SA Skydiving | Jed Smith & Jana Fitzpatrick | The Elephant In the Room - the future of the Australian skydiving scene

SA Skydiving | Jed Smith & Jana Fitzpatrick | The Elephant In the Room - the future of the Australian skydiving scene

Published: April 9, 2017

The article can be found published in the 84th Issue of Australian Skydiving Magazine (ASM), available free online here.

The Elephant in the Room.

By Jed Smith and Jana Fitzpatrick

Tandems. Like it or not, they are the lifeblood of the sport. Skydiving's heyday throughout the 70s, 80s and into the 90s is over, drop zones no longer run on hopes and dreams. In our litigious society with a paperwork obsession, there are insurance premiums to be funded, safety management protocols to be written and adhered to as well as accountant's wages to be paid. Not a weekend goes by that some young jumper who has been bumped from a load has to be reminded that tandems make the world go round. They pay for the million dollar facilities we use and fund the wages of someone organising a boogie. They pay for the utilities at the DZ, the Council rates, the cleaners wage, overall rent and are ultimately what give the drop zone a profit. It is no argument that without Tandems, there would be no million dollar planes to jump out of, no manicured grass to land on and no new packing carpet to pack on. And mostly certainly no me writing this article. Tandems are literally used to subsidise the world of sports skydiving, and there must be a fundamental change in the overall skydiving culture to accept this. We must see the forest for the trees, and the reality that the absence of the 'Full Service DZ' is increasingly becoming the rule rather than the exception.

There have been three generations of drop zones over the past 30 or so years. The 1st Generation are your Corowas, Elderslies, Batchelors, Ramblers, Hillman Farms etc. These are your DZs that worked to pioneer the sport early on with a distinct focus on development and training, and are what gave Australian skydiving its characteristic flavour today, its 'escape your reality' culture. The 2nd Generation saw the tide changing and have adapted accordingly. These are your Jurien Bays and Skydive Ozs, they have flourished well and are offering a beach tandem product whilst keeping the dream alive through training and fun jumping. Then, you have your 3rd Generation of pop up, stand alone DZs. The last 10 years has seen a huge surge of Tandem-Only DZs pop up all over the country, both large and small scale. These DZs are focusing on providing a Tandem Only product to the growing market, and subsequently enabling large economies of scale. An economy of scale allows each aspect of the company to be run at its maximum efficiency, whether it be purchasing merchandise, maintaining equipment, servicing aircraft or streamlining advertisements. As a business, it is all about efficiency. Sure, at times fun jumping is accepted to fill slots not taken by tandems, but Tandem only DZs ultimately avoid training and/or development of up and coming jumpers for many logical reasons. This is not a statement to lump all DZs into one basket, but rather a general trend that has been observed over the previous decade.

The rising popularity of Tandems has been a good thing overall. It has allowed sports skydiving to survive into the 21st century, providing full service DZs an income in order to fund their overall sustainability in a world of ever increasing overheads. Rising insurances, higher property fees and multiple layers of regulation and mandatory compliance, to name but a few, all have contributed to the Full Service DZs reliance on Tandems to finance day to day operations. Fun Jumping slots merely cover the plane ride up and all these additional financial obligations need to come from somewhere else. Hence, a consequential (and inevitable) development of this changing economical ecosystem has been the rise of the Tandem only DZ. It's a business; and you can't blame a business owner for running a good business. It makes sense. Provide the customer with what they want (an amazing experience) and reduce the risk as much as possible, for the highest potential yield. Fun Jumpers and Students are a (documented) high risk for very little (documented) return. Ultimately, they are a liability. Appendix 1 shows that AFF and Static Line Students (who make up around 0.569% of first time jumpers) accounted for 36% of the total serious injuries amongst first time jumpers. Fun Jumpers made up almost half (49%) of all injuries reported to the APF (Appendix 2). One look at the statistics will clearly show you that if you want to decrease your risk, lose students and fun jumpers.

Granted, not all drop zones are capable of running training operations, and can be restricted by display requirements and/or beach landing sites. The Beach Skydive / Display location is a gimmick. But it's a gimmick that works and the general public love it. In a generation of bucket lists, #YOLO and social media, getting the ultimate selfie photo of that once in a lifetime experience has become the newest must have. Beach/display drop zones have encompassed and leveraged this to great success, as can be seen by increasing student memberships year after year. Take a look at Appendix 3 to see the dominance of Tandem Skydiving over the past decade. This is undeniably good for skydiving as a whole. More memberships equal more exposure for the sport. More exposure means more growth. But, what does this growth and exposure mean? Imagine for a second you are a member of the general public showing up to a Tandem Only DZ. Unless your instructor (or upper management) goes out of their way to explain the world of skydiving to you, all you see in the world of skydiving are highly experienced Instructors and nervous as hell students. Where does that leave your 20 something Tradie with a fist full of 50s in his hand? Going out on the town is where. The APF and particular Tandem Only DZs already have some great initiatives in place to convert Tandem Students to AFF Students, but how can we push harder to follow up and convert these students to future instructors?

This is a problem as we head into a world where demand for Tandem Skydives begins to outstrip the supply of qualified, passionate and home grown Tandem Masters. Just ask any CI at any DZ how they are going for staff and you will find they are lacking. This gap is pretty much left up to full service DZs to resource, but with some companies already employing international Tandem Masters on 457 Visas to meet the deficit it is clear this isn't happening fast enough or in the right quantity (Appendix 4). It has been observed that each year over 50% of new ratings holders in Australia are overseas conversions. Instructors don't grow on trees. It takes immense time, effort, money not to mention risk from both the individual AND the training organisation to produce an instructor of high calibre. It takes a lot of close calls, shitty decisions and CI grey hairs to get a candidate to the point of professional talent and safety. Now if we lose that progression from a 100 jump wonder to fully fledged Instructor, where will that leave us as a skydiving community? Where do we want to see Australian skydiving progress to? Will we end up in a similar position as New Zealand, whereby overseas Instructors in conjunction with one or two major training organisations fill the ever increasing demand for Instructors?

