Tandem Skydiving with Wheelchair Dependent persons

Extracts and notes from a thesis by Paul Murphy, APF CI

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Do's and Don'ts When You Meet a Wheelchair Dependent Person.

Few people with disabilities are seen in the community at present. It is important to show that you are willing to help and are sensitive to their requirements. Do not be surprised if first meetings are embarrassing or awkward. The following hints may assist in overcoming both the instructors awkwardness and the Spinal Cord Injured (SCI) person’s disability.


Most people at some stage in their life have broken at least one bone in their body. With an SCI person, a vertebra has been broken, causing spinal injury resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia. It can be assumed that an able-bodied person with a broken bone would not feel abnormal having a broken bone, so do not treat an SCI person any differently.

  • It is best for both people to be open with each other - acting on presumptions can cause misunderstanding. (i.e. whether person needs help or if instructor is unsure about something.)
  • Talk directly to the person using a wheelchair, not through a third party.
  • In most instances there is no need to be sensitive about using words like walking or running. In many cases they use the same words.
  • Conversations are usually more relaxed and comfortable at eye level, so sit down if you can.
  • Sometimes people with disabilities may need assistance - just ask - they know when and how you can be of best help. Do not worry if your assistance is not required. Like you, most people with a disability try to be as independent as possible.
  • If a person requires help they will ask, and explain what you should do. Offer assistance where necessary, but do not insist.
  • You cannot always guess where a person is heading for, so ask before grabbing their wheelchair. It's more polite and sensible.
  • When pushing a person in a wheelchair remember that you are behind and above them. They may find it difficult to hear what you are saying, or see what you are looking at.
  • Check with the person to see if you are pushing them at a comfortable speed and try to avoid sudden turns or stops. Normal walking pace is best, unless you are BOTH in a hurry.
  • When you get to gutters, steps, stairs or other obstacles ask the person how they usually get up or down. Most wheelchair users have preferred methods.
  • Due to limited mobility, give the person plenty of time to accomplish a task such as fitting the jumpsuit and harness.
  • When entering the aircraft, ask the person what is the most effective and comfortable way to accomplish this, using appropriate lifting procedures. Conclusions Based on the information gathered in this document from my own personal experiences on those occurring in the field, I recommend these guidelines for tandem skydives with SCI people.
  • The SCI tandem passenger must obtain a medical certificate indicating their suitability to complete a tandem skydive.
  • The tandem instructor should have a minimum of two hundred tandem skydives, of these fifty in the previous six months, of those, ten in the preceding month.
  • The tandem instructor should complete at least one practice skydive using the proposed equipment with an 'A' licenced or above skydiver before taking their first SCI person.
  • The tandem instructor have a basic knowledge of the persons disability and the complications this may include.
  • The tandem instructor must be approved by the chief instructor of the training organisation.
  • The possible risks to the SCI persons health should be clearly indicated to the passenger in the briefing.
  • The skydive should not be attempted unless a ground wind speed minimum of five knots and a maximum of fifteen knots is present.
  • The tandem passengers weight should be not more than 110% of the tandem instructor’s weight. The passengers weight should not exceed 80 kilograms. This weight should not exceed the safe working limits of the tandem parachute system.
  • Fully briefed catchers should be present on every SCI tandem skydive. Note: APF Incident reports show that a small but significant number of SCI persons do break a bone on landing although this is often not apparent at the DZ and is only discovered some time after the event. A critical factor here is the amount of time that the person has not had the use of their legs which allows the muscles to atrophy and the bones to lose strength/mass and eventually become as brittle as chalk (this is osteoporosis). Osteoporosis is brought on by many factors and affects women more than men.

Factors to consider are:

  • Period of immobility (wheelchair dependency.)
  • Family history of osteoporosis.
  • Small frame or thin boned.
  • Caucasian (fair skinned) or Asian.
  • Low exercise level.
  • Smoking.
  • Low calcium or dairy food intake, or high intake of salt, alcohol or caffeine.
  • Post menopausal women (not undergoing a hormone replacement program). It is also fair to say that some post-menopausal women may be equally at risk of landing injury due to low bone mass even though they are not spinal cord injured..