this country, from Maryland to California and from Florida to Washington, either for pleasure, or in demonstrations with one military team or another. Every DZ has a certain character, an ambiance, and a reputation within the skydiving community. I made my first jump at Skydive Carolina back in 2003, and I made my last attempt to jump there this past Saturday. It was an attempt because the winds were a little high. Not so high that many of the places I've jumped wouldn't have pressed right on. (The United States Parachute Association's (USPA's) Basic Safety Requirements (BSRs) are really more "recommendations" than "requirements." The Skydiver's Information Manual refers to them as "risk-reduction procedures," an unblushing acknowledgment that ours is a sport in which risk is only reducable, never capable of full elimination.) At other DZs I've patronized, those winds, sporty without doubt, might easily have lost out to the interplay of testosterone, adrenaline, and the fact that an aircraft on the ground earns no lift fees. Not at Chester. Skydive Carolina, after waiting the winds out for a while on the ground, called it a day rather than risk an off-DZ landing or injury should enthusiasm get the upper hand of good sense. I cannot stress enough the difficulty and cost of borderline calls like that and just how much they say about the character of a DZ's owners and manager.

And that is what this post is really about. The contrast between a good DZ and poor news reporting. With great power comes great responsibility. Our media these days are heady with power, and more than a little short on responsibility. By saying anything at all about a non-event and by saying it in language that can be described most charitably as "inprecise," the Observer does all of us, jumpers and readers alike, a disservice. Either more was needed to put the report in proper perspective, or nothing at all should have been said. All that is unspoken has the effect of suggesting too much that is untrue.

I've recently moved back home to the South after 31 years wearing Air Force blue. I expect to spend a lot of time at Chester. It's friendly, it's clean, it has amenities other DZ's only dream of, and above all, it's safe. When she's of age, Skydive Carolina will likely be the DZ where my youngest daughter makes her first jump, and perhaps, if we can get off the golf course long enough, even my dad.

And that, for what it's worth, is my two cents on today's skydiving "news."