To be fair, fun jumpers often shit where they eat. Not seeing a drop zone for the business it must now be, they instead use it purely as an avenue for their own personal enjoyment. They do not realise that their future now lies in the understanding of a member of the public being able to arrive at a drop zone/business and be treated in a professional, safe and comfortable environment. One sour experience, a beer bottle left in the packing shed, a foul mouth in front of a child, does not help a business cater to its most important customer, the Tandem Student. Not surprisingly, fun jumping is not often regarded as great for business. Sure, its accepted at some Tandem Only DZs in order to fill those ever important slots and keep props spinning, but ultimately it isn't actively encouraged, embraced or sought after by upper management. This is where we must encourage a grass roots movement, and educate fun jumpers of their responsibility to preserve and ultimately grow their drop zone, to understand and see their role in an ever changing drop zone dynamic. It is possible and it is happening.

There is another aspect to the decline of the 'full service dropzone'. Time. In a world that is increasingly short of it, it is no argument that a Full Service DZ takes more time to run than a Tandem Only DZ. Full stop. At a 'full service club', management's time is often split roughly along the lines of 70/20/10. That is 70% time dedicated to Tandems, 20% dedicated to AFF courses and logistics, and 10% trying to heard fun jumping cats and chickens into some semblance of a line. Comparatively, the Tandem only drop zone is able to dedicate 100% of their time to the service that ultimately adds to the bottom line. The cream of the crop. And again, who can blame them? If you look at it objectively it is an extremely sound business decision to run a Tandem only operation. Less risk, more reward. Work smarter, not harder. Business 101.

Training a student to be a good (and safe) skydiver takes time. It takes effort and patience. It takes passion. The time to devote these qualities is often given to students at the detriment of an operations' overall efficiency and predictability. Further staffing requirements, longer briefs and de-briefs, smaller weather windows, not to mention the increased paperwork and licencing burdens to name but a few, are all factors that contribute to the increased logistics and overall inefficiency of a full service DZ compared to that of Tandem Only one. Throw in a higher risk of serious injury and the ensuing media scrutiny and you get the picture. This aspect is of only further detriment to the full service DZ that is attempting to simultaneously cater to its Tandem Students. For the upcoming generation of instant gratification, time and patience are generally of short supply. They are not accustomed to waiting, and wont tolerate it for long. This modern day reality only further cements the progression of todays DZs to Tandem Only.

In Summary, it is clear that tandems have allowed sports skydiving to survive into the 21st century. They have provided full service DZs an avenue in which to build (literally) million-dollar training facilities across the country, and the current skill and ability of Australian Skydivers is testament to this. But we must now come to terms with a consequential development that is the Tandem only DZ. It is good business. It provides the 21st century customer with what they want, whilst reducing the risk as much as possible for the highest potential yield. Higher profits with less overall logistics. In a world running increasingly short on time and low in profit margin, it is no secret that the traditional Full Service DZ is fading from the skydiving landscape with the Tandem Only DZ becoming the preferred format. First and foremost, full service drop zones must take the responsibility for developing a grass roots movement within their own fun jumper base. Fun Jumpers must understand their role in a changing drop zone dynamic and appreciate that the future survival of their DZ relies on the coexistence of Sports and Tandem skydiving. Skydiving as Culture and Skydiving as a Business. Although it would seem these are two seemingly separate forces at play, the reality is in todays evolving world these forces can no longer be mutually exclusive, but rather they must play integral roles in each others sustainability. You cannot sustain talent without money. You cannot make money without talent. We need to find a way to encourage interaction and communication between these two seemingly different motivations. Similarly, we all have a responsibility to make sure this culture survives. Its time to ask ourselves where are we heading, and what role will we play? We have to make sure the direction we choose next isn't just a five or ten-year plan, but rather secures the future for generations to come. Tandem Skydiving is currently booming in popularity, memberships are increasing year to year and skydiving's exposure and profile has never been higher.

How will we invest, and what type of community led action, will ultimately help support the continued development and existence of our sport and its future leaders? Skydiving is used to dealing with million dollar stakes, but this is the real million-dollar question.

Tables and Charts

All Tables and Charts were found in the Australian Parachutes Federations 2015 Annual Report

Appendix 1: A table from the APFs 2015 annual report of Student Injuries. Of relevance is the total number of serious injuries per Tandem (23) and Per Non Tandem Student (13). AFF and S/L Students (who make up around 0.569% of all first jumps) accounted for 36% of the total serious injuries amongst first time jumpers.

Appendix 2: Injuries by Certificate. Fun Jumpers make up 49% of all injuries. Note the 'ST' bar above includes both AFF, S/L and Tandem Injuries.

Appendix 3: New Members First Jump type. Shows the trend of Tandem Skydiving evolving to become the dominate form of introducing first time jumpers to Skydiving.

Appendix 4: Compares the percentage growth of New Members versus the percentage growth of Instructor Ratings over the previous 10 years. It is clear that the supply of Tandem masters (whilst following the trend of memberships) is unable to keep up with the demand of the Tandem Industry.

Please note these statistics have simply been lifted from the last APF Annual report (2015) and have been individually interpreted. Further targeted research is needed to explore this complicated and varied issue more specifically and precisely.

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